A doomed division? Fate of UFC flyweights remains a mystery

Joseph Benavidez will fight Jussier Formiga in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night in Minneapolis. Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Henry Cejudo remembers running into Demetrious Johnson backstage at a UFC event in early 2016, before their first fight for the flyweight title. Johnson was the longtime champion, Cejudo the upstart challenger and 2008 Olympic gold medalist.

Cejudo approached Johnson as he stood with his family. There were already rumors that the 125-pound division might not last much longer because of a lack of box-office interest. Cejudo, having looked at what was happening in other, more popular divisions, told Johnson they should "stir the pot" to build more buzz around their bout.

"They're gonna get rid of our weight class," Cejudo told Johnson, whom Cejudo claims brushed off the suggestion.

Now, three years later, Cejudo is a two-division UFC champion whose success might have single-handedly saved the flyweight division. Although he lost that first fight against Johnson, Cejudo came back to win the rematch for the belt at UFC 227 last August.

Shortly after losing the title to Cejudo, Johnson was traded from the UFC to ONE Championship. After years of Johnson being the standout performer in the division, the future of the flyweights in the UFC looked bleak.

"People didn't care," UFC president Dana White said of the flyweight division shortly after Johnson's departure. "I battled for a long time, I tried to keep it alive and obviously, it's still going on now. We still have fights going on in that division, but we'll see what the future holds for it."

Cejudo swept in, knocked out then-bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw in the first round in a flyweight title challenge, built up excitement and buzz for his bantamweight title fight against Marlon Moraes and then pulled off an impressive victory. White gave his first substantial comment on the status of the flyweights in the immediate aftermath, confirming that the 125-pound division will continue. And while the future of the weight class remains highly uncertain, for now, the fighters will get their chance to prove they still belong in the UFC.

THE MAIN EVENT of UFC Fight Night in Minneapolis on Saturday features two of the hardest hitters in mixed martial arts: heavyweights Francis Ngannou and Junior Dos Santos. But the most crucial bout could be the one involving two of the smallest competitors on the card, Joseph Benavidez and Jussier Formiga.

Whether there's a lot on the line for this bout, or not much, is still unclear. Formiga is No. 1 in the UFC's flyweight rankings; Benavidez, who owns a win over Cejudo, is No. 2. Formiga vs. Benavidez seems like a true title eliminator if there ever was one. Both men say they are certain a shot at the belt is next for the winner, but neither truly knows if he'll get it.

Benavidez beat Formiga in 2013 by first-round TKO, but he's at the point now where he has to defeat fighters twice in order to push through for a title shot. Formiga (23-5) has won four straight and looked dominant.

Benavidez also holds a trump card, should he win, that could give a future flyweight title shot against Cejudo a strong narrative to build upon.

"Right now, at the moment, I think [Cejudo] has to realize and everyone else probably does realize -- matchmakers and stuff -- that his best fight, most interesting fight and biggest fight he could do is me, the guy that has the last win over him," Benavidez said.

Formiga vs. Benavidez should have all the flyweight stakes. But the coming months are murky for the division, particularly with the shoulder injury Cejudo suffered in his bantamweight title victory against Moraes at UFC 238, and considering his status as a double champion.

"Nothing is certain, but what's in front of me is there is a division," Benavidez said. "So that's kind of what I look at. I think for a while there it was kind of weird, because guys would lose and then they'd get cut. But then Dana comes out and says, 'Hey, the division is sticking around.'"

The UFC only has 12 flyweights eligible for its rankings, not even enough to fill the division's top 15. Just about every flyweight who has lost over the last few months has either been cut or moved up in weight. Among the ranked flyweights who remain, Tim Elliott and Alex Perez both fought most recently at bantamweight. At its numerical height last fall before Johnson was sent packing, the flyweight division had 35 fighters, according to MMA journalist Zane Simon, who compiles UFC roster statistics for BloodyElbow.com.

Cejudo placed the blame for the 7-year-old weight class being in shambles directly on Johnson and his unwillingness to sell fights.

"Demetrious Johnson never did it," Cejudo said at a media lunch earlier this month. "Demetrious Johnson is the reason why our weight class is being exited. It's because of that. ... I'm actually kind of pissed at him now, the more I think about it."

To that, Johnson responded, "Shame on him. It's not my fault. And he knows it."

"Demetrious Johnson is the reason why our weight class is being exited." UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo

So who is at fault, then, if anyone? It's not immediately clear, like any projection of where the flyweights will stand in the UFC a few months from now. Cejudo might have played his own role in making the 125-pound division defunct when he beat Moraes, as he now has the responsibility of having to defend two belts. The new champ-champ will also likely be out for the remainder of the year after undergoing shoulder surgery last week.

That means no bantamweight title defenses for the rest of 2019 and no flyweight title defenses -- maybe ever again, at least in Cejudo's case. In his postfight interview after the win over Moraes, Cejudo called out several names in two weight classes -- neither of them flyweight.

But White said at the UFC 238 postfight news conference that the 125-pound division is not going anywhere and Cejudo beating Moraes helped the cause.

Formiga said he believes the UFC is "renovating" the division, not killing it. That's how he explains the recent releases.

"I think that being No. 1 in the division has to mean something," the Brazilian fighter said. "I think that at some point, there's gonna be a title shot or interim belt. I don't know. Something has to happen after this fight, especially when Dana White said that he's not going to send the division away -- that 125 is still gonna be a division in the UFC. That is my hope."

With whispers of the division's pending demise, Cejudo beat Johnson in August 2018 by split decision. Johnson had a record 11 consecutive UFC title defenses coming in. He was one of the most dominant champions in UFC history and one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

Despite that nearly unparalleled résumé, Johnson was traded in October by the UFC to Asia's ONE Championship in exchange for ONE welterweight champion Ben Askren. A few weeks later, White said on the "UFC Unfiltered" podcast that the flyweight division "never caught on" with fans.

Johnson said he isn't sure if the UFC ever fully committed to promoting the flyweight division. He said he did major promos for fights during his title reign and that some never saw the light of day. But Johnson said he is realistic about the weight class he once ruled. He said the UFC is a business and if one part of that business is not making money, sometimes you have to make difficult decisions.

"You're basically asking a question like, 'How come Kia Souls don't sell like a Honda Civic or Teslas?'" Johnson said. "[A Kia Soul] is as good a car, it's great to drive. I had a buddy who had it and drove 275,000 miles on it. You ask why it doesn't sell? Because people don't like the f---ing car. It's that simple. The car drives. That's how I feel. That's my honest opinion."

Some still hold on to hope for the UFC flyweight division. Just like the UFC fighters who remain at 125 pounds, the UFC's competitors believe shutting down the division isn't good for business.

"I just don't think that DJ was marketed right," ONE CEO Chatri Sityodtong said. "I think ONE Championship, we've started marketing him and he's already started resonating with fans, our fans in terms of his life story, his values, his amazing athleticism and obviously incredible achievements."

Johnson, nicknamed "Mighty Mouse," said he has been embraced by ONE's audience, which seems to be more responsive to the shorter, lighter men making up MMA's smaller weight classes.

FIVE MONTHS AFTER dethroning Johnson, Cejudo defended the flyweight title at UFC Brooklyn in January, knocking out bantamweight champion Dillashaw in 32 seconds in a superfight. It was the main event of the first UFC card on ESPN+ and made major headlines. Benavidez thought that was great for the division, showing that the flyweight champion could stop the bantamweight champ in a big, headlining performance.

In hopes of building his brand -- and the division's clout -- Cejudo has continued to amp up his prefight rhetoric. At UFC 238 media day in early June, he wore a crown and carried a scepter to the stage for his staredown with Moraes. He's talking a lot more than Johnson ever did, constantly reminding people of his gold medal and embracing his corniness as the self-proclaimed "King of Cringe." Benavidez said he believes Cejudo's schtick has made a difference, though he does not begrudge Johnson just being himself over the years.

"Sadly, that's what people expect, that's what people are drawn to," Benavidez said of outside-the-cage high jinks. "If it's not happening, that's what people think they're missing. Like, 'Oh, they don't have like a character or someone out there that's memeworthy or cringeworthy.' There always has to be that, and whether people like it, dislike it or whatever, they talk about it. That is sometimes more important than people not talking about people just being themselves, for instance like a Demetrious."

No one knows better than Benavidez, 34, who has mostly resigned himself to the fact that the flyweight division is for the most educated fans -- the ones who watch MMA religiously every week. He has been in the 125-pound weight class since its UFC inception in 2012, falling to Johnson by split decision in the first flyweight tournament final at UFC 152.

Benavidez (27-5) has lost only twice since, once to Johnson in a rematch for the title and to Sergio Pettis last year. He champions the speed, technique and cardio of his flyweight brethren and believes those fighters are important pieces of the UFC roster by hammering home how a division should not be judged on highlight-reel knockouts alone.

"It's easier to look at a fight as an outsider and just want violence and entertainment and brutality and a personality than to look at it as like a skill," Benavidez said. "When people do look at it like a skill, I think they're really drawn to our division.

"I see a heavyweight fight, I'm like, these guys are getting paid this, paid that. There's always a little bit of motivation to go out and be like, well, look how great our fights are, and always go out and put on a show. Even when I see other people in our division putting on good fights, I love that they're going out there and proving it."