Divisional Curse: Something Strange Is Going on at Flyweight

Fightland Blog

By Dan Shapiro

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

It doesn’t take a magic wand or a crystal ball to see that there’s something seriously strange in the UFC flyweight division. Two more potential contenders were knocked off at UFC 183, as Ian McCall dropped a unanimous nod to John Lineker, and Lineker was forever banished from 125-pound territory after missing weight for the fourth time.

With both McCall and Lineker eliminated from the title picture, at least for the time being, it’s difficult to see a legitimate matchup for dominant champion Demetrious Johnson. And after reviewing the brief history of the division, it’s clear that the flyweights were doomed to be cursed from the get go.

Debuting on March 3, 2012, in Sydney, Australia, the UFC’s foray into flyweight territory began under a mountain of controversy, as the promotion’s first 125-pound bout between Johnson and McCall ended one round too soon.

Squaring off as part of a four-man tournament to crown the first ever flyweight champion, Johnson and McCall went to work, trading shots and takedowns.

Johnson started strong, getting the better of McCall. But as the bout progressed, McCall gained steam, clearly dominating the third round, like 10-8 dominating, tossing Johnson around dominating. But without a finish, the Australian judges appeared unable to award a clear victor, quickly falling prey to the curse of the flyweights.

Even before the fight, the UFC had installed a contingency plan for such a scenario, as the contest was part of a single-elimination tournament that also featured Joseph Benavidez and Yasuhiro Urushitani.  In case of a draw, competitors would go to a fourth sudden-victory round.

Unfortunately for Johnson and McCall (particularly McCall as he was in the driver’s seat in the later rounds), the judges dropped the ball, awarding the fight to Johnson, even though the bout was officially scored a majority draw. There would be no fourth round that day, and the flyweights have been plagued ever since.

With Johnson clearly taking his rematch against McCall three months later, he would then go on to become the UFC’s first (and only) 125-pound champion, defeating Benavidez via split decision in September 2012. And in the two years that have passed, Johnson has steamrolled through every opponent the UFC has put in front of him, save John Dodson, who did make a legitimate run at the belt, knocking the champ down twice during their bout.

But is there more to the story of the flyweights? Something more to the curse? Or can it really be that Demetrious Johnson has joined Jon Jones, Jose Aldo, and Ronda Rousey as champions so dominant that the UFC is struggling to find legitimate contenders?

Further examination is required.

First there was Benavidez. Narrowly losing the UFC’s first ever flyweight title fight in 2012, Benavidez went on to deliver three memorable performances in 2013. After a unanimous nod against McCall at UFC 156, he recorded two straight knockout wins over Darren Uyenoyama and Jussier da Silva, setting up a rematch with the champion. With the second title fight taking place at Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena, in Benavidez’s backyard, the UFC seemed to be making a fairytale scenario for the Team Alpha Male product to score the camp’s first ever championship.

Johnson would need just 2:08 to kill that fantasy, delivering a one-punch knockout that sent Benavidez to the canvas, stiff.

After Benavidez, there was the aforementioned Dodson, who gave Johnson a run for his money. A former The Ultimate Fighter winner at 135 pound, Dodson has always been known for his power and knockout ability, as evidenced by the two knockdowns of Johnson. Considered a legitimate contender worthy of a rematch, Dodson is another flyweight who has been struck by the curse.

In the case of Dodson, the curse has come in the form of injury. He has suffered significant knee ailments following both of his subsequent victories after his loss the Johnson—a pair of finishes over Darrell Montague and John Moraga—and every time it appears that he will be ready to step back into the title picture, injury knocks him back down a notch.

Two of Johnson’s other victims during his five consecutive title defenses, Moraga and Chris Cariaso, were clearly outmatched. And while Moraga nearly went the distance, ultimately losing via fifth-round armbar, Cariaso was outclassed by the champ, completely dominated during their 7-plus minutes of competition at UFC 178, where Johnson won via second-round Kimura.

With contenders falling left, right, and center, it came as no surprise that someone would eventually test the system and summon the dark lords of performance enhancing drugs in order the break the flyweight curse. Ali Bagautinov was that man. But unfortunately for the Russian Sambo specialist, the mystical spell placed on the 125-pound division was far stronger than the EPO he popped for following UFC 174 (the test took place prior to the bout, but the result was only announced afterward). Johnson battered Bagautinov, cruising to a unanimous 50-45 verdict in dominant fashion.

With a handful of legit contenders all dusted by Johnson, the UFC has seen another crop of flyweights all falter en route to title contention. Former Bellator bantamweight champ Zach Makovsky was pegged as a potential suitor, but that dream came crashing down last August, when Jussier da Silva took a unanimous decision. Da Silva has also been considered as an option, but the former Shooto South American champion has been plagued by inconsistency during his UFC tenure, losing by knockout to both Dodson and Benavidez.

Former WEC bantamweight challenger Scott Jorgensen even dropped down to flyweight with hopes of making a title run, but he’s gone 1-3 at 125 pounds and is leagues away from championship territory. And what of Brad Pickett, one of only two men to ever defeat Johnson? He decided to cut the additional 10 pounds in March 2014 in order to set up a rematch with Johnson, this time for the belt. But in the year that’s passed he’s gone 1-2 at flyweight, faltering to both McCall and Chico Camus, and has since abandoned ship on his 125-pound journey, recently deciding to return to 135 pounds.

Then there’s Japanese striking sensation Kyoji Horiguchi, the former Shooto champion who is 4-0 thus far in the UFC. Touted for his knockout power and fleet-footed style, he has been mentioned as another potential matchup for Johnson. But following his (expected) dominant victory over Louis Gaudinot at UFC 182, Horiguchi himself shied away from the title talk, instead choosing to focus on self-improvement and another tune up fight before he chooses to test the cursed waters.

Joining the cursed bunch is Henry Cejudo, the 2008 Olympic wrestling champion at 121 pounds. Undefeated as a mixed martial artist, Cejudo signed with the UFC in July 2014. And after twice failing to make weight with Legacy FC, Cejudo scored the hat trick, forced from his UFC 177 debut, citing a medical issue as a result of cutting weight—another sign of the flyweight curse in full effect.

Cejudo would eventually move up to bantamweight and make his successful UFC debut last December. And in the month since, he has convinced matchmakers to allow him another attempt at 125 pounds, set to face Cariaso at UFC 185 in March. But will he finally make weight? There are no certainties at flyweight, and if the curse has anything to say about it, Cejudo will mysteriously fail in yet another attempt, leaving the flyweight division barren with contenders.

The landscape of the UFC flyweight division is rocky and unpredictable, and although Demetrious Johnson has established himself has a dominant and excellent mixed martial artist, there must be more to his reign has champion. There must be something mystical and supernatural at work.


Check out these related stories:

A Conversation with Ian McCall

Flyweights Beware: Ian McCall Is Back in the Saddle