Who will it be? Who will earn the next shot at Demetrious Johnson’s flyweight title?
Will it be Joseph Benavidez? Or will it be John Dodson? Perhaps John Moraga will be granted a crack at the belt? Or perhaps it will be Zach Makovsky?
This Saturday, four of the UFC’s top 125-pound fighters will enter the Octagon at UFC 187. And with no clear-cut challenger to take on six-time defending champion Johnson, the UFC is throwing a good, old-fashioned semifinal to determine DJ’s next foe.
Having already fought for the belt twice, Benavidez is not only the UFC’s second-ranked flyweight; he is also a natural-born finisher. Benavidez has amassed an 8-2 record since first entering the Octagon in 2011, and his dizzying combination of sheer power and “Joe Jitsu,” as he calls it, have made him one of the more electrifying and entertaining athletes in the division. But Benavidez has previously dropped two contests to Johnson, the second one coming by devastating knockout in December 2013.
Benavidez’s competition at UFC 187, John Moraga, has also succumbed to Johnson. Back in July 2013, in only his third UFC bout, Moraga tapped out to a fifth round armbar. It was a case of too much, too soon for Moraga, who has improved his defensive striking to compliment his already strong wrestling.
Moraga is currently riding back-to-back submission wins, and a third straight, especially over Benavidez, would put him in prime position to earn the title shot. Of course, if it weren’t for a subjective judgment call, Moraga may actually be looking for his fifth consecutive victory.
Dating back to June 2014, when the UFC made its debut in New Mexico, Moraga suffered the dreaded Doctor Stoppage TKO loss. Fighting John Dodson, Moraga was hit with a knee and punches that opened up a cut in the second frame. But rather than losing via knockout, submission, or a terrible judges’ decision, the medical staff intervened, waving off the bout.
And while Moraga walked away the loser at UFC Fight Night 42, Dodson collected his second straight finish that night, and was primed for a rematch with Johnson. But just three days after his win over Moraga, Dodson blew out his ACL, and has been sidelined ever since.
Dodson is, of course, the flyweight many consider the most worth challenger to the Johnson legacy. The Ultimate Fighter winner nearly stopped DJ in January 2013, knocking the champ down on multiple occasions with heavy punches. Dodson took two frames on two-of-three judges’ scorecards, and one round on the other, but he’s only fought twice in the last 28 months, and it’s uncertain if he’d even be able to stay healthy if granted the title shot.
Of all four flyweights competing at UFC 187, only Zach Makovsky, “Fun Size,” has yet to square off against Johnson for the title. A win over Dodson on Saturday’s undercard, especially a stoppage, might be all he needs to punch a ticket to a five rounder.
Makovsky does have experience in the championship rounds. Formerly a bantamweight champion with Bellator, Makovsky knows deep waters, and may be able to last until the final bell with Johnson, but there is no doubt that he needs a signature win to propel him to main event, or even co-main event, status.
A Makovsky stoppage over Dodson would likely be the best-case scenario for the UFC, which is in desperate need of new challengers for Johnson. It’s difficult for the promotion to push the division forward if DJ needs to continuously face competitors he’s already beaten handily. A new face across the Octagon would at least provide a fresh story line and offer fans some new excitement.
All of this, of course, is all merely a stopgap, as the UFC continues to build up Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo, a dominant wrestler who looked phenomenal in his last bout against Chris Cariaso. Still undefeated, Cejudo’s star has taken a bit longer to rise than initially hoped. But after resolving his weight cutting issues, Cejudo has become a favorite to challenge Johnson, mostly on account of the pedigree of his wrestling.
And with Cejudo booked against Chico Camus at UFC 188, and still in need of two more wins before he’s legitimately ready to even attempt to solve the Johnson riddle, the UFC will look to Benavidez, Moraga, Dodson, and Makovsky to keep the division warm.
So much like UFC on Fox 15, when four middleweights: Luke Rockhold, Lyoto Machida, Jacare Souza, and Yoel Romero (later replaced by Chris Camozzi); were partnered and given the opportunity to outshine each other for the next crack at Chris Weidman’s belt, these four flyweights have an equal chance to earn distinction come May 23, and make a case for a title shot.
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