Zip. Zap. Pop. Pow. Blammo…
Don’t flinch, blink, or even run to the can, because flyweights Demetrious Johnson and Ali Bagautinov are headlining UFC 174, and if history is any indicator, these 125-pound fighters are about to bring a brand of thunder, flash, and awe like no other into the Octagon come June 14.
It’s been more than two years since Johnson became the first flyweight to compete in the UFC, and while there was initially a misconception that 125-pound men would not be able to provide the same excitement as their heavier MMA counterparts, that myth was quickly busted on account of the relentless pace and superhuman speed displayed by mixed martial arts’ lightest competitors.
Back in March 2012, the public seemed uninterested in the five-foot-three Johnson, who was, at the time, coming off a loss to then-bantamweight-champion Dominick Cruz. Far smaller in stature than the average fight fan, Johnson, along with division mates Ian McCall and Joseph Benavidez, took part in the UFC’s inaugural flyweight tournament. And in addition to competing for the 125-pound title, he was fighting for athletic relevancy in a sport dominated by men twice his size.
Fast forward two years, and Demetrious Johnson has transformed and evolved into one of mixed martial arts’ most entertaining and technically sound fighters, lighting up adversaries with dazzling footwork and unprecedented striking precision, heralding the rise of the flyweight division.
Johnson is currently the only man to ever hoist the UFC flyweight title, narrowly earning the strap in a closely contested split decision over Benavidez in September 2012. But unlike current UFC champion Jose Aldo, or former titleholders Georges St-Pierre and Benson Henderson, Johnson has refused to play it safe in his three defenses, laying it all out on the table every time he enters the Octagon.
It is exactly this type of calculated risk that has helped Johnson elevate the status and public awareness of the flyweight division; his gutsy performances, which include submission and knockout stoppages in his last two outings, and creativity provide the highlight reel finishes that MMA fans, enthusiasts, and experts crave.
Johnson’s impressive showings have also given credence to the combat exploits of his undersized peers, opening the doors for international flyweights, many of whom were stuck on undercards, or, even worse, trapped in mid-level promotions.
First came a crop of flyweights from Brazil, fighters like Jussier Formiga da Silva and John Lineker, then there was speculation of an Asian influx into the division, helping global appeal and expansion abroad, to nations where the average size is far smaller than MMA hotbeds like the US and Canada. Ultimately, it was Russian Ali Bagautinov who rose up the 125-pound ranks to earn a title shot against Johnson.
A combat Sambo world champion, Bagautinov became an unlikely standout in the flyweight division. And although Russians are widely considered to be large in stature by international standards, he still packs some mean power in that little right fist; it is perhaps the heaviest punch in the division.
Bagautinov is affable, and has propelled himself to main-event status on the strength of three-straight wins inside the Octagon. Standing all of five-foot-four, he swings like a beast, throwing his right with consistency and accuracy, mixing his repertoire up with knees, kicks, and takedowns.
With lightning-fast hands, Bagautinov once mused that he chose not end his fight against Tim Elliott so that Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was sitting ringside at UFC 167, would be forced to sit through the full 15-minute affair as a sort of retribution for all the time he spent watching the latter’s film catalogue. But all jokes aside, Bagautinov’s cardio has come into question on occasion, which is unheard of for the flyweight division, where fleet-footed fighters trade with reckless abandon and have no concept of gassing out.
Still, he is far faster, and in significantly better shape, than anyone not named Demetrious Johnson.
The flyweights of the world will forever be fighting an uphill battle for respect and attention; MMA is in some ways the personification of superhuman strength and size, and ignorance will inevitably impede the mass acceptance of this lightest weight category.
But regardless of body size and weight, flyweights like Johnson and Bagautinov, or John Dodson (who fights at Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 42), or McCall (who fights at UFC Fight Night 46 on July 19), bring new style and phenomenal artistry to MMA.
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