Kyoji Horiguchi and the Failing Flyweight Division

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC

It’s no secret that the UFC has changed directions since WME-IMG purchased the brand for over four billion dollars a few months back. You can sympathize with the William Morris crew though: they bought the UFC during its biggest boom period and a lot of that has rapidly fallen away. Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor were reliably selling a million pay-per-views each time they fought, now one seems to be done with the sport and the other is taking time off and playing hardball. Yet the bills still have to be paid. A knowledgeable fan is well aware of this and can therefore understand why the UFC might slap a completely unnecessary interim title on the Max Holloway – Anthony Pettis meeting, or rush together a title fight for the still largely mythical women's featherweight division. Gold belts on posters presumably get in a couple of hundred extra buys and you’re scrapping the barrel.

Anyone who has followed the UFC for a while knows that interim belts and iffy title fights will be thrown in when necessary but the news coming out of the UFC recently, which actually has fans and media concerned, is the release of numerous top flight fighters. Many of these are not 'cuts' but failures to reach an agreement in renegotiating contracts but what is interesting is that a decent talent getting away from the UFC used to be a rare occurrence, in recent weeks we have seen quite a few.

The light heavyweight division—already down two top men with Jon Jones' legal troubles and Alexander Gustafsson's injuries—lost two of its very, very few rising prospects within days of each other in Misha Circunov and Nikita Krylov. This compounds the issue of the already weak light heavyweight division. The consensus top five fighter, Ryan Bader, is now a free agent and last year the UFC passed up on top ten talent, Phil Davis. Lorenz Larkin and Rory MacDonald, top ten welterweights by anyone's reckoning, recently failed to come to terms with the UFC as well.

Perhaps the UFC's greatest failing in recent history, however, is the release of Kyoji Horiguchi. Easily one of MMA's most entertaining and slick strikers with a beautiful combination of point style karate and boxing. Horiguchi does marvelous work bursting in off a one-two and either weaving into the left hook, or stiff-arming his opponent off.

Along with gorgeous lead leg work, skipping into knees and pushing off into skip-up high kicks.

I don't even know how this works.

Horiguchi, rounding out his skills nicely since his rushed first go at Johnson, seemed to be the most likely man to dethrone the great flyweight champion. He was also Japan's best chance at a UFC champion, which would seem a big deal as PRIDE FC was one of the most successful companies in MMA and the UFC has dabbled in the market, hoping to wake the sleeping dragon.

The greatest tragedy though, is that only a small portion of the UFC's viewers will even know who Horiguchi is, let alone recall how good he was at gliding ten feet across the canvas and effortlessly smacking men upside the head. Why? The same reason so many fans don't care about Demetrious Johnson's title fights: the UFC has not worked out how to promote flyweights.

The Failure of the Flyweight Division

It is no secret that Demetrious Johnson doesn't shift pay-per-views. The UFC can market him as the best fighter in the world 'pound-for-pound' until they are blue in the face but only the hardcore fans actually care about watching him fight. Some fans claim he has “cleared out” the division. Others think he is just in a particularly weak weight class. What seems most likely is that no one can get invested in Demetrious Johnson's fights because nobody even knows who his opponents are. No one encapsulates this more perfectly than Horiguchi: an ultra promising prospect who said himself that he didn't feel quite ready to fight for the title yet, Horiguchi fought zero top tier flyweights before being thrown into a title fight with Johnson. Horiguchi earned his shot by beating the 6-3 Louis Gaudinot then he was suddenly main eventing UFC 186 with Demetrious Johnson, to an estimated audience of just 125,000 buyers. Still, at least Horiguchi met Gaudinot on the main card of UFC 182: much of the moving and shaking at flyweight happens on the prelims.

If a boring welterweight grinds his way through a couple of top ten opponents to get a shot at Tyron Woodley's belt, people will be actively rooting against him. If a loveable welterweight KO's or submits his way there, they will root for him. The chances are the challenger will have either ground on or beaten someone else who is in contention—they will have beaten people you know! If Tyron Woodley was matched against a welterweight who had fought no one in the top fifteen and had only ever fought on undercards, no one would know what the hell to think. The flyweight division is treated as an awkward sausage factory where fighters ply their trade exclusively in three round fights at the start of the night, in front of half empty arenas, and if they pick up two or three wins they immediately get catapulted into a fight with Johnson. Just take the cautionary tale of Wilson Reis.

Reis is a great grappler, has a decent record, but probably didn't deserve a title shot when the UFC booked him in to challenge Johnson in July of 2016. When Johnson got injured, Reis stayed on the card and submitted his substitute opponent in the first round win but the title fight was never mentioned again. Except two weeks ago Reis was back to fighting someone you've never heard of, with one victory since 2014, on an undercard in a half empty arena. It was unremarkable but considerably better than most of the fights on the main card of UFC 208.

Just not marketable at all.

Then there is the entire Tim Elliott debacle. Herein the UFC put together a “tournament of champions” series of The Ultimate Fighter to determine a new challenger for Demetrious Johnson, hoping that weeks of reality TV would get people invested in the bout. The winner of the tournament? Tim Elliott, who had looked thoroughly competitive through his three previous fights in the UFC, featuring bouts against two future title challengers, and was cut prematurely. A very embarrassing look for the UFC as Elliott give Demetrious Johnson a compelling and peculiar fight. The even more remarkable thing? Co-headlining was a rare flyweight bout between two top-ten fighters, Joseph Benavidez and Henry Cejudo. This was possible because they had both already fought Johnson and could therefore go back to having a normal path through the rankings. It was a crackerjack fight and everyone who saw it was left wanting two more rounds.

The only flyweight main event in UFC history that didn't contain Demetrious Johnson was Louis Smolka versus Paddy Holohan and that only happened beacuse every fight above it disappearing from the card. It wound up being one of the best fights of the year and ended in the second round. John Dodson versus John Lineker was effectively two top flyweights (though now competing at bantamweight) in a five round fight and it was fantastic, and divisive, and had fans talking for days afterwards. Even if it was not a draw, the rematch certainly would be. Maybe a Fight Night five rounder between a couple of top-ten flyweights is a bit much to ask, but Kyoji Horiguchi and Ali Bagautinov—the number four and number eight in the world respectively—were booked onto the undercard of the dire UFC Fight Night Phillipines card, then rescheduled onto the undercard of the Hall vs. Mousasi II card.

Some might argue that the flyweights are often the 'Fight Pass featured prelim' or the 'prelim main event', but frankly that entire idea seems counterintuitive. Fight Pass has an estimated 450,000 subscribers, it would be generous to think that half of those would tune in for prelims. A few thousand more hardcore fans will follow on an unpaid stream. Even on televised undercards, the flyweights are often going on hours before what most people consider to be the event. Showing fighters to the smallest portion of a niche audience and then wondering why no one tunes in for Demetrious Johnson against guy-who-has-never-been-televised seems to be the entire thought process of the UFC regarding the flyweight division. The error seems to be that the UFC has treated the flyweight division as The Demetrious Johnson Show, hoping that building up the champion enough will make up for the fact that the casual fan will not have seen the person he's fighting, and the knowledgeable fan will know that some of his challengers have been deliberately untested and rushed into fights with him to fill up the programming schedule instead of building a competitive, exciting division with familiar names. A situation where only the champion's fights were treated like they mattered is almost unimaginable in any other division.

Boring Manlets?

Now if you have watched dozens of flyweight fights and think that it is a division of dull fighters with no finishing ability, there's nothing more to be discussed. But a surprising amount of the fans who cite the boring fighters of the flyweight divisions also seem to have no idea who any of them are, and I cannot blame them at all—familiarity is important to enjoying fights, we like the fighters we know and we look out for their tells, their habits, their specialities. If you want to do that with flyweights you have to consciously go out of your way to find their fights and it's a royal pain in the arse.

But look a little closer and you realize that there are as diverse an array of styles in the flyweight class as anywhere in the sport. Traditional martial artists, kickboxers, wrestlers, submission specialists. The high kicking taekwondo of Sergio Pettis, for instance, is always a joy to behold. Like his elder brother, Sergio will throw up high kicks from almost chest-to-chest and in clinch positions. Certainly Sergio Pettis was the first fighter I've seen to throw a traditional high round kick from a quarter nelson.

His ground game continues to surprise, this lush tripod sweep was the talk of the town when Gegard Mousasi did it, but Mousasi doesn't get hidden on undercards.

Pettis' work against John Moraga a month or two back was sterling. Moraga was getting in with quick single blows, but the more experienced striker continued in combinations when Moraga was admiring his work. Moraga himself is something of a peculiarity in mixed martial arts, he can hit a guillotine choke from seemingly anywhere. Against Justin Scoggins he attained the guillotine while mounted and bucked and shrimped Scoggins back into guard to threaten the submission. Moraga's guillotine sealed the deal on the fight in the next round.

That same Scoggins has been a treat to watch on the feet, with a very similar style to that used by Stephen 'Wonderboy' Thompson. Fighting with a more familiar style from the orthodox stance and that Superfoot triple threat from the southpaw stance, Scoggins picks his man apart with side kicks, round kicks and hook kicks.

On the subject of side kicks, the first time this writer has seen a side kick knockout to the head in MMA came in the UFC's flyweight division, courtesy of the always exciting Louis Smolka.

In fact, Smolka and the wily Irishman, Paddy Holohan put on one of the best grappling bouts in MMA to date in the UFC's only non-Johnson flyweight main event. Full of spin out side control escapes to d'arce attempts...

Rolling back take attempts...

And Fedoralby stoic heel hook escapes...

But it isn't my job to hype up every one of the UFC's many interesting and unique flyweights. It is marvelous when a fighter like Conor McGregor comes along and sells themselves, but it is the job of the promoter to promote. What the UFC is doing with the flyweights is never going to make more people invested in Demetrious Johnson's fights because fights—oddly enough—are a product of two people. Unless the UFC makes some changes, DJ's fights will forever be hamstrung by the fact that no one can even recall seeing the guy he is facing before. Failing that the best thing the UFC could do is cut the division loose altogether and pick it up again in a few years after their competitors have done the heavy lifting. Anything to break the division away from the monotony of exclusively three round fights on undercards with any new blood that has a modicum of success being thrown to the wolves right away.

It is no good to simply offer criticisms and no solutions though. Perhaps it would be a good time to remember that the UFC didn't used to believe in the marketability of lightweights, and now that is easily the UFC's most competitive and exciting weightclass. In an era of attempting to manufacture stars and relying on a dwindling number of old names, the UFC might do well to recall how many of the early stars of its brand came about: through rising above the rest in fights. Some of the fights were boring, some of the fights were bad, some young prospects saw their hype derailed early in a fight against another hot young prospect, but the guys who stood out did so because they were interesting and exciting and skilled. The best way to market the flyweight division? Put it on main cards and make the people sit through it. The people who really hate it can turn off or tune out and come back for the main event. That is promotion after all, pushing the fighters and not simply offering that division as an optional pursuit to those who wish to seek it out on Fight Pass.

Don't believe that would work? Remember Jared Rosholt? I am willing to bet you loathed watching him fight. In fact I'm willing to bet you rooted for him to lose. That is more than most fans have ever felt towards any flyweight. That is because Rosholt dragged out performances on five UFC main cards. That's as many as Tim Elliott, Henry Cejudo and Kyoji Horiguchi had combined when matched against Demetrious Johnson. I am certain that thinking back, there's a fight on most recent cards that you wouldn't have minded not being there, if it were replaced by a flyweight fight that turned out to be boring you wouldn't feel robbed of your three rounder between lower tier heavyweights.

It's not about some kind of prestige in position, the fact is that the main event sells the card, the main card is the appetizer, and anything earlier than that only affects a small core of fans who start preparing for their main course at midday. More than half the people who buy tickets to UFC events don't turn up until the main card starts, and they're paying for the experience. The only thing that matters in promoting most fighters is if you are seeing them and how often you are seeing them. You can love a fighter, you can hate a fighter, the only thing that doesn't help anyone at all is if you are completely indifferent to a fighter. And that, right now, is where the UFC's entire 125lbs roster stands. Cejudo versus Benavidez was a promising sign, the loss of Horiguchi is a worrying one. Through burying them on the undercard and avoiding match ups between top ranked fighters until after they have been rushed into a title shot, the UFC has been doing the flyweight division a tremendous disservice, and they are doing Demetrious Johnson a disservice too.


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