The 125-pound division in the UFC is one of the most under-promoted, under-recognized divisions in the UFC. That’s just a statement of fact. There is the old adage in combat sports that small men don’t sell fights, as casual fans want to see the heavy-handed knockout artists, not technical skill and speed. Some think that the flyweight division is just a particularly weak weight class. What seems most likely is that no one can get invested in the fights and fighters because, with the exception of the hardcore element, nobody knows who the fighters are. So much so, that the rumours of closing the division have been circulating for a while. So where do we start with building a star in such a low-drawing division?
Why the lack of interest?
Populating undercards, fight pass prelims and the occasional opener on the main card, most flyweights not named Demetrious Johnson are stuck fighting in front of half-empty arenas while the fans wait for the “real show” to start. Need proof? Two top 10 flyweights Henry Cejudo (#3) and Wilson Reis (#4) only made it to the main card of UFC 215 due to the cancellation of the Johnson vs Ray Borg title fight. Before that, they weren’t even the feature fight of the prelims! This is a crime when the likes of Ilir Latifi and Tyson Pedro rock a spot on the main card.
In recent months there have been clashes between UFC president Dana White and flyweight champion Johnson regarding the promotion of the division. “We’re not marketing him right?” White said. “We built a TV show around him. The Ultimate Fighter (24) was about what an incredible fighter he is. We’ve put him on FOX many times and tried to build him, and it is what it is. It’s not me.” The fact that the Ultimate Fighter has run its course as a product aside, it is one of the first times most people would have regularly seen the next opponent for DJ in Tim Elliott, and one of the main reasons he could hang with the champ was he had gained experience, outside the UFC, in five round fights. So we have established some of the issues, who could break through these barriers and possibly, as Vince McMahon would put it, grab the brass ring?
This should go without saying, but Mighty Mouse might be the most skilled fighter, in any weight class, who doesn’t seem to draw. It could be the perception he has cleared out the division or that he is too small to be interesting. The main problem is that he hasn’t beaten anyone that has been built up in front of people. In promoting a fighter, he needs to beat recognisable names; whether it’s boxing, kickboxing, MMA or pro wrestling. Names are what sell cards; the belt is just an accessory.
DJ has been promoted against relatively unknown fighters. And then White wonders why no one tunes in for Johnson against guy-who-has-never-been-televised and who hasn’t gone five rounds. Like in pro wrestling, you need an active, nigh unstoppable challenger for your champion to overcome to draw interest, Hulk Hogan built a career on it.
DJ is fast-paced, a finisher, charismatic and, as seen recently, isn’t just going to go with what the UFC says about him anymore. Mighty Mouse, following his victory over Wilson Reis, declared himself the GOAT. “GSP and Anderson Silva were great champions, but I’m the best ever to step foot in this Octagon,” he said. He’s clearly got the potential; the UFC marketing machine needs to focus less on him being dominant, and more on building up those who face him.
Fourth in the UFC rankings, 4-1 as a flyweight and the brother of a former UFC champion, Sergio Pettis has the makings of a star. Still somewhat rough around the edges, the 24-year-old has four straight wins and did the one thing a lot of flyweights have not. He has competed in a five round main event. Like his elder brother, Sergio will throw up high kicks from almost anywhere, including while wrestling.
His problem? After beating Brandon Moreno in Mexico City, he deferred to the UFC instead of calling his next shot. Understandably, he doesn’t wish to rush into a fight with the champ when he is still developing, but you only get so much mic time to make a connection with fans. He made a more emphatic statement at the post-fight press conference but not everyone watches them, it’s when the eyes are on him that Sergio needs to speak up. Giving promising, young talent like Sergio an accelerated push on main cards needs to be the rule, not the exception. With a little media training, he could be the young upstart to take on the wily, veteran DJ.
Another Chechen fighter to enter the UFC, Magomed “Chaborz” Bibulatov is undefeated at 14-0 with seven finishes; also he was the former WSOF Flyweight champion. His UFC debut in April was a unanimous decision, even after being docked a point in round two. He is next set to face top 10 ranked John Moraga at UFC 216 on the, you guessed it, fight Pass prelims.
He is a powerful, fast striker, accurate and, like most of the Russian Invasion in the UFC, a powerful wrestler. If he is given time to develop, he could become a force in the division and become part of a UFC event in Russia if they still have plans in that regard. The John Moraga fight will show if he really has the upside people expect of him.
His downside is, however, severe. Despite his dismissal of “politics,” Bibulatov has close ties to Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. Bibulatov’s association with Kadyrov has raised eyebrows due to the country’s current violent crackdown on homosexuals, accusations of human rights violations, and because of the closeness of their relationship. How close? The nickname Chaborz, which translates to “Bear-Wolf” was actually given to Bibulatov by Kadyrov.
If he can distance himself from Kadyrov, Bibulatov is a real talent. He can be an excellent addition to the UFC flyweight division, a stone cold destroyer in the mold of Khabib Nurmagomedov and former challenger Ali Bagautinov.
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 those old names emerged in the first place: by fighting in front of an audience. The guys who stood out did so because they were interesting, exciting and skilled but they had time to develop. It’s easy to get it right with the likes of Jon Jones and his ilk – the absolute can’t-miss prospects that even novice MMA fans can see have superstar potential – but you need to identify which prospects may one day become draws.
The best way to market the flyweight division is ACTUALLY to promote it. Like all good storytelling: show don’t tell. You can tell the viewers how great a fighter is until you’re blue in the face, but if we never see it until after they’ve been beaten by Mighty Mouse then who cares? If a fighter wins on fight pass, does it make a noise?
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