Flyweights' coming-out fight swept under the rug at UFC 152

Publish date:

How small are flyweights? Small enough to pose, actual size, for trophies. So small that you can see their feet in passport photos. Go ahead and insert your own lame joke.

It's no laughing matter, however, when the punch line is that you're too small to be noticed. Even while making history.

That's pretty much what happened Saturday night in Toronto, when Demetrious Johnson fought Joseph Benavidez for the honor of becoming the first champion of the UFC's new 125-pound decision. After five rounds fought at a pace that would make your DVR's fast-forward mode jealous, Johnson had earned two things: a split-decision victory and the admiration of fans for a masterful performance. But while "Mighty Mouse" did take home the shiny new brass-and-leather championship belt, the more perplexing yet impossible-to-deny takeaway from the UFC 152 co-main event was that many fans simply didn't connect with the fight.

The evidence was heard in the form of boos raining down on the octagon even as Johnson and Benavidez were flinging punches as if working the speed bag in the gym. It was seen in snarky Twitter comments posted even as the fighters were scrambling for ground control with an urgency suggesting that the mat was on fire.

The problem, perhaps, was that the fighters were too fast for their own good. And too robust. Conventional wisdom held that Benavidez was the stronger fighter and Johnson the speedier one, but "Mighty Mouse" held his own when brawniness was tested and "Joe Jitsu" was no slowpoke. That translated into footwork and elusiveness that was poetry in motion, but allowed for few dire situations. Johnson quickly circumvented both Benavidez submission attempts, and there were no knockdowns. So fans hoping to see a repeat of Benavidez' last bout -- a one-punch knockout of Yasuhirio Urushitani in the flyweight tournament opener in March -- let their discontent be known.

As did UFC president Dana White ... except his discontent was aimed not at the fighters but at the fans. Asked at the post-fight press conference if he was surprised by the booing, he spat back, "I wasn't surprised. I was horrified."

And White had a special message from the marketing department for any dissatisfied paying customers: "If you didn't like the flyweight fight, please, I'm begging you, don't ever buy another UFC pay-per-view again. I don't want your money. You're a moron. You don't like fighting. You don't appreciate talent."

You've got to love Dana. Here's a guy who can embrace the persona of a carnival barker, hyping his fight cards as if every last one of them is The Event of the Century. He then can effortlessly flip the switch to regular guy mode, selling himself as a fight fan whose mission is to give fellow fans what they want to see. He also loves to make money, of course, and has become pretty good at doing so. And yet he's here to tell that if you didn't find his flyweight fight compelling, he doesn't want your money, moron.

Now, I happen to agree with the UFC boss in terms of the quality of the flyweight fighting. Johnson vs. Benavidez was a beautiful display of aggressive offense and fluid defense. But picking a fight with the customers? Oh, well, the guy has been running the fight promotion for more than a decade, with in-your-face abrasiveness being his calling card the whole time, and he's made a huge success of it. Still, if you say your way of doing business is to give fans what they want, then maybe you should put your energy toward making them want what you want to give them.

It was in that realm that the UFC might have unintentionally submarined its flyweights. The first indication that Saturday's historic bout might be overlooked, after all, came while White was talking with reporters just about a month before fight night. He had just heard from Jon Jones that, with Dan Henderson injured and out of their UFC 151 light heavyweight title bout, the champ would not accept a replacement challenger. So Dana assembled the media to announce that for the first time on his watch the UFC was calling off an event. He then vented his spleen a little about Jones and his trainer/adviser. And he slipped in that Jones would instead defend his belt at UFC 152 in Toronto.

Unspoken amid all the furor: Johnson vs. Benavidez, which had been the Toronto main event, would move down a spot on the bill. Now, this was not an intentional slight of the flyweights. Any time the fight promotion has two championship bouts on a card, the heavier weight takes top billing. So "Bones" would have headlined over even the sport's top pound-for-pound fighter, middleweight Anderson Silva. And if Junior dos Santos happened to be putting his heavyweight belt on the line at the same event, he'd trump both Jones and Silva. (And, boy, wouldn't that be a fun card to witness.)

The point is that Johnson vs. Benavidez inadvertently got lost. It was sandwiched between a title defense by the recalcitrant fighter whom seemingly the entire MMA world suddenly couldn't wait to see getting hit and a middleweight bout featuring the mouthy Michael Bisping, who openly questioned whether the 125-pounders deserved to be billed above his fight with Brian Stann. "No one cares about little flyweights," said the Brit, sounding like a jerk at the time and like a prophet in retrospect.

But that's short-term thinking, which is not what got White and the UFC to where they are today. They're builders, and sometimes progress comes one brick at a time. So in that spirit the UFC already has a blueprint for keeping the flyweight project on target. "Mighty Mouse" will get to stare lovingly at his new championship belt for just a little over a week. Then he'll learn who'll be his first challenger: either John Dodson, winner of Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter, or UFC newcomer Jussier da Silva, the South American champion of the Shooto promotion, who meet Oct. 5 at a UFC on FX event in Minneapolis.

As Johnson said after Saturday's championship victory, "I've still got to prove a lot of things." He's already proven he can fight. Now he and the UFC must find a way to make fans want to watch.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.