By: Jack Wannan
The UFC’s flyweight division is entering a new era. Really, the division has been meaning to enter a new one for a while, although the numerous false starts thus far has made it hard to tell whether it will actually start eventually.
Long gone and shipped off to Singapore are the memories of former 125-pound champion Demetrious Johnson, who held the championship down for over 2,000 days and 11 defences. Following the end of his reign, UFC traded him for ONE Championship’s Ben Askren, an exchange that was a first for MMA. Moreover, the lack of success Askren saw in the UFC as opposed to Johnson’s winning streak in Asia showed why it was a first and maybe last for the sport.
You could call Henry Cejudo’s two-fight reign the “second era,” but it’s hard to call it anything more than a small phase the division went through. The brash and loud fighter shot up the UFC ranks, defeating Johnson in a controversial split decision. After a steamrolling of T.J. Dillashaw, Cejudo fought in the bantamweight division before his sudden retirement.
And really since that early 2019 fight between Cejudo and Dillashaw, the division has been stuck in a holding process. The first real solution to it was a fight between Deiveson Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez last February.
The initial meeting between Benavidez and Figuereido could best be summed up with one word: unsatisfying. There were numerous things about the encounter last February that left a bad taste in people’s mouths. The result of the fight and the complications that clouded it were messy, but for many the biggest disappointment was that the championship fight ended up never crowning a new champion in the end.
Despite his explosive finish in the second round, Figuereido’s win did not win him the belt due to him missing the flyweight weight limit of 125 pounds. Not only that, but Benavidez later claimed that it was not the powerful fists that put an end to the fight, but instead a headbutt that slipped in during an exchange.
“The headbutt altered everything. I didn’t know where I was after the headbutt,” said Benavidez in an interview with TSN following the fight. “That was 100 percent the beginning of the end.”
Benavidez and Figueiredo were both on top of the division and showed signs of being the new long-term king of the weight class. Benavidez is a fighter who’s been around the block. Having been around since the WEC days, Benavidez has been successful at flyweight apart from losses to fighters who aren’t in the picture anymore. Former champion in “DJ” is fighting in Asia, and Sergio Pettis is pursuing a career with Bellator MMA. The performances that Benavidez put on showcased a fighter who had veteran skill but did not look to be in his twilight years just yet.
Figueiredo’s short yet successful UFC run made him out to be someone who was being hot-shot up the division. Fighting seven times in three years, the Brazilian only lost once in a decision to Jussier Formiga. While less experienced than Benavidez, his performances showed that he was someone who had the skills to compete at a high level.
Fast-forward to this week, the fighters will give it another go. On Saturday night, Figueiredo and Benavidez will fight again for the still vacant flyweight belt. This time around gives both fighters the chance to take in the experience they got from their first fight, and also rewrite the history surrounding their encounter.
Benavidez can avenge a loss that he claims included a move outside of the ruleset. Figueiredo can show that his success isn’t because he’s a heavier fighter or because of an accidental headbutt, but instead because he’s the more skilled competitor.
For both, the biggest goal in mind is that winning will make them the new UFC Flyweight Champion, starting a new era.