By Matt Saccaro
The flyweight division doesn’t serve a purpose in the UFC — at least not a good purpose.
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The oft-mentioned casual fan — you know, the kind of person who’s decked out in TapouT gear, plays UFC Personal Trainer, and thinks “MMA” is an acronym for some kind of governmental organization and not a sport — doesn’t care about the UFC’s flyweight division and never has. This fact hasn’t been more brutally apparent than it is now.
UFC on FOX 8, headlined by a flyweight title fight between champ Demetrious Johnson and challenger John Moraga, drew a paltry live gate of $735,000. Just under 8,000 fans were present. The amount of comped tickets wasn’t revealed. When the UFC visited Seattle back in December with a non-flyweight main event, the attendance and live gate were twice as high.
The event wasn’t a success in terms of TV viewership either. Despite winning the night in the 18-49 year old demographic, their numbers with that demographic were down 40% since the last FOX event. The FOX portion of the card was viewed by an average of 2.04 million viewers. To put that into perspective, more people watched a rerun of Cops that aired on FOX the previous Saturday in the same time slot than were watching LIVE UFC ACTION!!! Not only did “Johnson vs. Moraga” draw the fewest viewers of any UFC on FOX event, it was the lowest-rated MMA event ever on network television.
The numbers don’t lie. Flyweight is the Ryan Leaf of the UFC’s weight classes. So why not get rid of it?
Flyweight apologists might say that it’s too early to apply such a dubious distinction to the 125 lbs. division and that things will be just fine. “Just give it time and the fans will be wowed by how technical and amazing the flyweights are,” they’ll argue. The biggest flyweight apologist of them all, Demetrious Johnson, clings to this theory as well.
“I think the flyweights are doing pretty well so far. I mean yeah a lot of people still don’t know about us, but it’s just going to take time,” Johnson said on Bleacher Report’s MMA’s Great Debate show. “It’s only been since March of this year that it’s been one year since introducing the flyweight division. I think the roster’s still growing. I think we’re still getting known to the public.”
Translation without the bullshit: It’s been roughly 16 months since the flyweight division debuted in the UFC. Flyweight fighters have been featured prominently on FX and FOX, yet the division isn’t much better off than when it started. We’ve given it time, and it still hasn’t won people over. There are only 16 flyweight fighters in the UFC — 16. Think about that for a second. There are more playable characters in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 than there are fighters in the flyweight division. A roster of 16 fighters means that the top-10 comprises more than half of the weight class.
What’s the point of a division with fewer than 20 guys, none of whom the fans care about enough to watch on free television, let alone pay to see? What’s the point of a division where a John Moraga — the guy who just challenged for the world flyweight title — had never fought outside the Facebook prelims before being thrust into a title fight?
The flyweight division has no point outside of determining the answer to a question that fans didn’t ask: Who is the toughest 125-pound man on the planet?
There’s no shame in removing a division of fighters who can’t draw. The hardcore fans would bitch. The media would bitch (though a percentage of them would probably be thankful). The casual fans and the rest of the world outside of the MMA bubble wouldn’t know the difference.
This isn’t to denigrate the athletes, though. They’re all gifted and fight with phenomenal speed and conditioning. And, personally, I don’t mind watching the flyweights at all. It’s amazing to see athletes fight at a breakneck pace for 25 minutes. I’m not trying to insult them or what they do. I understand that there are people who love the flyweights but, to the less-educated majority of fans (read: those who think Kimbo Slice and Brock Lesnar are the best “ultimate fighters” of all time), flyweight fights are piss-break matches — and that’s not going to change. And if that’s not going to change, why keep the weight class around?
The flyweight division doesn’t sell tickets or pay-per-views. It doesn’t wow viewers. In fact, it does the opposite. It’s useless to fans and offers nothing to the UFC except filled space on a card.
That’s another point to mention. The UFC is running way more events then it used to, so it needs as many warm bodies as possible to market as “UFC CHAMPIONS.” That’s where the flyweights come in. How many more “TOP TEN™” fights and title fights can the UFC say they’re offering us now that they’ve added the flyweights? MMA historian Jonathan Snowden referred to this phenomenon as “creating the illusion of importance for UFC television cards lacking oomph.”
But that doesn’t mean that the UFC has to keep flyweights. They’re not a necessity. The UFC can disband the flyweight division and then get other fighters to fill card space, fighters that at least have a chance of becoming popular. Fans tune in to see fighters they want to see, not fighters they’ve never heard of winning accolades they perceive as meaningless.
There is another justification for the flyweight division’s existence, though. It’s possible (and likely) that the weight-class was meant to give a home to the fighters that Zuffa would no doubt be signing as it expanded into China, Singapore, and Asia as a whole. It looked like that theory would be coming true with the announcement of TUF China but, alas, TUF China is looking for featherweights, lightweights, and welterweights. Flyweight will not be getting an influx of new fighters from overseas, at least not yet. And even if it was, the foreign fighters might make the division worse. How long were we told that Tiequan Zhang was the baddest Chinese fighter on the planet only for him to go 1-3 in the UFC while fighting mostly low-level athletes?
If Zhang is the best that China has to offer, what will future Chinese imports be like? And what about the flyweights from other countries in that part of the world whose MMA scenes aren’t as developed? Once these guys get in the UFC, they’ll turn flyweight from a shallow division that nobody cares about into a division populated by shitty fighters that even fewer people will care about. What’ll be worse is that the UFC will still try to shove it down our throats. “Come see the AMAZING flyweights go at it! See the PIONEERS of Chinese/Singaporean/Filipino/Wherever MMA and the STARS of the 125-pound weight class!”
Thus, flyweight is, at best, a weight class founded to artificially inflate the importance of fight cards and to serve as a glorified advertising vehicle for the UFC’s efforts abroad. Yet it’s failing in both of those missions.
The prideful UFC will likely never pull the plug on the flyweight division but they won’t have to. Over time, it’ll fade into abject irrelevance on its own. The dutiful media members will commit names and fighter records to memory and write articles about tiny-sized triumphs all while the casual fans at home go “125 pounds? I could throw that guy through the wall,” right before they change the channel.