Timed to arrive on the cusp of the Ultimate Fighting Championship's (UFC) most ambitious expansion to date, the UFC flyweight division has thus far been a solid addition to the programming lineup.
For whatever reasons -- and these probably dovetail with the public's fascination with titanic figures squaring off in combat -- the smaller weight classes in combat sports go, the less attention they get. There's a medley of reasons for this, and the little men often have to go above and beyond to generate the kind of fan buzz that bigger guys get.
Life isn't fair and all that.
But going solely off the UFC's first three 125-pound fights in the tournament to crown its first flyweight champ, the new weight class is a success. And with the frenetic pace and athleticism shown thus far, it's easy to look back a few years and chart the growth of a division three weight classes north, which started off as an ambitious expansion and readily developed into the game's deepest division: the lightweights.
Eyeing that same path, and sharing numerous traits, the lightweights really do make a template for building a smaller weight class - and with the UFC's massive expansion on the heels of the seven-year Fox deal, which puts programming on Fuel, FX and Fox in addition to pay-per-view (PPV) offerings, this thing looks like it could really take off.
At the end of the day, fans gravitate toward exciting fights and meaningful plot lines.
The storylines and factors that helped shape the 155-pound division are easy to look back at now, and make the implication that success in building the lightweights was a lock ... but it decidedly was not. After the division went on hiatus from 2003-2006, adding a new weight class seemed like a risky venture, to some. Yet upon its return, once it was built, talented fighters came. B.J. Penn established himself as the rightful king, making three defenses, and brought much-needed star cache.
Set to square off in the flyweight finals, Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez are about as much action as you could pack into a five-round affair. With similar styles, it's a given that they're going to push one another in a whirlwind style of fight; one of the biggest things in marketing a new product is simply having the proper eyeballs and marketing mechanisms to push the levers, and showcase it at its best to a big enough audience. At this point, Johnson vs. Benavidez could be that quantum leap to help crown a new champ while simultaneously drawing huge attention to the 125-pound division.
The second factor in how the 125-pound weight class could imitate the explosive success of the lightweights -- which are by far the game's deepest division in terms of talent and elite competitors -- is the sheer distribution curve of available athletes. Virtually any good athlete with the frame to fight at heavyweight, or light heavyweight and middle, will have a multitude of other sports to pursue in the critical formative years.
This is true, but with increasingly diminished returns as you move down to 155-pounds, by the time you get to 125-pounds you have a relatively big sample of the athletes available. Everyone who is a natural flyweight will learn early on that wrestling is a much better pursuit than football, basketball, or whatever; and as MMA continues to expand, the financial opportunities will continue to draw talent.
It is going to take two to three years to draw that talent. In 2015, my best guess is that some of the emerging talent will be elite wrestlers, perhaps a few of them competing in the upcoming 2012 Olympics in London. But like the lightweights, when Penn finally captured the throne and legitimized the division in the public eye, Johnson-Benavidez will deliver a worthy champion.
Another element of the flyweights that is huge for the viewing fan -- and another similarity that benefitted the lightweights -- is the striking game isn't nearly as much of the one-shot, lights-out affair of the heavier weight class. The extended striking and virtual default requirement that foes be worn down by attrition, rather than massive, one-strike wipeouts, demands a higher level of technique, and many more dimensions to the stand-up game. At times, the lower divisions in MMA resemble a boxing match, with lengthy exchanges, slipping and ripping, and all kinds of technical nuances displayed at a breakneck pace. There is very little lay and pray, as well. It really does boil down to a test of conditioning and will as opposed to landing a hot one and turning the other guy's lights out.
This has allowed the lightweights to put on some outstanding battles, and that's what keeps fans coming back. And on the heels of the two outstanding battles Johnson has had with Ian McCall, and Benavidez's rousing knockout of Yasuhiro Urushitani, the guess here is that they will follow the same path. They just need more bodies and quality matches. The international appeal of the flyweights will be a key element as well, as the UFC looks to build overseas audiences. The weight class will also be a home to foreign fighters, helping build fan bases. It can truly become a global division, speaking the universal language of a little guy, fighting twice as hard as the bigger men, to show he belongs.
And they most certainly do.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst.