In late October, an industry-changing announcement was made. It was reported that the UFC struck a deal with ONE Championship, trading former longtime flyweight champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson away for ONE’s welterweight king, Ben Askren.
There are many ways to look at and break down the decisions made by both the industry-leader and the largest organization in Asia. For the purposes of this article, we will look at which promotions benefit from the UFC’s decision to do away with flyweight.
One of the first thoughts on the minds of many was Bellator being in position to capitalize on the UFC’s decision to do away with flyweight.
While the promotion has hosted contests at 125 in the past, it has never seemed to get behind the category, and I don’t see this changing. The most marketable athletes at flyweight appear to already have a home, and if his time in Strikeforce up until now with Bellator is any indication, Scott Coker may not be interested in putting in the work needed to correctly promote men’s 125, especially when considering the struggles currently in Bellator’s bantamweight division. If Bellator head Scott Coker feels the need to install a legitimate flyweight category, the promotion has enough financial backing to pick up most of the top guys at the weight.
Brave Combat Federation
It has gone under the radar thus far but Brave CF has a pretty solid 125-pound division, and it keeps getting better.
The Bahrain based organization has picked up quality athletes to fill out its growing flyweight offering, including 10-time BJJ World Champion Bruno Malfacine and former CFFC kingpin Sean Santella. The promotion has also shown interest in potentially signing former two-division LFA titleholder Jose “Shorty” Torres, showing that Brave CF may make moves on some of the flyweight talent released by the UFC.
Showing further dedication to the weight-class the promotion attempted to crown its inaugural flyweight champion at Brave CF 18 on November 16th. The championship bout featured former ACB titleholder and 2016 Combat Sambo World Champion Velimurad Alkhasov and previous NOXII titleist Marcel Adur. Alkhasov would win via decision, but would not leave with the belt, due to a misstep on the scales. The promotion could easily book Alkhasov opposite a solid free agent pickup for their second attempt at crowning their first 125-pound king.
Professional Fighters League
The PFL has become an appealing option for many free agents in the industry, using a format that includes a regular season, post-season and championship round to hold tournaments in multiple weight-classes over several months.
The organization has garnered praise from fighters and fans alike. One of the most appealing things to unsigned athletes is the prize for winning one of PFL’s tournaments, as the organization awards $1,000,000 to each tournament champion. The opportunity to make that much money in such a short period of time has attracted former contenders from both Bellator and the UFC. The PFL has also picked up top prospects and champions from regional promotions. If the organization announces a flyweight tournament for its 2019 offering, expect many top 125-pound free agents to sign on with the Washinton DC based promotion.
The obvious choice is ONE Championship. The promotion has been making huge industry-shaking moves over the last few months.
In May, ONE launched its app which allows for free streaming of every event, fighter profiles and much more. A few months later they picked up the biggest signing (at the time) in their history, former Bellator and UFC champion Eddie Alvarez. It followed that up a week later with an industry-changing trade, sending former champion Ben Askren over to the UFC in order to acquire pound-for-pound great Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, naming Johnson Brand Ambassador of the organization’s foray into competitive gaming soon thereafter, ONE E-Sports to be exact.
The Johnson signing was followed by an announcement that ONE will hold a flyweight grand prix in 2019, a move that could see many UFC veterans and ONE stars collide under the Asian organization’s banner.
The Asian market has always been kind to the lighter athlete. The women’s strawweight (115lbs) and atomweight (105lbs) divisions thrived in Asia long before they made an appearance on North American soil. The Minimumweight (95lbs) category has also seen action, an aspect of MMA unheard of in the U.S. On the Men’s side of things, the strawweight and flyweight categories have been staples of such Japanese promotions as Pancrase and Shooto for years. One of the reasons for the popularity of the lighter weight-classes in both the Asian and South American markets is the average size of the population is much smaller than that of North America, allowing for many within the population to identify with the lighter athlete much easier.
Understanding how to promote The lighter weight-classes is not limited to simply the size of the population, although that is an important aspect of marketing with considering. We have seen in both South Africa (EFC World Wide) and Russian based promotions such as ACB and Fight Nights Global a willingness to promote flyweight bouts in the headlining role, not just because of the want but also understanding the potential of the division, with competitors displaying a combination of speed and technique many times unmatched by other weight-classes. Often times the lighter categories are the more entertaining, and best showcase the sport of MMA.
Top Japanese MMA outfit RIZIN plays home to one of the top flyweights on the planet in Kyoji Horiguchi (25-2-0). Currently on a ten-fight streak, Horiguchi is in need of fresh opposition, and RIZIN may attack the free agent market in order to provide Horiguchi with stiffer competition going forward.
The South American market is growing, and with it, Combate Americas. With so much talent coming from the continent, expect Combate Americas to snatch up a fighter or two when all is said and done.
The Russian MMA scene has produced many top competitors in every weight-class, flyweight is no different. Fight Nights Global has its own stable of talent, promoting former UFC title challenger Ali Bagautinov (17-6-0), Tyson Nam (16-9-1) and rising star Zhalgas Zhumagulov (12-3-0). The biggest news on the Russian MMA circuit is the merger of WFCA and ACB to form ACA.
If all contracts are intact the merger would mean that ACA’s flyweight roster would include names such as Askar Askarov (10-0-0), Azam Gaforov (11-0-0) and Imran Bukuev (8-1-0), three of the top 125-pound fighters in the whole of Russia. The organization has consistently hired foreign talent to test their athletes. It would be a mistake to underestimate their role in free agency.
On the surface, the first reaction to the UFC’s decision to do away with the flyweight division was, to be blunt, it sucks for the fighters. Upon further review, it couldn’t be better for athletes competing in the weight class. With sponsorship opportunities and growing organizations with deeper pockets willing to spend more on talent, this is the best outcome for all involved. The game has changed.
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