The UFC Flyweight Division is a Throwback to the Dark Days

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Contract disputes, inconclusive bouts, interrupted tournaments, apathy, paper champions, empty arenas, lack of stars; If you’ve ever wondered what the dark days of the UFC were like, look no further than the UFC flyweight division. The UFC has grown into the premier organization of MMA but it was not always this way. Many of the UFC champions were not ranked or respected as the number one fighter in that class. And the golden rule, the UFC flyweight division, and the dark days of the UFC, can not have any normal storylines.

It All Started with a Tournament and some Superfights

For the inaugural UFC Flyweight championship, the UFC launched a four-man tournament. And just like many of their other tournaments, it had to have some odd event, or else it would not be a real tournament. Golden rule; no normal storylines. This was in 2012 and the UFC had not held an official tournament since 2003.

Demetrious Johnson, Ian McCall, Joseph Benavidez, and Yasuhiro Urushitani were announced as the four men who would be competing for the UFC flyweight championship; a list of top WEC contenders who could not quite get a championship in the bantamweight division. Benavidez won his fight. And instead of a nice progression of tournament fighters, Johnson and McCall decided to fight to an inconclusive draw; not unlike Deiveson Figueiredo vs Brandon Moreno in their UFC flyweight championship in 2020 which ended in a draw.

At lightweight, the tournament final at UFC 41 saw BJ Penn and Caol Uno fight to a draw thus the lightweight championship would remain vacant.

The UFC in the dark days began using Superfights instead of tournaments to ensure their bigger names would match against each other, that way to avoid what would happen at UFC 3. At UFC 5 Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock would run back their UFC 1 fight in the first official UFC Superfight. The two fought to a draw. To continue the tradition the Next Superfight would also end in a draw between Shamrock and Oleg Taktarov. Two out of four Superfights would end in an inconclusive draw.

Tournament events rarely go smoothly, and the UFC flyweight tournament was no exception. Remember the golden rule, this has no normal storylines.

The UFC 3 tournament had two fighters drop out during the semi-finals: Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock. Instead of a rematch of their famous UFC 1 fight, this would end with Steve Jennum vs. Harold Howard. 

Tournaments generally have some odd events, such is the golden rule of abnormal storylines. Scott Ferrozzo claimed an injury in his UFC 11 Final so Mark Coleman won by default. At UFC Ultimate Japan Kazushi Sakuraba would lose his first match in the tournament before going on to win the entire tournament later that same night. 

Relinquished Titles, Dark Days, and UFC Flyweights

Contract disputes seem like they always have been a talking point in the UFC. However, statistically, you will not find more issues than that of the UFC flyweights and the dark days. This follows our golden rule of no normal storylines.

The UFC flyweight division has seen three champions. The greatest of these champions was Johnson with 11 defenses. Johnson was an amazing champion who broke the record for title defenses in the UFC. The UFC rewarded this amazing statistic by having him leave the UFC because One Championship offered him more money and traded him for Ben Askren.

One-third of the UFC flyweight champions, Henry Cejudo, retired while being champion. His retirement was a ploy to try and get more money from the UFC, instead, the UFC called his bluff and wished the champion a happy retirement.

Keeping with our theme of abnormal storylines and contract disputes; between 1997 and 2004 the UFC would have 18 individual champions. Six out of these 18 champions, that’s one-third, relinquished their titles due to various reasons.

Champions Randy Couture and Jens Pulver would relinquish their titles title due to contract issues, Bas Rutten relinquished his title due to injuries, Frank Shamrock relinquished due to lack of competition, Murilo Bustamante left the UFC for PRIDE, and BJ Penn left the UFC for K-1.

Better Prestige Overseas?

The UFC during its dark days period was hardly filling arenas, and they were not permitted to broadcast on pay-per-view. The UFC was struggling to fill small casinos, while PRIDE and K-1 at the same time was selling out a 90,000 person stadium in Japan and having 30-50 million viewer broadcasts. Despite having great fighters and champions, with no exposure, the UFC could not create any stars.

Dana White had repeatedly claimed that the UFC flyweight division simply does not sell. It does not sell tickets and it doesn’t sell pay-per-views, he said. Even at 11 title defenses, Johnson was unable to become a star. Even hardcore fans are often apathetic to the whole division. After Johnson left, the UFC began making plans to cut the entire division.

During the dark days, the prestige of a UFC title did not carry the same weight as it does today. And that is why we saw so many dark-era champions willingly leave their championship to potentially get a belt overseas. If you were a UFC champion you were not ranked number 1 typically. In 2004, for example, the UFC heavyweight champion was ranked fourth at heavyweight.

Fans believed the better fighters were not in the UFC. Today, a UFC flyweight champion will typically be ranked at No. 1 universally. However, many fans believe that maybe the best flyweights are fighting elsewhere. How if the other organization champions do against the UFC flyweight champions? How would an Adriano MoraesDemetrious Johnson, or Kyoji Horiguchi fight go against someone like Figueiredo? Or what if Henry Cejudo returned? Could any of these four flyweights, who are currently active, have a better claim to a number one rank?

If you feel like you’ve missed the dark days of the UFC and want a small taste, the UFC flyweight division is your fix. Inconclusive fights, broken tournaments, abnormal storylines, lack of stars, and apathetic fans. You can have it all right here with UFC flyweights.

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Timothy Wheaton is a combat sports writer who covers MMA, Kickboxing, and Muay Thai. He has been an avid follower of these sports since 2005. Tim is a host alongside Frazer Krohn on the MMA Sucka Podcast.

With MMA Sucka, Tim has contributed interviews, articles, and podcasts. He has also represented MMA Sucka in person at live Bellator and GLORY Kickboxing events.

Tim also works with a host of other media sites such as Calf Kick Sports, Sportskeeda MMA, Low Kick MMA, Vecht Sport Info, Fighters First, and Beyond Kickboxing. Tim is is the authority on kickboxing and MMA journalist who has covered K-1, PRIDE FC, UFC, GLORY Kickboxing, Bellator, ONE Championship, and plenty more.

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