The UFC’s Next Flyweight Champion
By Ross Markey
The UFC’s flyweight division is in a state of turmoil that hasn’t been seen since it’s introduction back in 2012.
We’ve currently got a vacant championship, which has seemingly lost value since it fell from the waist of longtime owner, Demetrious Johnson.
For almost seven years, Johnson reigned supreme as king of the 125-pound division. Setting the promotional record for most consecutive successful title defences at eleven – Johnson’s run came to an end against Olympic gold medalist, Henry ‘The Messenger’ Cejudo.
In a 2018 rematch, Johnson suffered his first professional defeat since 2011 – via a razor-thin split decision to Cejudo. Since then, Johnson’s moved to ONE Championship – while Cejudo has switched his attention to defending his bantamweight crown.
Before his move to 135-pounds, the Los Angeles born wrestler secured a single title defence – knocking out then bantamweight gold holder, T.J. Dillashaw in the opening seconds of a controversial main event in January of last year.
Cejudo’s vacated the crown – with a matchup between Deiveson Figueiredo, and division mainstay, Joseph Benavidez taking place at UFC Fight Night Norfolk at the end of February.
To add another major spanner to the works, Figueiredo finished Benavidez in the second frame via strikes, however, he was left ineligible to claim championship status after he tipped the scales at 127.5-pounds. The promotion had tentatively planned a rematch between Figueiredo and Benavidez before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
We’ve got three main contenders for the vacant flyweight championship, however, based off his finish of ‘Joey Two Times’, Figueiredo surely has to feature in the next title matchup the UFC promote. The other contenders; we’ve got a resurgent returnee and a former-foe of both the returning force and Figueiredo.
32-year-old finisher, Figueiredo is champion is all but title. He’s steamrolled many of his flyweight competition, and although there’s some controversy surrounding his victory over Benavidez due to a clash of heads in the run-up to the stoppage – it’s hard to establish a contender who could cause real concern for the Brazilian.
His botched weight cut in Virginia spelt the first time in his eight-year stint that’s he tipped the scales. In his first loss in the promotion, Figueiredo dropped a decision against compatriot, Jussier Formiga, however, a re-run between the two is unlikely as their respective next outings, given Formiga’s defeat to Brandon Moreno in March, and recent knockout loss against Benavidez.
The resurgence of Mexican contender, Brandon Moreno has been eye-catching, to say the least. The 26-year-old was cut from the promotion back in 2018 following consecutive decision defeats to Alexandre Pantoja, and recent Bellator signee, Sergio Pettis. Moreno went on to compete once under the LFA banner, taking the flyweight championship in his sole outing – via a knockout of Maikel Pérez.
In September of last year, Moreno returned at UFC Fight Night Mexico City, paired with former ACB flyweight best, Askar Askarov. In one of the most competitive matches in recent flyweight memory – Moreno and Askarov fought to a majority draw over the course of three rounds. At UFC 245 in December, ‘The Assassin Baby’ managed a unanimous decision win over Kai Kara-France – before a trip to Brasília in March – where he took a triumph over the aforementioned, Formiga.
With his two-fight win streak, Moreno has managed to clinch the #5 rank at flyweight. His high success rate with offensive grappling, and gritty ability to stand in the pocket – makes a potential pairing with Figueiredo, intriguing viewing. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt has managed ten submissions from seventeen career wins.
Back in 2018, I tipped Moreno to clash with Johnson with gold up for spoils, however, he dropped his second straight defeat to Alexandre Pantoja. With the brief time away from the promotion and the improvements he’s made since – I believe Moreno can finally earn his first UFC championship in his premier title tilt.
Another top-five contender who’s bloomed lately is Alexandre Pantoja. Whether he’s done enough during his UFC stint to warrant a title opportunity, is another question. The Brazilian returned to winning ways against Matt Schnell after a decision defeat to Figueiredo – but he’s still ranked higher than Moreno at flyweight, sitting at #4. With eight knockouts and eight submissions, apart from his compatriot, Figueiredo, Pantoja may be the most well-rounded mixed-martial-artist at 125-pounds in the UFC today.
As well as his superior rank than Moreno, he’s also beaten the Mexico native – back in a 2018 matchup. The victory served as Pantoja’s first win of three, with stoppages over Ulka Sasaki, and former title challenger, Wilson Reis following before the end of the year. Making his promotional bow back in January of 2017, Pantoja narrowly edged out Eric Shelton, before slapping a slick rear-naked choke on Neil Seery.
Given his recent loss to Figueiredo, Pantoja may need another victory before his first title shot with the promotion. If that’s a must, let’s pair him with either division mainstay, Formiga, or in a definite title-eliminator against Benavidez.