The UFC men’s flyweight division was all but an afterthought.
As recently as last summer, many MMA fans, fighters and media members thought the UFC was going to move on from the weight class. At the time, it seemed improbable that a flyweight bout would headline a major event.
Yet that will be the case on Saturday when Deiveson Figueiredo defends his title against Alex Perez at UFC 255. The last time men’s flyweights were the main event at a UFC pay-per-view was UFC 191 in September 2015.
So, why the change in direction? During the past two years, new stars emerged with stellar performances in title fights, including the current champion, and UFC president Dana White decided to keep the smallest men’s fighters on the roster around.
Here’s a timeline of events that led the flyweight division from the brink of extinction to a pay-per-view draw.
June 5: The first sign of trouble
Demetrious Johnson was recognized by many as MMA’s top pound-for-pound fighter in 2017. So fans were surprised when Johnson released a statement to MMAFighting.com, which was obtained by ESPN.com, that addressed what he viewed as the UFC’s “mistreatment and bullying” tactics to negotiate his next fight.
The UFC aimed to book a flyweight title fight between Johnson and former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw to headline a future pay-per-view event. But when Johnson publicly turned down the fight, UFC president Dana White was miffed. So upset was White, Johnson said, that he threatened to get rid of the entire flyweight division.
In that lengthy statement, Johnson, who was one win away from setting the UFC record for most consecutive title defenses, said he first agreed to face flyweight contender Ray Borg in the record-setting fight but was unhappy about it because Borg was a relatively unknown challenger and this would mark the first — and only — fight in Johnson’s contract in which he would receive a pay-per-view bonus. He said he turned down the Dillashaw fight because he was unsure if Dillashaw could make weight, which would preclude the fight from counting toward the title defense record.
“I’ve decided to speak out now as I feel like my values and character as a person and a fighter are being tarnished by an organization I’ve done nothing but sweat and bleed for over the last seven years of my life,” Johnson said.
Johnson ended up fighting Borg on Oct. 7, submitting the challenger, and setting the record.
Aug. 4: End of an era
To be the best, you have to beat the best.
— UFC (@ufc) January 14, 2019
Johnson’s run of dominance came to a stunning end at UFC 227 in Los Angeles as Johnson fell to Henry Cejudo by split decision. Johnson had set a UFC record with 11 consecutive title defenses 10 months prior.
“To defeat the man, the myth, the legend, Demetrious Johnson, it feels good,” Cejudo said.
Immediately after, Cejudo called for the winner of the bantamweight title fight between Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt, which was the main event of UFC 227. Dillashaw won by first-round TKO.
“Bring it, baby, let’s do this,” Dillashaw responded.
Oct. 27: The Trade
The UFC and ONE Championship made history by pulling off the first trade of fighters between MMA promotions. And they were some huge names.
The first major trade in MMA history is a done deal: Demetrious Johnson to sign with ONE Championship, and Ben Askren to sign with the UFC.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 27, 2018
The UFC released Johnson from his contract in order to allow him to sign with ONE Championship. In turn, ONE released former welterweight champion Ben Askren from his contract in order to sign with UFC.
With the UFC letting go of Johnson, by far the flyweight division’s greatest standout, questions concerning the future of the division ran rampant.
Nov. 7: Roster cuts cause uncertainty
The rumors of the flyweight division being eliminated by the UFC suddenly had the look of being a reality.
Flyweight fights on the main card of UFC shows were all but gone — and then came the pink slips.
Several fighters took to social media to reveal that they had been released by the UFC, with Jose Torres being the first.
Im the 1st to be let go. I didnt get to finish my UFC contract with 2 fights left because they are cutting most of my division n not giving some of us a chance to bump up n prove ourselves like myself. So now it’s time to move on to bigger and better things. Good luck small guys! pic.twitter.com/lUMijsRoDm
— Jose Shorty Torres (@ShortyTorresMMA) November 7, 2018
ESPN’s Ariel Helwani tweeted that not all of the 125-pounders on the roster were let go, but that was likely because of the way their contracts were structured.
If you’re coming off a loss at 125, it doesn’t look great. However, legally, if you’re coming off a win and have fights left on your contract UFC can’t release you. That’s why you’ll see some go up to 135 rather than leave (unless they really want to, I suppose).
— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) November 7, 2018
Nov. 10: Champion vs. champion
With the flyweights appearing to be all but scrapped, White announced a superfight that featured the division’s champion, Cejudo. He would take on Dillashaw, the bantamweight champ, with Cejudo’s belt on the line.
On Nov. 26, the UFC announced that the fight would headline a major card on Jan. 19 in Brooklyn.
Nov. 12: The final flyweight fight?
Henry Cejudo talks with Ariel Helwani about the flyweight division and his upcoming fight with TJ Dillashaw.
Both Dillashaw and Cejudo went on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show and acknowledged that their fight in January could spell the end of the UFC’s 125-pound division. Dillashaw even sounded like a hired gun.
“They’re paying me a f—load of money to go down and kill the 125-pound division and collect a second belt,” Dillashaw told Helwani.
Cejudo told Helwani that he may have to go to a different promotion despite having recently signed a six-fight deal. “I think everything changes once they dismiss the flyweight division, if that’s going to be the plan,” Cejudo said. “I believe there’s free agency in there, possibly. I believe the contract is signed at 125 pounds.”
Jan. 17: Cejudo embraces a challenge
Two days before facing Dillashaw, Cejudo made clear at a news conference in Brooklyn that his motivation wasn’t just to defend his championship. He wanted to save jobs for his colleagues.
“This is much bigger than me,” Cejudo said. “This is for all the flyweights that are not big enough to make 135 pounds. I’m fighting for those guys, I’m fighting for their family. There’s a big inspiration in me. When I’m inspired, I know I can get things done. There’s no better person to throw the Hail Mary to than me.”
When facing questions about the future of the flyweight division, White was mum.
“We’ll see how the fight plays out,” was his standard line.
But not even the longtime promoter could have predicted how that fight would transpire.
Jan. 19: Cejudo wows the MMA world
Henry Cejudo knocks out TJ Dillashaw in 32 seconds, the fastest finish ever in a UFC flyweight title fight and tied for the fifth-fastest KO/TKO in a title fight in UFC history.
It is Dillashaw’s first first-round loss since December 3, 2011 against John Dodson. pic.twitter.com/Sys7veAzzb
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 20, 2019
Cejudo defeated Dillashaw and retained the 125-pound title, but that wasn’t what had fans buzzing. It was about how the fight went down.
Cejudo hit Dillashaw with a right hand early in Round 1 and never let up. Dillashaw tried to grab Cejudo’s leg, but a barrage of punches by the defending champ forced an end to the bout after just 32 seconds.
After that stunning performance, maybe, just maybe, the flyweight division would be given a lifeline.
Oh. My. Goodness 😱😱😱
That was phenomenal!! Did he just save the Flyweight division in under a minute???
Henry Cejudo ladies and gentlemen 👏🏻👏🏻 #UFCBrooklyn
— Megan Anderson (@MeganA_mma) January 20, 2019
“This win was for every flyweight out there that wanted the opportunity to fight for a world title someday,” Cejudo said. “I did this for all those little guys who will never make it to 135 pounds. It’s sad they let go of half of the roster. Don’t underestimate the little guys. The flyweights. I’m out and taking out the bantamweight champ. What’s not exciting about it?”
Both Dillashaw and White said that they felt the stoppage by referee Kevin MacDonald was too quick, with White calling it “a bad stoppage.”
White told ESPN that he didn’t know what he was going to do with the division, or if he would give Dillashaw an immediate rematch with Cejudo.
As far as a rematch, that decision would soon be taken out of White’s hands.
March 20: Busted
Any hope for an immediate Cejudo-Dillashaw rematch went kaput after Dillashaw was informed by the New York State Athletic Commission and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency of an “adverse finding” in a test taken for his fight with Cejudo.
Dillashaw, who relinquished the bantamweight title, told Helwani it was as if he sold his soul to the devil because he wanted to do something that hadn’t been done.
The NYSAC later said in a statement that it has suspended Dillashaw for one year and fined him $10,000 “for violations relating to use of a prohibited substance.”
This also was unfortunate news for Cejudo, who was hoping to challenge Dillashaw for the 135-pound belt. His disappointment wouldn’t last too long, however.
March 27: A chance at history
— Henry Cejudo (@HenryCejudo) March 27, 2019
Cejudo would get a crack at becoming the bantamweight champion after all. With the title vacant, the UFC announced a fight between Cejudo and top bantamweight contender Marlon Moraes for the 135-pound belt in the main event at UFC 238.
June 8: The birth of ‘Triple C’; White makes a statement
After getting beaten up by Moraes in Round 1 in their bantamweight title fight at UFC 238, Cejudo stormed back in Round 2. Noting that he thought Moraes was running out of gas, Cejudo kept on the attack in the third round and earned a TKO win at 4:51 of the third.
Cejudo, an Olympic wrestling champion, became the UFC’s fourth simultaneous two-division champion with the victory.
“I’m not champ-champ,” Cejudo said. “My name is Triple C — Olympic champion, flyweight champion of the world and now bantamweight champion of the world. I’m the greatest combat athlete of all time, and I just stole the title of best pound-for-pound fighter too.”
But just as important as Cejudo winning the title was what White had to say at the postfight news conference. Following months of speculation and numerous roster cuts — the UFC only had 13 fighters listed in its flyweight division rankings — White said the flyweight division wasn’t being wiped out.
“Obviously [Cejudo] winning had a lot to do with the division,” White said at the news conference. “Have I said that it’s going away? Did I say it’s leaving? I haven’t even talked about that division in months. …
“It is confirmed.”
Dec. 19: Cejudo gives up gold
Wanting to focus on defending the bantamweight title, Cejudo told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto that he was relinquishing the flyweight championship.
It became clear that Cejudo would not be defending the 125-pound title in the near future, so a decision was made to move on, sources said.
“I’m going to relinquish the belt,” Cejudo told Okamoto. “UFC never stripped me.”
This set up a fight for the vacant belt between Joseph Benavidez and Figueiredo in the UFC Fight Night main event on Feb. 29.
Feb. 28: A regrettable weight miss
Benavidez and Figueiredo hit the scale the morning before their UFC flyweight championship fight in Norfolk, Virginia, needing to weigh in at 125 pounds or less. Only Benavidez did, which meant that only he was eligible to win the crown. If Figueiredo won, the title would remain vacant. He missed weight by 2.5 pounds.
This is pure speculation, but definitely wonder if the flyweight division will survive if Deiveson Figueiredo wins this fight. The title would still be vacant. Unreal, really. Cejudo saves it. Now Joe B has to save it. And a flyweight (Figueiredo) is actually trying to kill it.
— Brett Okamoto (@bokamotoESPN) February 28, 2020
Figueiredo’s manager Wallid Ismail explained why his fighter failed on the scale.
“The weight was cut appropriately, but this morning, he presented a malaise of gastrointestinal origin,” Ismail said. “It was discussed with the doctor who monitors him, and together with the team, we chose to preserve the athlete, interrupting the weight loss and performing oral hydration, with the support of the UFC nutritionist. The decision, although difficult, as we were aware that it would not be possible to achieve weight after hydration, was made both to preserve the athlete and to honor the commitment to the event and the opponent.”
Figueiredo became the fourth fighter in UFC history to miss weight for a championship fight and still compete. The others were middleweights Travis Lutter (in 2007) and Yoel Romero (in 2018) and welterweight Joe Riggs in 2005.
Feb. 29: Figueiredo makes a statement
Deiveson Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez each deliver heavy punches during Round 2. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Figueiredo put on a championship-caliber performance, but left Chartway Arena without the flyweight belt despite finishing Benavidez in Round 2.
Figueiredo opened up a cut on Benavidez’s forehead, possibly due to a clash of heads, and knocked him out with a right hand at 1:54. Because of Figueiredo’s weight miss, the title remained vacant.
“I am very sorry for missing weight,” Figueiredo said. “But I told everybody I’m gonna put on a big show.”
After the sensational effort, one had to wonder what was next for Figueiredo.
March 4: White committed to crowning a champ
Michael Bisping recaps Deiveson Figueiredo’s win over Joseph Benavidez and shares what he’d like next for the top of the flyweight division. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
While some speculated about how the flyweight division, which was still without a champion, was possibly doomed again, White appeared to be committed to keeping the weight class. At a news conference, the UFC president praised both Figueiredo and Benavidez and said he was making a rematch for the vacant title.
“Both guys came to fight,” White said. “I’m sure you guys know how I feel about [Figueiredo] not making weight, but we’ll do it again. They both deserve it.”
On June 19, White made the rematch official.
July 18: A star-making performance
Deiveson Figueiredo punishes Joseph Benavidez, stopping him in Round 1 to capture the UFC flyweight title.
Figueiredo became a champion and perhaps someone to build a division around at UFC Fight Night in Abu Dhabi. Figueiredo once again hammered Benavidez in the main event, dropping the veteran three times in Round 1 and choking him out at 4:48.
“I said I was going to break Benavidez, and that’s exactly what I did,” Figueiredo said. “I gave him his first submission on his record, and the fight itself was a great show. I gave everyone a show.”
Since Figueiredo’s UFC debut in 2017, he has the most wins (8) and the most finishes (6) in the flyweight division, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Aug. 7: A defense full of intrigue
After finishing his business with Raphael Assuncao at bantamweight, @Cody_Nolove says the plan is to “go down and really save the flyweight division.”
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) April 4, 2020
The UFC announced the opponent for Figueiredo’s first flyweight title defense, and was it ever an enticing matchup. The Brazilian would defend against Garbrandt, the former UFC bantamweight champion, in the main event at UFC 255 on Nov. 21.
Garbrandt had never fought in the 125-pound division and had lost three of his past four fights. But his win on June 6 was a spectacular one, a knockout of Raphael Assuncao right before the horn sounded to signal the end of the second round. Garbrandt displayed the speed and power that helped get him to the top of the bantamweight division in 2016. Pair that fighter up with Figueiredo, and a potential fight of the year candidate would be in the works.
Who could challenge Deiveson Figueiredo at 125 ? How about Cody Garbrandt (@Cody_Nolove)? Cody told me just a few months ago he wants to drop, would have no trouble making the weight … and even though he’s back in the 135 win column, I hear he still feels this way.
— Brett Okamoto (@bokamotoESPN) July 20, 2020
Oct. 2: Change in plans
Garbrandt’s quest to become a two-division UFC champion was put on pause as the former bantamweight champ was forced to pull out of his UFC 255 title fight against Figueiredo with a torn biceps muscle. On social media, Garbrandt said he could have possibly returned in December, but the UFC didn’t want to wait for him. The promotion announced that Alex Perez would instead get the title shot.
I asked the ufc for a end of December fight. They decided to replacement, which is understandable but you can’t fight destiny 2021 I’ll be the World Champ.
— Cody Garbrandt (@Cody_Nolove) October 2, 2020
Nov. 21: They fight
In the main event of UFC 255, Deiveson Figueiredo prepares to defend his title for the first time vs. rising star Alex Perez.
Figueiredo and Perez will face off on Saturday night at the Apex and the division is alive and well. There are now 22 flyweights signed to UFC contracts and a number of stars looking to get their shot at the title once again. One of them is Dillashaw, who is eligible to return in early 2021.