Brandon Moreno wasn’t supposed to be here.
Not headlining a UFC main event. Not going 25 minutes with a world title on the line. And certainly not being one or two rounds away from actually becoming a UFC champion.
Two years ago, Moreno wasn’t even on the UFC roster. He was one of several talented flyweights cut by the promotion in a culling of a division that had struggled to appeal to a wider audience. This despite the fact that he stood apart from his peers as an aggressive fight finisher and having already headlined a UFC Fight Night in Mexico City.
The UFC brought Moreno back two Septembers ago and he battled his way back to an unlikely title shot on Saturday, squaring off with champion Deiveson Figueiredo in the main event of UFC 256. It only took a couple of rounds for anyone watching to know that they were witnessing an instant classic and even with the fight ending in an inconclusive draw, one thing was abundantly clear: The flyweight division is and always has been one of the most exciting divisions in all of MMA.
Realistically speaking, it’s absolutely fair to say that the division has never been a ratings or pay-per-view draw. Being the smallest guys in the promotion is always going to have a stigma attached to it, as dumb as that sounds, with a large swath of fans simply not able to get excited about athletes that aren’t visually larger than life.
There’s also the perception that flyweights are more known for their technical ability than their finishing ability, as if that’s a bad thing. The division’s inaugural title fight between Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez in 2012 set the tone for a lot of viewers as it was a marvelous display of MMA strategy, but not the kind of slugfest (see: Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar) that catches the casual eye. Maybe it’s because of that decision win or his refusal to build up fights with juvenile trash talk or his one-sided dominance of the division that Johnson never caught on as a mainstream star. Or maybe it was the myth that he is a point-fighter, which never held any water as he actually finished his opponents more often than not during his six-year championship reign.
The truth is that Johnson was a great champion who always delivered an elite performance. His peers usually brought the excitement too. Benavidez, Kyoji Horiguchi, John Dodson (far more compelling at 125 pounds than 135 pounds), John Moraga, Tim Elliott, Dustin Ortiz, Louis Smolka, Ben Nguyen, the list of flyweights who were guaranteed to provide three rounds of entertainment goes on and on.
There were clunkers, just as there are in any weight class, but for some reason all it took was one boring flyweight fight to have people calling for the closing of the division while the heavyweight division could produce dozens of plodding, regrettable encounters every year and never hear a similar criticism.
Johnson’s dominance over an unpopular division eventually led to the UFC seemingly giving up on it, as they shipped Johnson to ONE Championship in September 2018 and began cutting names from the roster. They let it bleed for a while without ever fully shutting the door on it. And thank goodness they didn’t because even with all of the uncertainty, the remaining flyweights kept going out there and putting on great fights.
It was Henry Cejudo who co-opted the “Save the Flyweights” campaign, though it was always just a gimmick to promote himself as opposed to help anyone else. It wasn’t a bad gimmick either and it did provide an incidental boost to the division even if that became an afterthought for Cejudo once he became inclined to chase that shiny champ-champ status.
The truth is that the division never needed saving, at least not in the sense that it was in any way short on talent or compelling in-cage performers. UFC 256 was further proof of that.
Figueiredo was just hitting his stride when rumors of a flyweight closure began to circulate, but he stuck around. Moreno wasn’t so lucky, but fight by fight he has reminded the UFC why they were so invested in him in the first place. When their paths finally crossed, it was the culmination of something hardcore fans had known for years, that the flyweights deserved their seat at the table.
The fierce Figueiredo tried to walk Moreno down, only to be met with a solid jab and an iron will. Moreno pushed the pace in the hopes of outlasting Figueiredo, but soon he found out that the champ was more than willing to turn this into a war of attrition. They brought out the best in each other while doing the worst to each other and for fans there isn’t much more you could ask for.
Now we have a compelling rematch to look forward to, a champion who has one of the most entertaining fighting styles in all of MMA, and a division with several hungry contenders.
We had these things before, we just didn’t appreciate it, especially when Johnson signed on for title fight after title fight after title fight without complaint. If anything, a little diva attitude may have made the UFC appreciate him more, or at least that’s how it looks when we see how some of the squeakier wheels are handled.
That’s just not the flyweight way (excluding Cejudo). For the most part, the 125ers have always been low maintenance, consistent, and focused primarily on the spirit of competition. Boring, I know. But that lack of cachet was never a good reason for the UFC or anyone to overlook the division.
Johnson’s mind-blowing armbar of Ray Borg. Cejudo ruining T.J. Dillashaw’s dreams of two-division supremacy in just 32 seconds. John Lineker. All of these things happened at 125 pounds and now the division has an all-time great UFC title fight to add to its under-appreciated history.
So let’s put any debates about the merits of the UFC’s lightest men’s division to bed. It may never be for everybody, but at this point suggesting that it shouldn’t be part of the world’s largest MMA promotion is asinine. We never need to hear Save the Flyweights again and it shouldn’t have been a talking point in the first place. You know what sounds better?
All Hail the Flyweights.