In 2012, the UFC’s smallest fighters look to make the newest division the biggest show in town.
In 2011, the bantamweight and featherweight divisions announced their presence in the UFC with electric performances, explosive finishes, and frenetic action from January through December.
As the featured weight classes on Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter, the 135- and 145-pound fighters from Team Bisping and Team Mayhem breathed new life into the stagnant show, leaving UFC President Dana White to call it the best season of fights to date. This year, it will be the flyweights who make their mark in the UFC.
After much anticipation and speculation, the 125-pound division will debut in March, with two flyweight bouts making up the semifinal round of a four-man tournament that is set to crown the inaugural UFC Flyweight Champion. Featuring two of the best fighters in the weight class and a pair of former bantamweight title challengers who are dropping down to the freshly introduced division, expect the flyweights to come out of the gate on fire.
Here’s a look at the four tournament participants—and a few other fighters who could soon make their way into the UFC’s newest division.
IAN MCCALL (11-2-0)
The 27-year-old known as “Uncle Creepy” is regarded as the top flyweight on the planet, having collected a trio of impressive victories in 2011 to capture the Tachi Palace Fights Flyweight Championship. He also owns one of the sweetest mustaches in all of MMA.
A professional for nearly a decade, McCall fought three times in the WEC as a bantamweight, stopping Coty Wheeler but losing to veteran Charlie Valencia and eventual champion Dominick Cruz before moving down the scale permanently.
With his title victory over Darrell Montague and wins over previously unbeaten Dustin Ortiz and Jussier “Formiga” da Silva before that, McCall enters the UFC at the top of his game—and the division—ready to add “first ever UFC Flyweight Champion” to his growing list of accomplishments.
JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ (15-2)
Ask Benavidez and he’ll tell you that he’s “15 and Dominick Cruz.” The talented Team Alpha Male bantamweight has defeated everyone he’s faced—apart from the UFC’s 135-pound champion—including former 135-pound titleholders Miguel Torres and Eddie Wineland and submission wizards Wagnney Fabianno and Rani Yahya.
A tremendous wrestler with explosive striking, Benavidez has been one of the elite competitors in the bantamweight division for the last two years, and he makes the move down in weight as the early favorite to emerge as the first UFC Flyweight Champion.
DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON (9-2)
Like Benavidez, Johnson has enjoyed considerable success competing in the bantamweight division. After dropping his WEC debut to Brad Pickett in April 2010, “Mighty Mouse” earned victories over Nick Pace and Damacio Page before the division was absorbed into the UFC. The change in stage didn’t affect Johnson, and the Matt Hume protégé put together back-to-back wins over Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto and Miguel Torres to earn a spot opposite Cruz atop the UFC on Versus 6
card this past October.
Though he came up short in his bid to capture the UFC bantamweight title, Johnson gave Cruz trouble early, showing more quicks than the elusive champion and holding his own in the stand up department as well.
The diminutive 25-year-old should find even greater success fighting in the 125-pound weight division in 2012.
YASUHIRO URUSHITANI (19-4-6)
The elder statesman of the initial foursome competing to be crowned UFC Flyweight Champ, Yasuhiro Urushitani enters the promotion as the most experienced member of the group.
The former Shooto Bantamweight (123-pound) Champion has competed almost exclusively in Japan since his debut in January 2001, fighting outside his native country only once in his career.
Never having lost back-to-back contests, the 35-year-old Urushitani has battled with some of the top flyweight competitors in Japan over the last decade. He’s split a pair of fights with Yuki Shojo and Mamoru Yamaguchi and has twice fought to a draw with Shinichi “BJ” Kojima.
The Ultimate Fighter Season 14 Alumni
Expect to see the winner of TUF 14’s bantamweight competition, John Dodson (12-5), follow in the footsteps of previous winners Rashad Evans, Jonathan Brookins, and Tony Ferguson and make the drop in weight now that the UFC has introduced the flyweight division to the fold.
While Dodson’s performances on the show and in December’s finale against TJ Dillashaw were impressive, the long-time member of Team Jackson is better suited for the 125-pound ranks and would be sure to bring his exciting athletic style.
Two fighters who could potentially join Dodson in the newly established division are his “Death Leprechaun” teammates Josh Ferguson (8-4) and Louis Gaudinot (5-2). Like Dodson, both Ferguson and Gaudinot made their way onto the show by fighting up in weight, only to be bounced from the competition in the quarterfinal round before losing their bouts on the finale to Roland Delorme and Johnny Bedford, respectively. The UFC is going to need some recognizable names to help draw interest in the division, and with their time spent on The Ultimate Fighter, Ferguson and Gaudinot fit the bill.
Tachi Palace Fights Contenders
Over the last year, the Lemoore, California-based organization has become the premier destination for 125-pound competitors in North America.
With champion Ian McCall already tabbed to take part in March’s four-man tournament, fans of Tachi Palace Fights shouldn’t be surprised if they recognize more than a few of the competitors brought in to help fill out the ranks in the flyweight division.
Jussier “Formiga” da Silva (11-1) should top that list. The talented Brazilian has been a mainstay in the division’s top-five and boasts wins over several other 125-pound stalwarts who could also make their way to the UFC. His only career loss came to Ian McCall this past August.
Japanese’s Mamoru Yamaguchi (26-6-3) is another TPF veteran who should transition into the UFC in 2012. With his trademark Afro—a tribute to Japanese boxing legend Yoko Gushiken—and penchant for entertaining stand-up battles, the 34-year-old Yamaguchi is sure to connect with the audience quickly.
Former TPF Flyweight Champ Darrell Montague (9-2) could join the exodus to the UFC as well. Prior to losing the belt to Ian McCall in August, Montague collected six consecutive victories, with only one other loss in his career to current UFC featherweight contender Robert “Problems” Peralta.
Shinichi “BJ” Kojima (12-4-5) was widely regarded as the top flyweight in the world before being upset by da Silva in July 2009. Kojima enjoyed a nearly four-year reign as the Shooto Bantamweight Champion before vacating the belt due to an ACL injury. He boasts a 2-0-1 record from his trilogy of entertaining bouts with Yamaguchi, and he has also battled to a pair of draws with UFC tournament competitor Urushitani.
Yuki Shojo (11-6-2) is 7-3 in his last 10 fights, with each of those losses coming to fighters previously mentioned as potential additions to the UFC’s newest division—Urushitani, Kojima, and Yamaguchi. Fellow Shooto fixture Kiyotaka Shimizu (10-6-2) could transition into the fold as well. The 27-year-old is 9-3-1 over his last 13 fights after starting his career 1-3-1.
Two additional competitors to keep an eye on are Brazilians Alexandre Pantoja (9-2-0) and Jose Maria Tome (28-2-0, 2 NC). The 21-year-old Pantoja is a Nova Uniao product and has won six of his last seven fights, competing exclusively in Brazil. He has put together back-to-back first round wins since losing to Jussier da Silva, and with the strong Nova Uniao presence in the UFC already, Pantoja could be an easy addition to the flyweight ranks.
Tome is on an impressive run, having gone 28-1 (with a pair of no contests) since dropping his professional debut in 2004. Like several others on this list, that loss came against the talented da Silva. He’s won 14 consecutive decisions—with the two no contest results mixed in along the way— fighting in his native Brazil. With such an outstanding record, don’t be surprised if Tome gets added to the UFC roster at some point this year.