Jeremy Lambert: In January 2011, the UFC introduced two new lighter weight divisions to the company: featherweight and bantamweight as part of the WEC merger. In March 2012 the UFC introduced an even lighter weight class when they added the flyweights. This past Saturday the first ever flyweight champion was crowned when Demetrious Johnson defeated Joseph Benavidez.
While the lighter weight classes almost always produce exciting fights, they don’t always have the audience caring. In the main event of UFC 149 between Urijah Faber and Renan Barao for the interim bantamweight title, the crowd started to boo and leave in the middle of the fight. While that was a bit understandable as UFC 149 was a dreadful PPV up until that point, it’s a little tougher to explain what happened at UFC 152. While Johnson and Benavidez were putting on a very good fight and showcasing all aspects of MMA, the crowd once again started to boo the action.
It would be easy to blame the “boo birds” on the fact that both events were in Canada and they’re upset over this NHL lockout, but the problems are unfortunately much bigger than that.
Samer Kadi: As an isolated incident, the showers of boos heard during Demetrious Johnson’s triumphant battle with Joseph Benavidez is the result of a harsh crowd that inexplicably grew restless during what was on the whole, a highly enjoyable fight. Unfortunately, cringe-worthy crowds have become somewhat of a staple in MMA, and the “Just Bleed” group will always remain immune to the education process. And yet, that hardly explains why, during a less eventful bout between Michael Bisping and Brian Stann, the Toronto crowd was not nearly as vocal in expressing its dissatisfaction.
For one, those in attendance – and the audience at home – happened to care about Bisping and Stann, and if the uncharacteristic cheers that Bisping received were any indication, they also had a certain emotional investment in “The Count.” That of course, is hardly a surprise, as despite not being a bona fide main eventer, Bisping has gotten plenty of exposure throughout career, as did, to a lesser extent, his opponent, whom Zuffa have done a tremendous job at familiarizing with the crowd in the past couple of years by citing his war exploits at every given opportunity.
Unfortunately, having spent most of their careers in the WEC, neither Johnson nor Benavidez had the luxury of that exposure. Moreover, following the addition to the featherweight and bantamweight divisions, the UFC has generally failed to properly introduce them to their audience. While Faber and Cruz got their chance by being paired up as coaches on “The Ultimate Fighter”, the rest of the roster struggled to make an impact. It isn’t exactly a shocking, as it is only natural for fans to take some time to warm up to newer divisions, and the lighter they get, the more uphill battles fighters will face in that regard. The flyweight division has only recently been added, and the UFC has decided to keep its roster thin in hopes of maintaining the spotlight on the few fighters currently competing in that weight-class, before ultimately expanding it.
Jeremy Lambert: One problem currently plaguing the lighter weight classes is their lack of exposure. For one reason or another, the UFC has failed in highlighting them on PPV cards, which is still the most important exposure a fighter can get. Headlining a Fuel TV event sounds nice, but those events get lost in the shuffle and, unless you put on a memorable fight, are forgotten about within a week. It’s more beneficial to be the opener for a Jon Jones headlined PPV than it is to be on free TV no matter where you’re at on the card.
The reason people didn’t care about this past weekend’s Johnson vs. Benavidez clash was likely in part due to the fact that neither man had ever been on a UFC PPV main card. Johnson had headlined a couple of UFC TV events and Benavidez had headlined a couple of WEC events, but neither man benefitted from being on PPV.
It’s also a reason why fans probably had a tough time getting behind Chad Mendes or Erik Koch as title contenders to Jose Aldo. At the time, no one could say that Mendes wasn’t deserving of a title shot, but leading up to his bout with Aldo, all of his fights were on TV. To go from free TV to headlining a PPV and expecting it to draw a buyrate is asking a lot from a fighter, especially when that fighter puts on fights like Mendes. Koch would’ve been in the same position had his fight with Aldo not fallen through on multiple occasions.
Since the inclusion of the bantamweight and featherweight to the UFC, not counting title fights, 135 and 145 pound fighters have been featured on PPV a grand total of 19 times. There have been 26 PPV events (UFC 138 was a numbered event but not a PPV). It’s unfair to say that not being on PPV is the sole reason why fans don’t care about these fighters, hell, Frankie Edgar has been headlining PPVs since before the bantamweights and featherweights came to the UFC and people still aren’t paying to see him, but when you’re trying to build divisions and contenders, it helps to feature them on the bigger shows.
Samer Kadi: Of course, none of this is to suggest that current underexposure is strictly the reason for lighter weight divisions’ inability to consistently create interest. Due to their relatively recent existence, the lighter weight classes were always going to struggle to create the interest that more established divisions do. Those divisions benefit from years of title bouts between some of MMA’s most recognizable figures. For instance, Matt Hughes, Georges St. Pierre, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell’s historic title reigns in their respective divisions garnered the UFC welterweight and light heavyweight titles the kind of prestige that simply cannot come overnight. That however, does not imply that time alone will heal this problem currently suffered by sub -155 divisions.
Look no further than the UFC lightweight division, which took years to finally truly kick off (after initially being scrapped altogether), and it took the coming of one BJ Penn – a well-known name who happened to be a former UFC welterweight champion – for the division to start amassing interest. In fact, Penn’s title reign highlights the importance of a fighter becoming the face of a division. The middleweight division for example, has become far more relevant due to its association with arguably the best fighter on the planet in Anderson Silva.
Jose Aldo has a decent chance of putting the featherweight division on the map, but his inability to stay healthy for two consecutive months is not only hurting him, but the entire weight-class. And while Dominick Cruz is unlikely to have that sort of impact on at 135, his long term injury dealt the bantamweight division with a major blow. It is too early to tell who will be the man to potentially carry the flyweight division moving forward, but if the crowd’s reaction on Saturday night is any indication, Demetrious Johnson faces an arduous task.
Jeremy Lambert: Night in and night out, there’s no doubt that the lighter weight classes deliver outstanding fast-paced and technical fights, but, as sad as it may seem, the majority of MMA fans don’t always want to see two evenly matched fighters display all aspects of MMA.
The more you move down in the weight, the less likely you are to see a finish. Last year when Jose Aldo failed to put away Mark Hominick and Kenny Florian, people started to doubt him and grow less interested in his fights because we’ve grown accustomed to Aldo running through opponents in spectacular fashion. Dominick Cruz has one finish in nine bantamweight fights (and that was by injury stoppage) while Demetrious Johnson is not known for his finishing abilities and likely won’t be putting anyone away at 125 any time soon. Even though Johnson vs. Benavidez was a fight that didn’t deserve to get boo’d, when a finish doesn’t seem likely over the course of 25-minutes, a crowd can grow restless. I believe that played a role when Faber fought Barao. After sitting through a long and dull undercard, the crowd wanted to see a spectacular finish or sharks coming from under the octagon. Faber and Barao weren’t the guys to deliver and the crowd turned on them.
It’s not that Johnson or Cruz or anyone in a lighter weight class isn’t trying to finish a fight, it’s that almost everyone in those divisions, especially the top guys, are so good that they’re able to avoid submissions and damaging strikes and because they’re so small, they lack the KO power of the heavier guys.
Samer Kadi: By very nature, finishes – particularly knockouts – are more likely to occur in higher weight classes. That however, is not the sole reason why finishes are less frequent the more you move down the weight classes. On average, lightweight, featherweight, and bantamweight fighters are more skilled and more well-rounded than heavyweights (excluding the absolute elite). As such, with fighters so evenly matched, a finish becomes quite the tall order. Both Benavidez and Johnson are generally very good defensive fighters, have terrific takedown defense, are extremely hard to submit, have decent chins, and not a ton of power. That is a recipe for a twenty-five minute fight.
Unfortunately, the culture of equating finishes with excitement and decisions with boredom continues to persist in the sport, despite the fact that most of MMA’s absolute classics ended in decisions. A fight like Benavidez-Johnson may not go down in the history books, but it was a highly entertaining affair. And yet, with so many grappling stalemates, and striking exchanges not looking like they have much behind them – for the untrained eye – the average fan will struggle to truly understand what is going on, as marveling at Johnson’s terrific footwork might be a bit beyond his understanding of the sport.
That however, should not lead to the false narrative of lighter weight fighters not being able to draw. Boxing has proven that with the right fighters, the audience can absolutely get drawn to smaller athletes.
Jeremy Lambert: Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. are unquestionably the biggest draws in combat sports today. Neither man has fought above 154 lbs and since 2010 they only have one combined finish, that being Mayweather’s controversial KO over Victor Ortiz. They are proof that fans have no problem paying to see small guys fight a technical and exciting bout.
These lighter weight classes are still new to the UFC and there is plenty of time for them to become established. It won’t happen overnight and they certainly face an uphill battle, but as long as they continue to deliver in the cage and get the right amount of exposure from the UFC, they’ll eventually get there.