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State of the UFC’s Flyweight Division

Vinny Craig

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Per the usual after a UFC title fight, I discuss the state of the division. This week it’s the Flyweight division following UFC 191 on Saturday. Long-time champion, Demetrius Johnson, showed his dominance with his seventh straight title defense. The division is pretty tight without setting up rematches, but the time is now to set up new contenders.

Champ: Demetrius Johnson

Mighty Mouse showed why he is the champion at UFC 191. He once again out landed John Dodson with 163 total strikes (compared to108 for Dodson) before getting his wrestling game going. You’re looking at rematches immediately if a contender doesn’t show himself soon, with future stars budding up.

Next In Line:

Joseph Benavidez- The only other Flyweight to challenge Johnson twice is making another serious title run. He has won three straight since their UFC on Fox 9 showing in December 2013 and has not lost to an opponent not named Demetrius Johnson while in the UFC. He has a tough match up in Ali Bagautinov at UFC 192 which sets the time table up nicely. If another title challenger appears in the time being, a match up between him and the next guy on my list is certainly going to happen.

Henry Cejudo-The former Olympian is back at 125 and looks primed for a title run. After missing weight in his last fight under Legacy FC, the UFC placed him in the Bantamweight division. He would return to the 125-pound division in his next fight where he has won his last two. He has a fight scheduled with Jussier Formiga at Fight Night Monterrey in November. A win there would put him right in the thick of things, most likely a title shot or title eliminator with Joseph Benavidez if he wins his fight as well.

The Present:

Zach Makovsky: The former Bellator Bantamweight champion starts off the few fighters that could get title shots quickly. Yes, he has lost 2 of his last 3 and is only 2-2 in the UFC, but he could make that run right now. His showing against John Dodson at UFC 187 was pretty good and showed he can compete with the divisions elite. He should look for a top 10 opponent and then a top 5 opponent to fast track him to the title shot.

Ian McCall: Another guy who is coming off a loss on the list? A Johnson-McCall III could be a thing in the future after the sorting of the elite. A win over John Lineker at UFC 183 would have for sure done him good with three straight wins. But now he sits having won 2 of his last 3 and could make a run with an impressive win or two. A match up with Makovsky would be ideal in sorting the bottom-of-the-top.

Jussier Formiga: One of the original Flyweights is finally making his mark. He’s a winner of 3 straight over tough competition and has been rewarded (or reaping the consequences) of a title-eliminator against Henry Cejudo. After this fight, we will see a clear contender between Formiga, Cejudo, Benavidez and Ali Bagautinov. He was in a title-eliminator in 2012 where he lost by TKO to John Dodson. Since that fight, he is 4-1 with the lone loss coming to Benavidez.

John Dodson: Can you see what kind of division this is? All three guys that are future title challengers are coming off a loss. Dodson was a winner of 3 straight before losing his second title fight to the champ. DJ’s supposed ‘toughest test to date’ once again came up short in a decision call and walked off with the loss. It will take at least 4 more wins for the Ultimate Fighter Season 14 winner to make another run for his chance at UFC gold.

The Future:

Dustin Ortiz: The division is rich in guys that could potentially fight for a title. Ortiz is one of them being just 26 years old. He is a winner of 3 of his last 4 with the lone loss to Joseph Benavidez. He could be catapulted with a win, just like Chris Cariaso was. An opponent with name value and rankings would be his best bet in getting the title shot as quickly as possible, while the division is still under construction.

Kyoji Horiguchi: Horiguchi just fought for the belt in April and was dominated before finally being finished with one second left. He was a winner of 4 straight in the UFC before that and was given his title shot out of necessity. A win at Fight Night 75 would keep his name right here, but the 24-year-old has almost no name recognition and would need some big wins before stepping into the Octagon for a title fight again.

Ray Borg: The true meaning to the word future comes in play with this 22-year-old. Borg is a winner of 3 straight and looks better each time. He just recently cracked the top 15 and has a ton of name recognition ahead of him to set up with. He would be a great addition to any fight night card and will look to climb the latter ahead of the others.

Paddy Holohan: The Irish sensation is just 27 years old with low mileage on him. After starting out his career 10-0 with 1 draw, a tough Fight of the Night battle with Chris Kelades in Nova Scotia derailed his undefeated record. He has won his last two by decision and looks to make it three straight in Dublin when he faces Louis Smolka. The former Cage Contender fighter is still young in age and in fights with a tremendous up side to him. He is teammates with Interim Featherweight champion Conor McGregor and see first-hand what it’s like to be a champ.

Long Shot:

John Lineker: A talented fighter with three straight wins over ranked opponents, Lineker is very impressive with his hands. He has 7 of his last 8 fights, so why is he a long shot for the title? He is a long shot to ever fight at 125 again after having one of the craziest 2 minutes I’ve ever seen with Francisco Rivera. He missed weight 3 times while in the Flyweight division while racking up win after win. He was a title contender before moving up, but if he ever figures out how to make the weight he would be one of the best Flyweights again.

Ali Bagautinov: The former title challenger has been out over a year for testing positive for PED’s. His last fight was the title loss to Johnson where he was dominated for five rounds. He had 3 straight wins in the UFC before that and 11 overall. He is still a top fighter but has fallen out of contention while others have passed him up. If he wins the fight with Benavidez he has next month, he could be on the quick path to success.

Chris Cariaso: A winner of 3 straight to gain a title fight at UFC 178, the former Bantamweight has fallen to two straight foes in Mighty Mouse and Henry Cejudo. The UFC has taken a step back on the aging Flyweight as they give him Sergio Pettis at UFC 192. He has faced the divisions best and hasn’t fared so well in tough fights going 0-4 against the division’s top 10.

The Breakdown

The dominating win for Johnson over Dodson for his seventh straight title defense makes DJ seem invincible. With only two clear contenders, the division is wide open with a champion who likes to stay busy. We have seen title shots go to guys that no one expected (Cariaso and Bagautinov) and the outcome is the same. Look for the young guys to make strides towards the top, but the original six of Johnson, Benavidez, McCall, Moraga, Formiga and Dodson are all guys they should be facing to get title shots first. The news guys like Cejudo, Borg, Makovsky and Horiguchi are still making names for themselves. Final thought is that Demetrius Johnson is one great fighter, with a very shallow division and two guys that can beat everyone else but him.

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Fight Announcements

Jacare Souza vs. Kelvin Gastelum Official for UFC 224

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Brazils second UFC event of the new year added another middleweight contest. UFC officials announced, Kelvin Gastelum will face Jacare Souza in Rio de Janeiro at UFC 224.

The inevitable main card booking of Souza comes after headlining UFC on Fox 27. The Brazilian fighter is 3-2 in his last 5. His recent contests only look worrisome in comparison to the entirety of his long career. Prior to his past 5, Souza held an eight fight win streak. In that period of time, he defeated Gegard Mousasi, Derek Brunson (for the first time), and Chris Camozzi twice. Despite the drama words and numbers on screens create, his recent record is nothing to have concern over. A split decision loss to Yoel Romero in 2015, and a 2017 TKO loss to division champion, Robert Whittaker is manageable. Defeating Derek Brunson in the opening round of their main event bout kept him deep in the milky opaque froth that is the middleweight title picture. Clearly his position in that photo lies upon the upcoming match up.

Looking ahead for Jacare Souza, assuming he wins, becomes interesting, just as it devastating for Kelvin Gastelum. Gastelum is 3-1 since returning to middleweight, technically his record sits at 2-1 and 1 No Contest. He tested positive for marijuana in a sample collected the night of his bout against Vitor Belfort by USADA in March of 2017. Originally, the outcome of the bout read the way viewers remembered it; a 1st rd. TKO in favor of Gastelum. On May 7th, 2017, the win was officially overturned and changed to a No Contest. He also received a 90 day suspension, adjusted to the day of the failed test (March 11th).

In the aftermath of the failed test, his scheduled contest against Anderson Silva. He then split his next two contests, losing to Chris Weidman and defeating Michael Bisping emphatically, yet under odd circumstances. A win for Gastelum certainly muddies the waters of middleweight contenders, while adding to a good 185 lb. resume.

UFC 224 takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 12th, 2018 at the Jeunesse Arena. A battle betwen Brazilians is set for the date as Lyoto Machida takes on Vitor Belfort. Other featured bouts include; Aleksei Oleynik vs. Junior Albini*, Cezar Ferreira vs. Karl Roberson*, Alberto Mina vs. Ramazan Emeev, and Davi Ramos vs. Nick Hein*.

*Bouts reportedly set for UFC 224

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Exclusive: Mike Ekundayo, “He could come with anything, I don’t care”

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In a little less than a week, Rise of Champions crowns its inaugural bantamweight champion. The crowning of the first 135 lb. champion marks the young promotions first champion. It makes sense why the promotion owned and operated by UK MMA star, Brad Pickett, and Team Titan head coach, Mickey Papas plan to crown the promotions first champion in the bantamweight division. Pickett competed in the division throughout his tenure with the WEC, and ultimately the entity which absorbed the light weight promotion, the UFC. Even more-so, two young and rising prospects of the division. One undefeated in his professional and amateur career, the other riding a seven consecutive victories, five by submission. The two meet February 17th, Mike Ekundayo puts his career unbeaten streak up against Jonas Magard’s at ROC 5, for the aforementioned, inaugural bantamweight championship.

Speaking to the undefeated Ekundayo before his fight, he believes this opportunity to be inevitable. Born in Hackney, (a borough of London) early in life, Ekundayo was no stranger to cramming his belongings into large cardboard boxes. At the age of 7, he moved from Hackney to Herne Hill, a district located in South London. Two years later he found himself in similar situation, moving from his vaguely new home in Herne Hill to Brixton. A road trip in the car to his new home, took approximately 5 minutes.

It is admittedly, not an easy life. In a harrowing article describing the horrors of gang life in London by the metro.uk, former gang member turned community activist, made the claim, “When you are from Brixton, from Peckham, west London, anywhere in London, you are seeing hardship where a lot of communities can’t reach their full potential”.

In his own words, Ekundayo describes his home as, “not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing”. But that couldn’t matter any less for him. Not only does the London resident consistently work to grow his potential, he gets to see it every day. His coaches Brad Pickett and Mickey Papas hold the knowledge as well as first-hand experience, increasing his limits with every session. “We’re all close”, speaking of his coaches and team. “My head coach is Mickey Papas, he’s very knowable in the game. He’s been around for a very long time. He teaches me a lot, I can learn a lot of stuff from Mickey Papas. Sometimes I just think, how does he know all of this? Where did he get this information from?”

He continued, “While I was coming up through amateur, Brad (Pickett) was still an active fighter, but nowadays he’s taken a coaching approach. So he’s coaching us prospects getting us to where he got to and further… He’s been through it all, gotten to the top, and stayed at the top”.

Further discussing his coach, “For UK MMA, you could definitely call Brad a legend. He’s done a lot in his career, and someone who I rate highly as an MMA fighter is Demetrious Johnson, and of course Brad has got a win over (him). I feel like just being surrounded by someone like Brad, you’re working towards the right things. When he passes information onto you, you respect it that bit more because of far he got in his career. He’s definitely given me the right guidance, I trust his guidance”.

When it comes to the upcoming title fight, confidence poured out from where praise and respect had once been. “I just think it’s my time, to be honest. I really do believe it’s my time for all of this. The work I put in, certain things become inevitable”, he said. “I actually called this after I won my third fight, I called for belts and big shows. I spoke it to existence”. He continued, “It’s my time to finally to get a strap of some sort. All the straps is what we’re going for, all of them. We’re going for every one”.

“Rise of Champions is my show… That’s how I feel when I’m performing on ROC, it’s just my show, it’s my time to shine. Everyone knows who there here to see, there not really there to see the other guys. It’s my time, it’s my show and I’m going to put on a show on February 17th and I’m going to win that belt”.

The infectious nature of his positive attitude was palpable. Although we only spoke through small rectangular devices, I could feel his energy in the room. His attitude shined brightest when talking about what it would mean to be the first ever ROC Bantamweight champion. Ekundayo claimed, “It just means a lot to have my first belt in anything to be honest… Within myself, I call myself a champion, every day. But now, other people would have to call me a champion because I’ve got a belt… And one thing I really want to do is, which sounds a bit weird, I just want to take the belt home to my area, to Brixton.”

“I just want to take it to my area, and just show the people of that area what hard work can achieve… I want to just take it to my people and show them that not for nothing, we are from Brixton, it’s not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing but you can rise above it and you can achieve your goals and that’s what the belt will mean”.

When the conversation shifted to the topic of his opponent, Ekundayo had less encouraging words rolling off his tongue. Jonas Magard, the second half of the ROC 5 main event, holds a record of 7-4. Currently he owns a seven fight win streak after starting his career 1-3. Ekundayo thought, “He did fight quite decent guys in his three loses… but in the seven fight win streak, none of his opponents have been of caliber”.

He elaborated further, “What’s in my thoughts is more me, then it is of him. So, he could come with anything, I don’t care. I’m just focused on how I’m going to be picture perfect. How I’m going to paint a masterpiece, how I’m going to make it a beautifully perfect performance. That’s what my primary focus is on, so what he does to me is irrelevant, I’m just going to focus on how I’m going to be perfect on the night of February 17th”.

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Announcement

UFC 222 Re-Worked with Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya, and Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega

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UFC 222 has been saved, and it didn’t take a superhero to lift the burning boulder which was Max Holloway’s injury and withdrawal. All it took was a female named Cyborg and a man with a demeanor so smooth, he could be mistaken for an alter-ego. Cris Cyborg now serves as the UFC 222 main event when she defends her featherweight belt against Yana Kunitskaya. Frankie Edgar bumped down to the co-main event to face Brian Ortega in what is likely a title eliminator. The news of the UFC 222 revival originally stemmed from a report by MMAFighting.com and confirmed later in the evening by the UFC.

Over the course of the week, reports surrounded the Las Vegas card and whether it would survive. Multiple options were reportedly being mulled over; cancelling the card outright, changing the pay-per-view (PPV) to a ‘Fight Night’ with an Edgar vs. Ortega main event, Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt 2 main event, among others. Ultimately, the promotion landed on Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya as the new main event, while also booking Brian Ortega.

This adjustment of the card places their women’s Featherweight champion in the second PPV main event in three months. Cris Cyborg recently put her undisputed Featherweight title on the line against Holly Holm at the year ending card, UFC 219. She successfully defended her belt by unanimous decision, in what was an amazing technical display from the Brazilian. In her octagon career, Cyborg is undefeated in her four appearances with three KO/TKO stoppages.

The second half of the new main event, Yana Kunitskaya, makes her UFC debut against the scariest women on the roster. If the 145 lb. champion was not enough of a challenge, Kunitskaya also makes her first appearance in the division since defeating Cindy Dandois in December of 2010. Of Russia descent, her most recent performances came inside the Invicta FC cage. At the female-only promotion, she posted a record of 1-1, with 1 No Contest. Her loss and no contest, both came at the hands of former UFC Featherweight title challenger, Tonya Evinger.

Turning to the co-main event, both fighters have been relatively inactive but, for good reason. Brian Ortega amazingly forced perennial men’s Featherweight contender, Cub Swanson, to tap in the second round of their ‘Fight Night: Fresno’ contest. Ortega fought twice in 2017, but more-so stayed inactive following his stoppage victory over Swanson. The Californian contender announced his desire to wait in line for the next title shot following the recent victory.

For Frankie Edgar, his last fight took place at UFC 211 when he absolutely demolished young and rising star, Yair Rodriguez. A card which took place last May. While Ortega holds an undefeated record, Edgar is undefeated in his previous 9 fights, excluding people named Jose Aldo.

UFC 222 takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 3rd.

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