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The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s effort to create fan interest in its beleaguered flyweight division has been nothing if not a continual struggle. Now over four and a half years in, the division has yet to produce a single fight that has captured the public imagination. With the 125-pounders needing all the help they can get, the UFC has pulled out the stops to try to get the division moving in the right direction. “The Ultimate Fighter 24” Finale on Saturday is an event the promotion hopes will produce the fruits of that labor.
Seeking to raise interest in the men’s flyweight division like it did previously with the women’s strawweight division, the UFC has turned over its longstanding promotional vehicle to a flyweight tournament of champions. The concept felt a little gimmicky when it was announced, but it has turned out well. Having champions from different promotions has led to a greater professionalism, which in turn has produced more in the way of compelling personal backstories and less in the way of immature hijinks. It has also meant a high quality of fights, with some significant upsets, exciting battles and plenty of finishes, to boot.
The primary goal of the season was to build possible foils for Demetrious Johnson: an immediate contender in the winner of the tournament, a next challenger in either Henry Cejudo or Joseph Benavidez and a group of future contenders from the tournament field. The early returns from the latter effort appear promising.
Hiromasa Ogikubo has come across as likeable and soft-spoken, with a dangerous ground game; Eric Shelton looks like he might have the biggest upside of the bunch and had made the seed-makers look foolish before being stopped by a questionable decision; Alexandre Pantoja did not make it to the final, but he showcased his Nova Uniao pedigree in the early fights; Tim Elliott was probably the biggest name involved, and he backed up his billing; and even No. 16 seed Brandon Moreno looked phenomenal after the show with an upset win over Louis Smolka on short notice. It looks to be a solid crop of new blood that will be injected into the division.
The returns in building up the coaches, Cejudo and Benavidez, have been less encouraging. Cejudo’s weird preoccupation with being a role model has been rightly ridiculed by Benavidez. However, Benavidez has come across malicious in the way he goes after Cejudo. Inviting Cejudo’s team to train with Duane Ludwig but only if Cejudo did not join them was a remarkably petty gesture. Neither Cejudo nor Benavidez left the season in a notably better place than they entered it. Still, the goal is not to craft public personas for either man but rather to get the public invested in one of them fighting Johnson in a rematch for the title -- or the winner of the tournament in the off chance Johnson is upset.
From Cejudo and Benavidez to the tournament of champions winner, all the efforts the UFC has made to build interest in the flyweight division lead towards “The Ultimate Fighter 24” Finale. Right now, there’s surely a lot of hope. There’s hope that either Elliott or Ogikubo is capable of giving Johnson at least a tough fight and vindicating the idea that the level of competition brought in by “The Ultimate Fighter” is strong. There’s hope that fans will react to these men and be invested in them after weeks of television promotion. There’s hope that either Benavidez or Cejudo will deliver the sort of performance that makes fans think he might be able to win the title if given another opportunity. Most of all, there’s hope that the division can evolve into something other than the showcase for a dominant champion who doesn’t connect with fans and a revolving door of hapless challengers. Maybe, after all this effort, the finale will be a turning point for the flyweights.
Unfortunately for the flyweight division, this wouldn’t be the first time that hopes and dreams went up in smoke on a Saturday night. For all the efforts to bring in new challengers for Johnson, he still towers over his division more than any other fighter in the sport. Elliott has come up short in the UFC against opponents who fell to Johnson, while Ogikubo was submitted by countryman Kyoji Horiguchi, who was in turn submitted by Johnson. It will take a masterful performance by either Cejudo or Benavidez to inspire confidence that a rematch against Johnson would go better, and even an exciting top-notch fight might not do the trick.
Perhaps at some point Johnson will catch on as a star due simply to his ability in the cage. It’s not inconceivable; Anderson Silva took years to become an attraction. However, until that uncertain day arrives, the UFC’s hopes rest on creating opponents the fans want to see challenge “Mighty Mouse.” That’s why it has put so much effort into this tournament of champions and why Cejudo-Benavidez is booked. The UFC has done all it can to prop up interest in a division fans didn’t ask for and haven’t shown any real desire to watch. Now the promotion can only watch and hope things finally break the company’s way. It’s no simple trick. Selling the flyweights, like dethroning Johnson, has proved to be an uphill climb.