On the next UFC card, flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and challenger Joseph Benavidez will meet for a second time to contest the title of finest 125-pound fighter on the planet. The problem for both men is that despite excelling in their field, a very small portion of people care.
It's not a secret—nobody is pretending that anything (spare Jose Aldo) south of 155 pounds is a draw. Think of every major pay-per-view you can remember. The ones which did well were headlined by welterweights and up. Outside of the superstars—the Anderson Silvas and the Georges St-Pierres—no one moves tickets in the fight world like big men who are going to swing at each other.
It is true in MMA and it was true in kickboxing, and it was true in boxing for a hundred years before that. Little guys are on the undercard, and big guys sell the tickets. Yet Demetrious Johnson is easily more technically skilled and well-rounded as a fighter than almost anyone in any division. Why is it that fans don't care about the little man?
Why is it that 380,000 fans will pay through the nose to watch Cain Velasquez beat up a hopelessly overmatched Antonio Silva for a second time on pay-per-view, but Jose Aldo can fight truly elite competition in Chad Mendes, Chan Sung Jung and Frankie Edgar and draw only half that number of buys in some of his appearances?
Absoluteness of the Heavyweight Crown
Half of the issue is psychology.
It is easy for those who follow the sport fanatically to say that Demetrious Johnson could outfight the average 180-pound guy in the gym or the guy off the street. But the guy off the street doesn't know that. He's programmed to think that he could "have a good go at" beating up Demetrious Johnson because he has 40-plus pounds on Johnson.
Ask any man who knows anything about Cain Velasquez whether he could beat Velasquez in a fight, and all but the most arrogant and delusional will realize they would be in the fetal position or playing dead within moments. Size matters, not just consciously, but also subconsciously.
The heavyweight championship is the greatest absolute. It was that way in boxing, and it is that way now in MMA. With no upper weight limit (in effect, though the UFC does force its fighters to weigh in under 265 pounds), the heavyweight champion has proven that he can beat the biggest guys around. Anyone in the world can earn a fight against the heavyweight champion; there are very few men who can't cut to 265 pounds.
Every other belt is seen by many on a subconscious level as almost a consolation prize—something which is qualified by weight. As if to say, "Hey, you may not be the absolute champion, but you sure do well against other guys of your weight."
You may contend that people don't think like that. Unfortunately, they do and always have. To give a classic example, I will refer back to the early days of professional boxing when weight classes and gloves were relatively young. George "Little Chocolate" Dixon, a bantamweight, and Joe Gans, a lightweight, were the first black fighters to win world titles. They defeated white fighters for the titles in 1890 and 1902, respectively.
Both men were enormously respected for their skill and accomplishments. But when Jack Johnson was finally allowed to compete for the heavyweight title and won it in 1908, all hell broke loose. The hunt for the "Great White Hope" began, and for years, rhetoric was repeated in the papers about returning the highest prize in pugilism to the white race. Whether you like it or not, the heavyweight title is a lot more important to people than the belts in other weight classes.
There's a reason that fans love to throw around the ridiculous moniker "The Baddest man on the Planet" whenever someone wins or defends the heavyweight title.
In truth, one of the few ways in which lighter fighters can offset this ridiculous obsession with the "take on all comers" aspect of the heavyweight division is to fight up in weight, as Manny Pacquiao has throughout his career. In the MMA world, B.J. Penn was, of course, famous for his competing outside of his natural lightweight class, as was now-bantamweight Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, who competed for most of his career as a successful lightweight.
Beyond the subconscious understanding that size matters, however, there are also noticeable trends in the dynamic of fights which cause fans to be more attracted to heavyweight ones and to care less about flyweight ones.
The Love of the Finish
While the heavyweight division is absolute, it also provides the most of what fans love: finishes. Casual fans watch MMA because knockouts are more frequent than in boxing, and the possibility of a submission from top or bottom if the striking is going south adds an element of come-from-behind excitement.
We may all be giddy from the brilliant showdown between Mark Hunt and Antonio Silva, but heavyweight fights by and large aren't great. The level of technical proficiency in each area of the game really isn't as high as in other divisions, the cardio of most heavyweights is atrocious, and the fights which go to a decision tend to be appalling affairs.
But heavyweight fights don't go to decision. The majority of the time, the two participants swing and one gets knocked out. Or they get tired, then one fails to see a punch coming because he's wheezing and gets knocked out.
Bantamweights and flyweights do not tend to gas out nearly so often as heavyweights. But because of their limited size, they lack the natural power of the heavyweights. If you're 250 pounds or more and you flail like Lavar Johnson, you can still floor a man with a sloppy connection.
The fact of the matter is that finishes just aren't as common in the lighter weight classes. Smaller fighters struggle to generate the power that larger ones do, even when utilizing their body weight fully.
If a lighter fighter can finish fights, he will have a far better chance of drawing attention than he would normally. In the boxing world, Prince Naseem Hamed was a divisive character, but his incredible punching power and flair brought interest to the lighter weight classes from casual fans who normally wouldn't care.
The same is true in MMA. Featherweight finishing artist Jose Aldo has far greater drawing power than Dominick Cruz or Demetrious Johnson. Were Cruz a featherweight and Aldo a bantamweight, I think this would still be the case. Aldo has successfully broken out from the image of the lighter weight divisions.
If John Dodson were the flyweight champion, or if Urijah Faber had remained undefeated into his UFC tenure, how much more interest do you feel there would have been in their title defences?
Pace is a Killer
A final point worth considering is that the pace of bantamweight and flyweight fights is downright alienating to even the most passionate fans.
In a light heavyweight fight, the fighters will engage a handful of times per round on the feet or enter a grappling exchange, and you can see exactly what is going on. That is not the case in the vast majority of flyweight fights.
Contrast any heavyweight or light heavyweight fight that you can think of with Demetrious Johnson vs. Joseph Benavidez. The first meeting between Johnson and Benavidez had everything you could want to see in a mixed martial arts bout. All manner of strikes on the feet, ringcraft, pivoting with counterstrikes, takedowns, switches, reversals, body work and guard pulls. Where else can you see a takedown into a jumping butterfly guard pass and a rolling leg-lock attempt in the same round? You name it, it was in that fight.
But it all happened at such a pace, and in such a relentless fashion, that fans struggled to keep up. It's my job to analyse fights, and I had trouble keeping up with what was going on in any exchange.
The pace of the fight is not helped by the fact that the Octagon absolutely dwarfs flyweights. Benavidez was repeatedly told to cut off the cage by his corner, but much of the fight was the two men running around the Octagon, nowhere near to the fence.
The hectic pace of lighter-weight fights, combined with the number of exchanges, is really what alienates viewers the most. The fact that very few flyweights pack one-punch power simply adds to the frustration which many viewers can feel when watching these fights. In a heavyweight bout, there are a handful of engagements per round and you are on edge when they happen. Anyone could get knocked out at any time. In the vast majority of flyweight and bantamweight bouts, there just isn't that same sense of tension.
I don't think we will ever reach a point where the casual fan will prefer to watch a bantamweight or flyweight title fight to watching a heavyweight or light heavyweight title fight.
Of the 20 top-selling UFC pay-per-views, just one was headlined by anyone below welterweight. That was B. J. Penn vs. Kenny Florian, and Anderson Silva was fighting on the same card. That being said, B. J. Penn is an excellent example of how to draw attention to lighter weight classes. In Penn's best days, the UFC had only recently reinstated the lightweight division, now it is arguably the most exciting and deep division in the company roster.
Penn's finishing ability and character, combined with his attention-grabbing fights at other weights, brought the spotlight to the lightweight division. Jose Aldo, through his finishing ability and undefeated streak, is in the middle of doing much the same for the featherweight division.
It is easy to point to Demetrious Johnson's and Dominick Cruz's lack of finishes and say that their inability to finish fights is stopping them from becoming major draws, but Jose Aldo and Renan Barao have been finishing world-class opposition for years and still only bring in pedestrian pay-per-view buyrates.
The truth of it is that the smaller fighters are always going to be overshadowed by the heavyweights. There will be individuals who draw more attention than the rest. Flyweight and bantamweight MMA will have their Prince Naseem or B. J. Penn, but for the most part, they will suffer smaller purses and less attention than the big men, and there is little that can change that.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.
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