Can You Kick a Flyweight's Butt? UFC's Top Little Guys on Their Biggest Battle

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterDecember 11, 2013

September 22, 2012; Toronto, ON, CANADA; Joseph Benavidez (left) fights  Demetrious Johnson in the flyweight championship during UFC 152 at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard for UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson to stand out in a crowd. Challenger Joseph Benavidez, who will look to take Johnson's title belt Saturday on Fox, has the same problem. Standing just a shade over 5 feet tall and weighing a mere 125 pounds, both are smaller than not just the average American man but the average woman, too.

Getting lost in the shuffle isn't just a possibility. It's a fact. The box office tells us so, and money, some say, never lies.

But why? Benavidez took a shot at answering what, for a pro fighter, can literally be a million-dollar question. Why haven't UFC fans embraced smaller fighters, rewarding technique and style over brawn and brawling?

"The only issue is the names, the recognition and the popularity," Benavidez said. "Because the division's so new. There's no lack of skill in the division at all. Our guys are just as good as any other division, they just aren't as known. They haven't been on TV as much. But there's amazing talent at flyweight. It's just time with these things, man."

But is it?

That's the question that lingers. Putting a finger on why smaller fighters—not just flyweights but bantamweights and featherweights as wellhave failed to thrive is hard, especially because custom and courtesy demand delicate words. It takes an amazingly dumb comment to get right to the heart of the matter, one conveniently provided courtesy of a friend's friend.

"Forget it," he said, making plans for Saturday night that didn't include the UFC. "I'm not watching guys who weigh less than my 13-year-old sister."

Disrespectful? Of course. Backwards? Maybe.

But like many questionable statements, there's an essential element of truth too, a boiling down of flowery words and deeds to the essential elements. As anyone who has ever watched a UFC show at a sports bar can tell you, some MMA fans divide the world into two distinct categories—people they can beat up and people they can't. And, believe it or not, they view professional fighters on the same spectrum.

When they judge Benavidez and Johnson, they find them wanting because of their size.

It's a ridiculous conundrum for these professional athletes who have raised cage fighting to an art form. But it's a real problem nonetheless, one I wanted to get their thoughts on. Were the two best flyweights in the world aware they had been dismissed by a collection of men with TapouT T-shirts barely covering their ample midsection? And, if so, did it bother them? 

"If some guy on the couch who's twice as big as me thinks he could beat my butt, it doesn't bother me," Johnson said, though his words and tone suggested otherwise. "That's fine. We can sign a waiver and make it totally legit. We can make it no rules or rules and figure it out. But I'm not out there to walk into Buffalo Wild Wings and let everybody know that I'm here and can kick everybody's ass just because I'm flyweight champion. I try not to think like that."

As anybody who has had the chance to work out with high-level flyweights can tell you, looks can be deceiving. Up close, Benavidez has legs like tree trunks, and when he gets top position on the ground, his 125 pounds can seem like an awfully heavy burden.

For a person with his level of skill, size just doesn't matter. It would take a forklift to get him off. But not every fan is going to have the chance to put a UFC star to the test physically. Fans have to believe, in their hearts, that the toughest 125-pound fighter in the world could whoop them.  

"When they're watching a heavyweight, they absolutely know that guy would kill them. You know a heavyweight can beat you up," Benavidez said. "But I think people think when they're bigger than you, 'Oh, I would beat him up.' In the back of their mind they, think maybe they could take us. They don't realize we beat up bigger people all the time in practice. How do they think we become so technical and tough?"

Beyond the meathead demographic, flyweight fights impose a burden even on fans who want to give them a chance. Watching Benavidez and Johnson fight can be demanding. You're forced to pay attention to carefully watch the subtleties that not every fan can appreciate.

Because the fights are more likely to go to a decision as fighters get smaller, a flyweight bout at a high level is often going to require 25 minutes of a fan's undivided attention. In the age of iPhones, that's a lot to ask. Things are moving quickly—often faster than the naked eye can follow.

"That's how I've always trained. To always anticipate what an opponent's going to be doing and to anticipate the body's natural reaction. When people talk about me taking angles, changing elevation and doing all this other stuff? I don't even realize I'm doing that. To me, it's just my fighting style," Johnson said, crediting coach Matt Hume. "When I spar him, something is always happening. Even when it seems like nothing is happening, he's setting up his next move."

Even the fighters can't always keep up with the action, relying on instinct and rhythms carefully honed in training. Sometimes it's action, sometimes reaction. For them, 25 minutes, when moving so quickly, can pass in the blink of an eye.

"When there's a little bit of a lull in the action, you can analyze what's going on," Benavidez said. "You can think of a combo or a takedown you're going to go for. When you get in an isolated position like a clinch, you can take a second to think.

"Other times? When they hit you or they shoot on you? After that, it's pretty much instinct and everything you've trained. Sometimes things go so fast it's just second nature. Especially in these fights. That was one fight where I looked back and think, 'What the heck happened?'" 

In their first fight, the two went back and forth at speeds impossible to follow with the human eye. Watching a fight like this closely, one with so much happening every few seconds, can be mentally exhausting for a fan unaccustomed to this style. The champion agrees that much of what happens in the cage may not come across to fan's more comfortable with a Mark Hunt slobber-knocker.

"I think a lot of people can get discouraged watching us because they don't understand. People get lost in what's actually going on," Johnson said. "A lot of the skill sets flyweights bring to the UFC can be lost in translation. Everyone is so evenly matched and we have a lot of skills that heavyweights or light heavyweights don't get to use. There's a lot more moving around, cardio and constant motion."  

The UFC doesn't seem convinced fans are ready to support the little guy. In its ads for the show, the promotion never mentions the weight class at all, simply stating the two will fight for the "world championship."

It's as if the UFC is trying to keep the fact that these guys only weigh 125 pounds a secret. Like Dana White knows if he broadcasts it, people won't watch.

Benavidez, for his part, doesn't think much is likely to change. Either fans will get it, or they won't. The sport, in the meantime, will continue to grow, with techniques and strategies implemented first by the little guys eventually finding their way to the big guys.

As fighters have gotten better and the sport has evolved, finishing rates have gone consistently down. You can't be a fan of either technique or bludgeoning—increasingly, technique is winning that battle in the Octagon.

You're on board, or you're not.

"It's always going to be the most technical division because everyone's smaller," Benavidez said. "If you don't understand the sport, what can we do? You don't understand the sport. Everyone can understand two guys standing there and throwing one punch at each other. But not every fan is going to understand the footwork and the movement and the combos and the scrambles. Even the takedowns and the ground work aren't understood by most fans, in any division.

"They can't necessarily see and appreciate everything that's going on. But as the UFC becomes more popular, people are starting to understand more. And as that happens, they're also going to appreciate the division more."

For fans already drinking the flyweight Kool-Aid, the rematch between Benavidez and Johnson has long been circled on calendars. Much has changed in the two years since the first fight, Benavidez believes in his favor. 

"It's a different fight. Watch my last two fights. I'm a different fighter," Benavidez said. "It's easy to say 'I've been working hard.' But what are you doing differently? We actually flipped our system upside down. It's not every day that somebody gets a whole new coach and 180-degree flip and revamp of their system like we have at Team Alpha Male. And I think you can tell and you've seen the improvements in the fights. It's been an amazing year for the team. The fact that it's all coming to a head, a culmination, here in Sacramento, it's just the way it's supposed to be, man."

Johnson, of course, doesn't intend to give Benavidez his storybook ending. All he'll say is that the first fight, a split decision in his favor, makes it easier to step into the cage with Benavidez again.

Benavidez welcomes the challenge.

"The great thing about this sport is that you have to prove it," he said. "There's no lying out there. You can't hide from anything. It's all truth in there. I don't just get to say I've gotten better. You get to prove you've gotten better and test yourself. He's the best guy in the world. I think I'm better. It's awesome because I get to prove it."


Joseph Benavidez challenges Demetrious Johnson for the UFC's flyweight title Saturday on Fox in his adopted hometown of Sacramento. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were acquired firsthand.