B/R MMA 125: Ranking the Top 10 Flyweights in Mixed Martial Arts
There's something almost hypnotic about watching the UFC's flyweights in action. When the very best 125-pounders let fists fly, flitting around an iconic structure that suddenly seems enormous compared to the fighters within, there's nothing in the world quite like it.
Watching John Dodson fight Demetrious Johnson is perhaps the closest you'll get to seeing cobra versus mongoose in human form. The speed and skill on display are like nothing else we've ever seen in the cage.
Unfortunately, it's been two years since the UFC debuted its most recent male weight class in Sydney, Australia, and the results have been a decidedly mixed bag for the promotion. Artistically, the fights are critical hits. But at the box office, where real-world decisions are made, the sport's smallest fighters have failed to ignite interest among casual fans.
At the very top of the division where Johnson reigns, the fighters are as good as any in the sport. But on the margins, the little guys haven't been around long enough to sort the wheat from the chaff. Most of the UFC's divisions have a decade or more of history to draw upon, making it easier to gauge a fighter's relative level. With the flyweights, a bit of guesswork is involved.
This list is not a ranking based on past performance. Instead, these ratings are a snapshot of where these athletes stand right now compared to their peers. We've scored each fighter on a 100-point scale based on their abilities in four key categories. You can read more about how the ratings are determined here.
Disagree with our order or analysis? Furious about a notable omission? Let us know about it in the comments.
10. John Lineker
Age: 24 Height: 5'2" Reach: 62.5"
Fight camp: Emporium Team/American Top Team
Record: 23-7 (11 knockouts, 3 submissions)
Last Three Fights
Lost to Ali Bagautinov (Decision), UFC 169
Def. Phil Harris (TKO), UFC Fight Night 30
Def. Jose Maria Tome (TKO), UFC 163
Takedown Average: .55, Takedown Accuracy: 100%, Takedown Defense: 60%
Sample size is the key when evaluating John "Hands of Stone" Lineker's wrestling abilities. While his 100 percent takedown accuracy looks impressive at first glance, he's only attempted two takedowns inside the Octagon, successfully completing both against an outmatched Jose Maria Tome.
Defensively, Lineker has been taken down by every opponent with any kind of wrestling attack to speak of. Ali Bagautinov, an exceptional grappler, took Lineker down six times in their three-round affair at UFC 169, while Louis Gaudinot went 2-of-2 in the takedown department before submitting Lineker with a guillotine choke.
It turns out they don't call Lineker "Hands of Stone" because he excels on the mat. Who would have guessed it?
Submission Average: 0.5
In seven losses, Lineker has been submitted three times, and he often struggles to deal with his opponent's top game once he finds himself on his back.
Offensively, he is not much better on the ground. He's secured just three submissions in his 30-fight professional career, all via rear-naked choke. You're not getting anything technical or fancy from him on the ground, and his grappling game is almost invisible.
He wants to stand back up and bang, bro. That's his primary (and arguably only) focus inside the cage.
Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 5.26, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.93
How can Lineker represent the flyweight division's top 10 if he's so bad at wrestling and grappling?
That's a solid question. The answer? He hits extra hard. Super hard.
Lineker has knocked out three of his six UFC opponents and boasts 11 total knockouts in his professional career. He possesses one-shot knockout power in each hand, and he's capable of ending fights with body shots, too, which he showed against Phil Harris.
Smaller fighters don't generally have that kind of pop, making Lineker's exceptionalism hard to prepare for. It makes him a threat at all times against anyone in the division, despite significant deficiencies elsewhere. That's pretty special.
Lineker knows he owns devastating power in his hands, and he works to keep his fights standing in an effort to put leather on chin. It's a simple game plan, but it's one that has worked for him time and time again. He's the kind of fighter who puts ratings systems like this to the test. His score may be artificially low because he can make up for his shortcomings with fight-ending power.
Despite the potential to beat anyone in the division, he does not exhibit the professionalism expected from a UFC contender. He's missed weight three times in six trips to the Octagon, needing an extra hour to shed weight after weigh-ins to avoid a fourth before his most recent outing at UFC 169.
This track record is terrible and inexcusable, and it remains the most prominent question mark surrounding the 125-pound (give or take) fighter moving forward. It likely means Lineker will be forced into the bantamweight division. Will his power travel with him?
9. John Moraga
Age: 30 Height: 5'6" Reach: 67"
Fight camp: Arizona Combat Sports/MMA Lab
Record: 14-3 (2 knockouts, 6 submissions)
Last Three Fights
Lost to John Dodson (TKO), UFC Fight Night 42
Def. Dustin Ortiz (Decision), UFC Fight Night 35
Lost to Demetrious Johnson (Submission), UFC on Fox 8
Takedown Average: 0.84, Takedown Accuracy: 33%, Takedown Defense: 48%
While John Moraga's wrestling credentials are chronically and knowingly overstated by UFC broadcasters, he is still solid in that department. He has strong clinch work, which he can use to muscle opponents to the cage in order to set up his striking. He also has a good single and can use it to great effect against flyweights with questionable grappling.
Unfortunately for Moraga, there are very few flyweights who don't have formidable wrestling these days, a fact that has shined a light on his iffy takedown defense. He has been taken down in each of his three most recent UFC fights. Demetrious Johnson put him on the mat 12 times showing just how desperate his plight is against the best of the best.
Submission Average: 0.6
Moraga's spotty takedown defense is offset by his strong clinch work. Grappling against the fence, Moraga is good beyond his years at generating power from a short distance and delivering devastating punches and elbows in close.
When he is taken down, he has explosive escapes and is quite good at working things back up to his feet. He is generally sound from top position, owning decent ground-and-pound and some serviceable submissions.
Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.52, Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.93
Moraga actually owns some strong striking in the clinch. His elbow-into-uppercut combination against Ulysses Gomez was truly fearsome, like something out of a Street Fighter animation. Add some solid ground-and-pound, and the makings of a pretty solid striker are in place.
Lately, however, he fancies himself a boxer more than anything. He has some deceptively good tools standing, most notably accurate counterpunches and solid head movement. Unfortunately, he still struggles against smarter, more disciplined strikers, as we saw against Chris Cariaso and Demetrious Johnson.
He might end up becoming a very formidable striker in the future. Right now, however, he is still very clearly a work in progress. He gets hit more than he hits. That's the wrong ratio for long-term success.
Moraga has a relatively low fight IQ, perhaps courtesy of the simple fact that he's relatively new to this whole fighting thing. Less than five years into his career, he has his wrestling mode and his striking mode but hasn't quite meshed the two skill sets together yet.
The tools are there for him to become a force, and he is with a camp, The MMA Lab, which has turned out a UFC champion in Benson Henderson. In a year or two, Moraga could wind up being a threat to some of the top flyweights in the division. At this point, though, he just hasn't put it all together.
8. Tim Elliott
Age: 27 Height: 5'7" Reach: 66.5"
Fight camp: Grindhouse MMA
Record: 10-5-1 (3 knockouts, 4 submissions)
Last Three Fights
Lost to Joseph Benavidez (Submission), UFC 172
Lost to Ali Bagautinov (Decision), UFC 167
Def. Louis Gaudinot (Decision), UFC 164
Takedown Average: 4.21, Takedown Accuracy: 56%, Takedown Defense: 66%
Every division has that one gatekeeper who serves as a measuring stick for everyone else's wrestling. For the UFC's flyweights, that fighter is Tim Elliott.
He has solid takedowns and a smothering top game, making him a tall order for anyone without strong grappling of his own. He regularly utilizes the single-leg takedown and the body lock from the clinch to drag his opponents to the mat, where he can smother them with his powerful top game.
This was on full display in his most recent outing against flyweight standout Joseph Benavidez, where Elliott successfully completed all three of his takedown attempts in the four-minute fight.
Few have been able to remain upright against him with ease. Once an opponent is down, he has the skills to keep him there for minutes on end. However, Elliott's clinch game is severely lacking in either striking or takedowns. Worse, his takedown defense is by no means immaculate, as other formidable wrestlers have been able to get him to the ground in the past.
These defensive deficiencies keep him from joining the sport's elite grapplers. When it comes to putting people on their backs, he's already there.
Submission Average: 1.6
Elliott has yet to submit an opponent in the UFC, but it isn't for lack of trying. He often searches for the guillotine during scrambles, using the position to control his opponent's head and to set up a pass or to secure a dominant position from the top.
He was able to put both Benavidez and Ali Bagautinov into very awkward positions, and his lanky frame, coupled with his raw physical strength, could lead to some impressive submission finishes in the future. He has the skills and physical tools to make it happen.
Unfortunately for Elliott, we aren't rating based on what might happen down the road. He remains a work in progress at this time. If he can make good on his potential, he could wind up being a legitimate submission threat. Right now, however, he's a grinder with aspirations.
Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 4.60, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.06
Elliott's striking game is best described as "awkward." It's a description he embraces, and it's one that he honed early in his career while training with former UFC and WEC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz (remember that guy?).
While Elliott's striking game is not quite as polished as Cruz's, the similarities are there. Elliott uses his unconventional footwork to cut angles and to set up a wide variety of strikes, keeping his opponents off balance at all times.
Unlike Cruz, an extremely disciplined fighter despite all the flash, Elliott is unafraid to throw wild spinning attacks, flying knees and even cartwheel kicks on occasion. That's not always to his advantage. He gets tagged a lot, which is a product of his wide-open, throw-anything style. While he usually dishes the punishment more than he receives it, his striking defense contains some holes that high-level opponents like John Dodson and Bagautinov have been able to exploit. Like his grappling game, Elliott's striking is very good but just not great.
Elliott's awkward style makes him impossibly difficult to prepare for, and no opponent has truly solved the puzzle thus far in his UFC career. While he has lost three times during his run with the promotion, he has never been dismantled from bell to bell, and even in his first-round submission defeat to Benavidez, Elliott found success early with his aggressive, powerful wrestling game.
To his credit, he knows that he is a wrestler more than anything else, and his “shoot first, ask questions later” style is well-suited to his skill set. When he isn't charging for a takedown or perched atop a physically weaker opponent, however, he is vulnerable.
The pieces are there for long-term success. He has a steely chin, general toughness and good cardio, all of which are must-have intangibles for anyone looking to survive against upper-level competition in the flyweight division. Elliott's aggression and relentless pace cannot be taught, and these qualities will always work in his favor. Even though the former high school wrestling champion may not win every bout, his opponent will have to dig deep and fight hard for three rounds to emerge victorious.
7. Ian McCall
Age: 29 Height: 5'5" Reach: 64"
Fight camp: Team Oyama
Record: 12-4-1 (4 knockouts, 3 submissions)
Last Three Fights
Def. Iliarde Santos (Decision), UFC 163
Lost to Joseph Benavidez (Decision), UFC 156
Lost to Demetrious Johnson (Decision), UFC on FX 3
Takedown Average: 2.10, Takedown Accuracy: 30%, Takedown Defense: 84%
For Ian McCall, takedown attempts aren't just a possibility inside the cage. They are a certainty. He spams them like a UFC Undisputed newcomer who just figured out what that right joystick does—a game plan that has yielded both dominant and horrendous results.
The best of the best have fallen victim to his strong technique. He put Dominick Cruz, the former bantamweight champion with an 83 percent career takedown defense rate, on his back twice. Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson found himself in hot water four times in their first fight.
We've also seen him fail on 70 percent of these attempts. When he's on, he's on, but McCall's wrestling is inconsistent. More troubling, he's only landed three of his last 20 attempts. While this came mostly against the cream of the crop, that statistic has to open eyes about how he matches up with the best flyweights in the world.
Submission Average: 0.0
A powerful grappler with a heavy top game, McCall prefers ground-and-pound to submissions, and his grappling is defined more by control and solid fundamentals than by fancy guard passes and submission attempts.
The numbers say he's never attempted a submission in UFC action. At first glance, it would be easy to assume that McCall isn't super comfortable on the ground.
But numbers don't tell the whole story. Watch any McCall fight and note how he moves on the ground. He's comfortable. He's quick. He's nimble. The dude knows what he's doing once the fight hits the canvas, even if the stats don't reflect it.
Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.71, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.65
Since McCall focuses most of his time and energy in the wrestling department, it makes sense that he lacks an elite-level stand-up attack. Lately, he has diversified his striking attack, showcasing some nice kicks and feints against Iliarde Santos, but he'll never be confused for a striking prodigy.
His opponents almost always out-land him. In fact, the Santos fight marked the first time he's outstruck an opponent since 2007. But while he rarely outworks opponents in the stand-up, he does usually manage to avoid their power and any significant barrages. He's never been knocked out, even though he's fought a who's who of flyweight fighters since landing in the UFC.
Inside and outside the cage, "Uncle Creepy" lives up to his nickname. From his mustache to his interviews, he's just a weird man.
More importantly, his decision making in the cage is at times questionable. Most memorably, his entire career was upended when he had new flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson flattened out and just begging to be finished. Instead of pouring on fuel and looking to light the match, McCall used that opportunity to cheer and yell at the crowd for motivation.
Not smart at all.
At this point, you also have to worry about his capacity to stay healthy long enough to make his mark in the division. He's managed just 17 fights in a career that started all the way back in 2002. Injuries, drug overdoses and the grind of training may have taken their toll on him just as opportunity beckons.
6. Zach Makovsky
Age: 31 Height: 5'4" Reach: 66.5"
Fight camp: Team Extreme
Record: 18-4 (1 knockout, 6 submissions)
Last Three Fights
Def. Josh Sampo (Decision), UFC 170
Def. Scott Jorgensen (Decision), UFC on Fox 9
Def. Matt Manzanares (Decision), RFA 11
Takedown Average: 5.50, Takedown Accuracy: 45%, Takedown Defense: 80%
A former captain of Drexel University's wrestling team, Makovsky built his MMA game upon a foundation of takedowns, trips and throws. The results have been stellar to this point in his career, though much of it has occurred outside the hallowed confines of the Octagon.
He completes only 45 percent of his shots, but he is always looking to take his opponent down, frequently attempting more than 10 takedowns per fight. His opponents know that he will shoot, shoot, shoot, so they can tailor their game to avoid his strong suit.
Despite a certain amount of predictability, Makovsky still manages to grind out victories and overwhelm his opponents, and he is almost never bullied or bested in wrestling exchanges. His wrestling got him here, and it is has kept him undefeated in two appearances in the UFC.
Submission Average: 0.5
Makovsky's grappling game is solid, but he rarely sacrifices position to attempt submissions, resulting in a decision-heavy resume.
Perhaps as a result of this reticence, he's not super slick when searching for arms and necks on the mat. In many ways, you're looking at a 125-pound Jon Fitch. The skill to execute submissions is there; he just doesn't step outside his comfort zone to apply them.
Occasionally, he will get reversed or swept on the ground as well, and he was famously put to sleep via arm-triangle choke by Eduardo Dantas at Bellator 65. Makovsky is a wrestler at heart, and his grappling is largely built upon wrestling fundamentals, resulting in a modest but effective overall grappling package.
Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.00, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.67
Early in his career, Makovsky was a one-dimensional wrestler who happened to fight inside a steel cage. Like the best of the cauliflower-ear club, he's since added a nice arsenal of stand-up attacks to his repertoire. Against Scott Jorgensen in his UFC debut, Makovsky showed off vastly improved striking, tagging Jorgensen with a nice straight left and left uppercut throughout the fight.
Of course, nobody is confusing him for Anderson Silva. Makovsky absorbs punishment blow for blow as much as he delivers it, and his striking game is not flashy or outstanding in any single regard. But he has assembled a satisfactory stand-up game, and he can hang with his opponents on the feet long enough to set up his shots and impose his will on the mat.
With such strong wrestling credentials, that's all he needs to succeed.
Like most collegiate wrestlers turned professional MMA fighters, Makovsky's composure and calm under fire is exceptional. He's level-headed inside the cage and methodically works his way to victory, never rushing or exposing himself to any unnecessary punishment in the process.
"Fun Size" burst onto the UFC scene by taking a short-notice fight against Jorgensen at UFC on Fox 9, which he won via unanimous decision. This bout represented a significant challenge for Makovsky, but he handled it exceptionally well despite having less than two weeks to prepare, a point which perfectly illustrates his mental fortitude.
With his dominant wrestling base and serene, take-no-chances demeanor, he presents a problem for nearly every flyweight on the planet.
5. Brad Pickett
Age: 35 Height: 5'6" Reach: 68"
Fight camp: American Top Team
Record: 24-8 (7 knockouts, 10 submissions)
Last Three Fights
Def. Neil Seery (Decision), UFC Fight Night 37
Lost to Michael McDonald (Submission), UFC Fight Night 26 (bantamweight bout)
Def. Mike Easton (Decision), UFC on Fuel TV 9 (bantamweight bout)
Takedown Average 3.11, Takedown Accuracy: 56%, Takedown Defense: 65%
Pickett's career started on the national stage in Britain's now defunct Cage Rage promotion. It gave us the rare opportunity to watch a young fighter develop from the very beginning of his career—and he has certainly developed his game over the years.
When he started fighting professionally, he had no wrestling pedigree, formal or otherwise. Now, after years of training at American Top Team in Florida, you'd never guess he didn't grow up with the sport.
While he doesn't often pursue the takedown, when an opponent is reckless, Pickett will drop levels with a quickness, finishing surprisingly strong against even the best grapplers he's been in the cage with.
Submission Average: 0.7
There's a saying in MMA—iron sharpens iron. It's why so many fighters gather at places like Jackson/Winkeljohn's, the American Kickboxing Academy and American Top Team.
Pickett fights out of the latter, which means he gets to pick the brain of one of America's top jiu-jitsu minds in Ricardo Liborio and gets to spar and train with some of the best in the world on the mat.
You can see the difference in his growing grappling game. Although he's known as "One Punch," Pickett actually has 10 wins in his career by way of submission. He's most dangerous in the front headlock position. Although that usually ends with a guillotine choke, few hardcore fans will soon forget the rare Peruvian necktie he pulled off against Kyle Dietz back in the gone-but-not-forgotten WEC.
Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.35, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 4.58
We may be forced to throw out everything we think we know about Pickett's striking game. For much of his career, he's been an undersized lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight. That forced him to approach fights in a certain way, eating punches on the outside to force his way into the pocket, where he could swing away with powerful hooks.
Pickett has a good chin—and he needs it. He gets hit a lot and hard while trying to wade his way inside. Only his unusual ability to take a shot allows him to survive and give it right back to his opponent.
Now a flyweight, that could all potentially change. Against top fighters like John Dodson, Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez, Pickett will be a virtual giant at 5'6." Will that alter his style? It's hard to say.
He has been very successful with his current approach. It may be hard for him to justify making a substantial change this late in his career.
Pickett is a natural athlete, a former soccer player who has easily picked up any athletic pursuit he's attempted. It's been amazing to watch him develop into a great professional cage fighter, going from zero to 60 on the ground and becoming a well-rounded competitor at the highest level of the sport. His trainers call him the hardest worker in the gym, a fact he underscored by moving to Florida full time so he could continue his training between camps.
He also trains at one of the top facilities in the world, which is a significant advantage over foes from mom-and-pop operations. American Top Team is a melding of cultures, both linguistically and athletically. It has allowed Pickett to hone his wrestling with former WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown, his jiu-jitsu with a host of talented grapplers and his overall game with a fearsome cast of characters.
4. Ali Bagautinov
Age: 28 Height: 5'4" Reach: 65.5"
Fight camp: Jackson's MMA
Record: 13-2 (5 knockouts, 4 submissions)
Last Three Fights
Def. John Lineker (Decision), UFC 169
Def. Tim Elliott (Decision), UFC 167
Def. Marcos Vinicius (TKO), UFC Fight Night 28
Ali Bagautinov is an International Master of Sports in pankration, freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling and sambo. He's also the Russian national champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. While it's unclear at times exactly what all those grand-sounding credentials really mean, suffice it to say, he is very good in the clinch, very good on the ground and very good at scoring takedowns.
While his credentials may be shrouded in mystery, the video shows a fighter with a potent single and a strong double in the clinch. He is highly skilled at timing his shots when an opponent is pressing in on him.
Submission Average: 0.7
Bagautinov is wonderful at getting a fight to the ground but doesn't have too much to offer when it's there. He is skilled when it comes to staying postured in guard to deliver punches, but that is basically all he does from top position. Only occasionally have we seen him actively work for passes or submissions.
He has decent ground-and-pound, but it isn't deadly by any means. Considering how formidable his takedowns are, his lack of any real way to finish fights on the ground is a glaring flaw in his overall game.
Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.99, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.35
Bagautinov's boxing skills are not elite, but they are above-average and good enough to keep him in a fight until he can create the wrestling exchanges he craves. He has excellent timing with his right hand and was able to batter less-than-technical strikers like Tim Elliott and Marcos Vinicius with it. He also has some excellent striking in the clinch and is a wizard at landing punches on the break.
Looking at the statistics, however, you can see that he isn't untouchable. John Lineker repeatedly wounded him with punches when they squared off, particularly to the body. It's also worth mentioning that he lacks the one-punch stopping power that many other top flyweights own. That won't stop him from winning on the ground, but it does limit his growth as a striker.
The one big knock on Bagautinov, and it's a doozy, is his cardio. The Russian tends to go after every strike and every takedown with all his effort. That has left him winded in his UFC fights so far, and in a division where fans have seen Demetrious Johnson, Joseph Benavidez, John Dodson and even John Moraga go five rounds at full steam, that just won't cut it.
It will be interesting to see how he paces himself in his upcoming five-rounder with Johnson at UFC 174.
3. Joseph Benavidez
Age: 29 Height: 5'4" Reach: 65"
Fight camp: Team Alpha Male
Record: 20-4 (6 knockouts, 9 submissions)
Last Three Fights
Def. Tim Elliott (Submission), UFC 172
Lost to Demetrious Johnson (KO), UFC on Fox 9
Def. Jussier Formiga (TKO), UFC Fight Night 28
Takedown Average: 1.22, Takedown Accuracy: 24%, Takedown Defense: 51%
A former state wrestling champion at Las Cruces High School in New Mexico, Benavidez has long been considered one of the best wrestlers in the flyweight class.
The FightMetric statistics, however, tell another story.
The truth, as hack political pundits would surely tell us, lies somewhere in the middle. Benavidez does possess a strong wrestling base. Somewhere along the path to title contention, however, it's a skill set he's all but ignored. His focus these days is on landing the big right hand. He hasn't even attempted a takedown in his last three fights and was put on his back three times by Tim Elliott in his last bout.
Wrestling may have been a strength for Benavidez. But those days are long past.
Submission Average: 1.1
Like his wrestling game, grappling is no longer where Benavidez's bread is buttered. That doesn't mean "Joe Jitsu" is dead. Far from it.
On defense, he's good in a scramble, prioritizing returning to his feet when an opponent manages to get him to the mat. But just because he doesn't always seek out a grappling match doesn't mean he won't snatch up found gold. The moment his opponent makes a mistake, he is fully capable of exploding for a quick tapout.
He's finished three opponents this decade with his brutal guillotine choke, a specialty he and his Team Alpha Male compadres have mastered. Most recently, he out-grappled Elliott at UFC 172, finishing the bout with a guillotine from the high mount, trapping Elliott's arms and forcing him to tap out with his feet.
Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.96, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.14
There are good things to say about Benavidez's growing striking game. Primarily, his right hand is a devastating punch that can finish anyone in the division if he is able to slow them down long enough to deliver it.
Success versus failure often comes down to his ability to do so.
In his first fight against Demetrious Johnson, Benavidez was never quite able to maximize his strengths. Instead, all of his weaknesses came to the fore, most notably his penchant for leading with his face like Rocky Balboa and his inability to move laterally and cut off the cage against a clever opponent. Against Ian McCall in his very next fight, he mixed in hard kicks to the body and leg, setting up his power-punching game nicely.
Unfortunately, it's never entirely clear which Benavidez will show up. While he's earned his place near the top of the division and will continue to run through lesser fighters, questions remain about how he will perform against a fleet-footed opponent with a clever striking game.
The clock is ticking on Benavidez's title ambitions.
I can hear your skepticism already. After all, he's not quite 30 years old, trains with one of the best teams in the world and is still making mincemeat of high-level prospects and anyone with a discernible weakness in his game.
But the eighth anniversary of his first fight recently passed. And, if past is prologue, Benavidez will begin an inevitable decline as he approaches a decade in the sport.
Much is riding on whom Team Alpha Male brings in to replace departed coach Duane Ludwig. Benavidez improved markedly under Ludwig's tutelage, especially tactically. A new coach who can help him raise his game to Johnson's level may be the difference between retiring as a former UFC champion and eventually headlining a slideshow presentation of the best fighters never to capture UFC gold.
2. John Dodson
Age: 29 Height: 5'3" Reach: 66"
Fight camp: Jackson's MMA
Record: 16-6 (8 knockouts, 2 submissions)
Last Three Fights
TBD vs. John Moraga, UFC Fight Night 42
Def. Darrell Montague (KO), UFC 166
Lost to Demetrious Johnson (Decision), UFC on Fox 6
Takedown Average: 0.81, Takedown Accuracy: 27%, Takedown Defense: 80%
Dodson, twice a state wrestling champion in high school, approaches the sport of kings the same way he does everything else—with indefatigable positivity and startling athleticism. Early in his career, however, he was forced to compete at bantamweight and even featherweight, resulting in a significant size differential between him and his opponents.
The result was an attack that relied little on wrestling. After all, 20 pounds is a lot of weight to give up in a game of human chess. On occasion, especially when an opponent gets into a comfortable rhythm, he'll drop levels for a beautiful double-leg takedown like he did against Tim Elliott in a 2012 fight.
And, as you can see by the numbers, Dodson's defensive wrestling is still as sharp as ever. His takedown defense is nearly impenetrable. When he does end up on the mat, it's most often the result of a flying attack gone wrong. Straightforward wrestling is rarely enough to put him down.
Submission Average: 0.0
Dodson won his first fight, all the way back in 2004, by rear-naked choke. It's an experience he's only repeated once since. In fact, in his six-fight UFC tenure, he's never even attempted a submission.
Of course, there's much more to grappling than just finishing. Dodson, for example, has excellent submission awareness. Sure, he's never won another fight by submission—but he's never lost one, either.
Just as importantly, he is a truly impressive grappler when the fight does go to the ground. Matwork is not a key to his success, and so he avoids it at all costs. That in itself is a significant skill. He explodes out of trouble and back to his feet as well as any fighter in the game. Considering that's the best-case scenario for him, you might call that mission accomplished.
Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.68, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 4.08
People who say numbers never lie have never seen Dodson's FightMetric striking statistics. They say he gets hit more than he hits—and that's entirely misleading.
Those numbers are calculated in the aggregate and are skewed by one fight—Dodson's title challenge against Demetrious Johnson. "Mighty Mouse" out-landed Dodson at a two-to-one clip. More human opponents have not been so lucky.
Dodson is an explosive southpaw who is at his best when he's allowed to set his feet and really let fly with a dangerous left hand. Jussier Formiga, thought by many to be the best flyweight in the world, was only one victim. Eight of Dodson's 16 wins have come by way of knockout, fairly unusual for a fighter of his size.
Worse for opponents, his fight-ending left hand is far from the extent of his striking prowess. Even more impressive are his knees. He steps in nicely to meet pursuers with hard shots and isn't afraid to go flying in himself, launching all 63 inches into the air fearlessly.
The combination of powerful boxing and unpredictability makes Dodson one of the toughest fighters in the world to game-plan for. While fight fans often make gentle fun of UFC announcer Mike Goldberg's propensity to call any African-American fighter "explosive," in Dodson's case, it truly fits the bill.
Even among his flyweight peers, his speed and quickness are notable. Combine that native athleticism with coaching from Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, the most successful trainers in the sport's history, and you have a future champion in the making.
1. Demetrious Johnson
Age: 27 Height: 5'3" Reach: 66"
Record: 19-2-1 (4 knockouts, 7 submissions)
Fight camp: AMC Pankration
Last Three Fights
Def. Joseph Benavidez (KO), UFC on Fox 9
Def. John Moraga (Submission), UFC on Fox 8
Def. John Dodson (Decision), UFC on Fox 6
Takedown Average: 3.69, Takedown Accuracy: 55%, Takedown Defense: 61%
Despite a beautiful double-leg takedown, wrestling is not Johnson's strong suit. He was grounded by Ian McCall in their first fight, and bantamweight kingpin Dominick Cruz once took Johnson down 10 times in a single bout. Cruz, of course, dominated even the best fighters, making that poor performance almost explainable.
But Brad Pickett? He, too, put Johnson on the mat over and over again in a WEC fight.
The move to flyweight, however, has done much to improve Johnson's performance in the sport of kings. No longer completely dwarfed by opponents, he's better able to fend off takedowns. Just as importantly, he rarely stays still long enough for anyone to give the old college try.
Submission Average: 0.3
Very risk averse on the ground, Johnson almost never even considers attempting a submission. For him to give it a shot, success almost has to be a sure thing. In fact, in his Zuffa career, he finished the fight every time he attempted a finishing hold in a bout. If he sees a vulnerability in a foe, it's because it's there, not because he imagined it.
Training with Matt Hume, a submission ace from the earliest days of the sport, you have to assume that Johnson knows his business on the ground. But he's also one of the smartest fighters in the game. Trading position for a failed submission is a tactical fail—the kind of mistake he just doesn't make.
His modus operandi when the fight hits the mat is control. If grappling is not your game, he's not afraid to punish you there. Witness the 13 guard passes he pulled off against an overmatched John Moraga.
Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.32, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.90
There's something special about Johnson's stand-up game. His footwork is the best in MMA, as he switches effortlessly between southpaw and orthodox stances to cause his opponents mental fits and to set up his own potent techniques.
Fighting is about angles, and Johnson always finds them. More than that, he's the best fighter in the world at baiting his opponents into making mistakes. He knows what the other guy wants to do and sets traps to make him pay for following his instincts.
He let Joseph Benavidez chase him for five rounds in their first fight, offering tantalizing chances for the power puncher to corner him before countering smartly with a stiff right hand and then scurrying away or into the clinch. It was Johnson's true masterwork.
His striking game, however, is not quite perfect. He's good at moving around the cage and avoiding his opponents, but when someone manages to track him down, he's right there to be hit. John Dodson cracked him with several hard shots in their fight last year, giving future foes hope that it isn't all for naught.
Johnson's lack of punching power, exacerbated by his refusal to sit down on his punches, also allows fights to continue long past the point he's established dominance. And every extra second in the cage is a second that could lead to an upset, especially against opponents with the power that Johnson lacks.
Johnson is a brilliant fighter. No one is better prepared to take away his opponent's strengths. Even better, when things don't go as planned, he has shown a willingness to switch gears mid-fight, doing what it takes to win. It helps that his unrivaled gas tank allows him to continue fighting at an unbelievable pace for all 25 minutes.
While some of this success can be attributed to physical calculus, a feel for pacing and timing that comes easily to the greatest technicians, some credit is due to coach Hume. The guiding force behind many other successful fighters in their best years, including Rich Franklin and Josh Barnett, Hume is the most underrated trainer in the game.
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