The main event of UFC 255 began at 1:04 a.m. on Sunday. Good thing for those who stayed up that Deiveson Figueiredo had our backs.
The Brazilian whose Portuguese nickname means "God of War" continued to beat his own drums, this time in the first defense of his UFC men's flyweight title. Figueiredo (20-1, 9-1 UFC) didn't even need two minutes to take down Alex Perez (24-6, 7-2 UFC) with a guillotine choke submission.
As it happened, you could almost hear the sighs of relief. Not only from all the old people like me who had deadlines to meet, but also for all the 125-pound fighters out there whose future in the UFC has at times appeared to be dangling by a thread. Well, dangle no more, guys. Because Figueiredo just pulled you all back from the brink.
Most of the people watching were excited and maybe a little surprised that the end came so early. Not the champ.
"I promised myself, and I told my trainer I was going to do this," Figueiredo, eyes glinting like a rancor's, told broadcaster Joe Rogan after the fight. "I trained for that, and that's exactly what happened."
The feeling-out process kept most of the first round a little slushy, but Figueiredo and Perez both landed solid kicks, with the champ probably landing a little more frequently.
Things truly got interesting during a scramble following a wayward Perez takedown attempt. As they tumbled, Figueiredo rolled to his back and whipped his arm around Perez's neck just as they met chest to chest. The champ pulled guard, and just like that had a deep guillotine.
It was a notable sequence for not just its technical expertise on the fly but because it was a novel display of Figueiredo's strength, a quality newer fans might equate more with his powerful striking. (For the record, he now has nine knockout and eight submission wins to his name.)
Perez knew he was in trouble, especially so early in the fight, when sweat is minimal and submission holds are easier to maintain. He seemed poised to slip out at times, but the champ's squeeze was simply too strong. (Assuming Figueiredo has mastered his sometimes-problematic weight cut to 125 pounds, get used to the champ having distinct physical advantages; he resembled a featherweight out there Saturday.)
Perez postured up to a kneeling position so he could slam or otherwise get Figueiredo off of him but couldn't shake Figueiredo loose and was forced to tap. The official end came at 1:57 of the opening round.
After the fight, Figueiredo called out Brandon Moreno, who earlier on the card scored a first-round TKO following a semi-freakish shoulder dislocation from opponent Brandon Royval. UFC President Dana White quickly confirmed to reporters that this would indeed take place, maybe as early as next month.
That gives us something to ponder: When was the last time White rushed to do anything nice for the flyweight division? It's been a while.
The flyweight division will always face headwinds in its attempt to win over that segment of the MMA community (like White) who tend to nod off if they don't get a new body on the floor every 20 minutes or so. The flyweights' finish rate will never rival that of the bigger guys. It's just science.
But there have been, shall we say, human resources problems as well, with UFC brass and the flyweight hierarchy sometimes getting in their own ways.
For example, Demetrious Johnson is a brilliant fighter and all-around good guy in the sport. He's the best flyweight ever and it's not close. He ruled the UFC flyweight division for six years—and feuded with White, who wouldn't win many secret-ballot elections for Boss of the Year, for much of it. He also didn't win a lot of stoppages, cut a great promo, or employ a particularly violent style. So, fairly or not, there was a sense of dormancy during Johnson's reign over the division.
Then there's Joseph Benavidez. Once again, a talented fighter and good guy of the sport. Sadly, though, he's found his way into the Dan Marino Hall of Fame thanks to a 0-5 career record in title fights, the last two of which came against Figueiredo. He may very well be the most famous MMA flyweight in the world, but he's still never inspired the kind of must-see fervor you'd get if he'd managed to win the big one.
And then there's Henry Cejudo, a great but charisma-deficient fighter who won the title from Johnson, defended it once, vacated it in February, then unceremoniously retired altogether in May. That's the kind of champion stock we're talking about here.
With all this in mind, the persistent bluster about the UFC possibly shutting down the 125-pound division seemed credible. But after Saturday, it started to seem a bit more far-fetched. Figueiredo's talent, physical skill and seeming all-around job satisfaction (he really likes to fight) all bode well for him as a new face and a new era for a division that badly needed both.
"For a while, it was gonna be gone," said retired heavyweight champ and broadcaster Daniel Cormier of the division before the fight. "But in comes a guy like Deiveson Figueiredo, a champion who can finish fights at such a light weight class, and that gets people interested."
Yes indeed. And now they're even more interested. But there's a "but," and it's one the UFC can and should address.
If the UFC really cared that much about their flyweight champ, or any main event, or their fans, you'd think they wouldn't have had him stepping in the cage at 1 a.m. ET on Sunday, as Figueiredo did. I'm no Albert Einstein, but there has to be a way to avoid that. You should be able to have 12 consecutive five-round decisions and still prevent that from happening. You can do this, UFC. It's the best thing for everyone.
Instantly granting Figueiredo's callout of a fellow berserker in Moreno, whose gruesomely unorthodox TKO landed him on the Saturday sports virals, makes a world of sense. Figueiredo can not only get it done in every phase, but you also can tell he enjoys his work. If he keeps it up, they could carve his likeness on the flyweight Mount Rushmore, not just as the champ but as the guy who saved the whole dang mountain.