Kyte on UFC: Flyweights need more promotion

Chris Cariaso faces Jussier (Formiga) da Silva in an early preliminary fight that has flyweight contendership implications.
May 14, 2013, 2:49 PM

There are two fights on Saturday’s UFC on Sportsnet: Belfort vs. Rockhold fight card that pit top-10-ranked opponents against one another.

One, of course, is the middleweight main event between Vitor Belfort and Luke Rockhold, the Strikeforce champion who makes his long-awaited UFC debut. Don’t worry if you can’t name the other; it’s hard to pick out, what with it being the second fight of the night, buried on the portion of the preliminary card that airs on Facebook (and sportsnet.ca in Canada).

Watch UFC on Sportsnet: Belfort vs. Rockhold Saturday starting with the preliminary card at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the main card at 9 p.m. ET, all on Sportsnet ONE. In addition, catch three bonus online prelims at 4:30 p.m. ET on sportsnet.ca.

Jussier (Formiga) da Silva and Chris Cariaso are ranked fifth and seventh respectively in the UFC’s 125-pound weight class. The last opponent each man faced used that victory to catapult himself into a title shot – da Silva’s UFC debut came last October against the last title challenger John Dodson, while Cariaso’s last outing was a third-round submission loss to current No. 1 contender John Moraga.

A pairing between ranked competitors in any division north of the 145-pound weight class would never be subject to such early placement on a fight card, especially one as lacking in big-name talent and meaningful fights as this one in Brazil.

For comparison, Cub Swanson and Dustin Poirier are currently ranked in the same positions as Formiga and Cariaso in the featherweight division, and their battle on February’s FUEL TV event in London, England served as the co-main event. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Mauricio (Shogun) Rua are the fifth- and seventh-ranked fighters in the light-heavyweight division, and they will take the penultimate spot on the UFC 161 pay-per-view event later this summer in Winnipeg.

But here are two top-ranked flyweights, batting second, and not second-last. To add insult to injury, Formiga and Cariaso will be setting the stage for the night’s other flyweight pairing between John Lineker and divisional newcomer Azimat Gashimov.

I could understand if this card was laced with marquee names on solid winning streaks and a number of other fights that carry serious divisional ramifications, but that is far from the case.

The televised preliminary card is made up largely of fights showcasing Brazilian talents who are not yet “in the mix,” as UFC president Dana White is wont to say. Outside of the main card, there is only one other ranked fighter competing, and that’s Nik Lentz, who clocks in at No. 10 in the featherweight division and takes on 20-1 Brazilian Hacran Dias in the final bout on the preliminary card.

Everyone else lands at various points lower on the ladder, with fighters like Dias and Alcantara being on the cusp of becoming contenders, while others, like Paulo Thiago and Gleison Tibau, are perennial “middle of the pack” representatives of their respective divisions who take on an organizational newcomers and a fighter coming off a loss and a one-year layoff respectively. And yet their bouts are being televised, while Formiga and Cariaso are banished to an early afternoon online-only slot.

If you want fans to care about the division, first you have to show them that you care about the division, and as of right now, that’s not the message the UFC is sending about the flyweights.

For the sake of argument, look at the women’s bantamweight division, which has supplanted the flyweight ranks as the newest addition to the UFC roster.

In addition to the championship main event at UFC 157, Miesha Tate and Cat Zingano earned main-card billing, while Sara McMann’s debut win over Sheila Gaff was featured on the televised prelims for UFC 159. Alexis Davis and Rosi Sexton have a main-card position on the UFC 161 pay-per-view, and Tate’s return to the cage against Liz Carmouche will be featured on the main card of the July FOX broadcast. (No word yet on where the Julie Kedzie-Germaine de Randamie fight, which is also scheduled for Seattle, will land.)

Overall, the women have been prominently featured, and it has given fans a chance to recognize that the female fighters bring it just as much as the men. Potential future contenders are being showcased so that when the time comes for one (or more) of Davis, Sexton, Tate, or Carmouche to challenge for the title, fans will already be familiar with them.

It has been happening increasingly more within the lightweight and featherweight divisions as well, and bantamweight is slowly starting to get some well-earned shine. But flyweight remains out in the cold, and it’s going to come back and bite the UFC in the behind sooner than they think.

I hate to say this, but my guess is that July’s UFC on FOX event won’t produce very good ratings, and part of the reason is that fans are not in any way familiar with John Moraga, the man that challenges Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight title in the main event. The win that secured him this title shot aired on Facebook, and while he’s very much earned the opportunity to fight for the title, he’s the most anonymous title challenger in recent memory.

Rather than spotlight what turned out to be a title eliminator between Moraga and Cariaso last December at UFC 155, the UFC opted instead to showcase bantamweight Erik (Goyito) Perez, who made quick work of Byron Bloodworth. As much as Perez is a rising star, he’s not yet close to contending in the bantamweight division, while Moraga could be the UFC flyweight champion come August.

It’s not just Moraga either; it’s a division-wide problem.

Last year, eight of the 13 flyweight fights in the UFC landed on the preliminary portion of events, with half of those fights airing on Facebook. Including Saturday’s event, there will have been six flyweight fights in 2013, with half of them landing in the buried portion of the cards.

It’s hard to build fighters when they’re constantly being stationed on the opening third of fight cards. For better or worse, fans identify fighters competing on the main card as contenders, and when more than 60 per cent of the flyweight bouts that have taken place in the UFC thus far have been on the preliminary portion of the card, it sends a message that these are competitors you don’t necessarily have to pay attention to right now.

Except that they are.

Moraga is fighting for the title in July.

Joseph Benavidez is the top-ranked contender in the division, and could be next in line for a title shot, yet he just fought on the preliminary portion of the last FOX card before the likes of Lorenz Larkin, Francis Carmont, Myles Jury and Ramsey Nijem, none of whom are even close to challenging for championship gold.

Formiga and Cariaso aren’t too far out of the mix at this point either, yet they’re fighting on Facebook, while unranked competitors who are far removed from divisional relevance will fight before a television audience on Saturday.

The UFC needs to stop recycling recognizable names with mediocre records at the expense of lesser known talents who have greater long-term potential in the organization.

Whoever wins Saturday’s second bout will be a win or two away from being a championship contender. Only the main event competitors can say the same thing, so why are there so many other fights separating the two pairs?

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