The men’s 125-pound weight class has been particularly fun to follow in recent years with a plethora of entertaining flyweight fights and emerging fighters to admire. The top of the division has been somewhat in flux after former longtime champion Demetrious Johnson left the UFC and fellow former champ Henry Cejudo vacated the belt to focus on winning a second title up at bantamweight.
Flyweights were featured prominently at UFC 277 with an interim title awarded to a popular former champion, plus a top contender earning a Performance of the Night bonus for a scintillating first-round stoppage.
The results from Saturday night ensure the intrigue level within the division will remain high for the rest of 2022.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the current state of the men’s flyweight division and how the top of the weight class shapes up moving forward.
Deiveson Figueiredo: The current champion has been sidelined with a hand injury but was in attendance, belt on shoulder, taking in the action at UFC 277. Figueiredo is well-round like a champion should be but he also has punching power that separates him from his contemporaries. His power was ultimately the difference in his third fight with Brandon Moreno in which he won back his title. He is the most dangerous finisher in the division, however his size and frequent battles with the scale will always be a point of concern for the champ, especially as he gets further into his 30s. The Brazilian turns 35 in December and hasn’t fought anyone besides Moreno since 2020.
Brandon Moreno: The fan favourite earned a technical knockout win over Kai Kara-France at UFC 277, finishing the fight with a terrific body kick and flurry of follow-up punches in the third round. Now working with respected coach James Krause, Moreno looks like an improved version of the fighter who lost his belt to Figueiredo via unanimous decision in January – all three judges scored that fight three rounds to two for Figueiredo. The reigning interim champion is the only fighter to finish Figueiredo in MMA. Moreno is 6-1-2 since winning the LFA flyweight title in 2019 after he was initially cut by the UFC in 2018.
Alexandre Pantoja: The Brazilian did not waste a moment at UFC 277 with his foot-on-the-gas game plan that ended in a first-round submission win over former title challenger Alex Perez. Pantoja is 7-2 over the past four years with one of those losses being a Fight of the Night decision to Figueiredo. He holds two wins over Moreno and has done enough to warrant a title shot. If he is forced to fight in a title eliminator it could very well double as a chance to avenge a previous loss.
Askar Askarov: The talented Russian holds a 2020 win over Pantoja and fought Moreno to a draw in 2019. He is coming off his first loss in MMA, a unanimous two-rounds-to-one decision to Kara-France. Askarov hadn’t competed in more than a year and lost the decision fair and square, but he definitely wasn’t the best version of himself that night. Askarov is capable of defeating any 125-pounder on the planet on any given night. He has gone the distance in all five of his UFC appearances despite going a perfect 11-0 with 11 stoppages prior to debuting in the UFC.
SECONDARY CONTENDERS & TOUGH OUTS
A slight step behind Pantoja and Askarov is Brandon Royval. Yet another former LFA titleholder, Royval holds submission wins over Kara-France, Matt Schnell and Tim Elliott and his only losses in the UFC were to Moreno (due to injury) and Pantoja.
Kara-France is in a tough spot now with two losses to Moreno and Saturday’s was definitive. He had his moments at UFC 277 and is the only fighter to beat Askarov so he belongs in there with the best.
Alex Perez had himself an excellent 2020 capped off by a title fight with Figueiredo but returned from a long layoff only to get smoked by Pantoja. He’s still ranked in the top 10 so it’s not quite back to the drawing board for him, yet he needs to get back in the win column in his next outing. Kara-France would be a good next opponent for Perez, or it could very well be one of the names below.
Matt Schnell, Tim Elliott, David Dvorak, Jeffrey Molina, Tagir Ulanbekov, Sumudaerji, Rogerio Bontorin and a handful of other 125-pounders possess the skill sets necessary to hang with division’s best and each already has numerous quality wins in the Octagon. To enter the title conversation, though, this group needs to string together a series of wins over ranked opponents and ideally pick up finishes along the way.
One issue with this division and its relative lack of fandom over the years is the public and casual MMA fan base often does not appreciate more technical fights that go the distance, which happens often at flyweight.
FUTURE CONTENDERS/NAMES TO REMEMBER
Manel Kape, a former RIZIN champion, certainly has championship potential. He was tested immediately after joining the UFC, pitted against Pantoja then Matheus Nicolau. Kape is a finisher who knows what it’s like going three rounds with a top contender like Pantoja. His controversial split decision loss to Nicolau didn’t damage his stock or potential too much.
Nicolau is on a five-fight winning streak dating back to 2019 and is 3-0 since returning to the UFC roughly 16 months ago. He picked up decision wins over Elliott and Dvorak after his tilt with Kape.
Amir Albazi is scheduled to face Francisco Figueiredo, the brother of the champion, later this month. Francisco has not fought to the level of his brother. Albazi on the other hand is 14-1 and has not hit his potential.
Looking a bit further into the future and who might enter title talks in 2023 and beyond, two young fighters begin to stand out.
Muhammad Mokaev is coming off a dominant three-round showing against LFA flyweight champion Charles Johnson at July’s London Fight Night event. Mokaev is among the top prospects in all of MMA and a top-level wrestler. Mokaev has reportedly agreed to face Canadian Malcolm Gordon at UFC 280 later this year. Gordon has won two straight and has a significant edge in experience over the young phenom.
Highly touted Japanese prospect Tatsuro Taira won his UFC debut in May and is another with a high ceiling. Mokaev and Taira are both undefeated in MMA and just 22 years old, the youngest athletes currently on the UFC’s flyweight roster which consists of fewer than 40 competitors.
There aren’t many flyweight bout agreements currently signed on the dotted line, especially among ranked fighters, so the possibilities are many. With so much parity throughout the division there’s no shortage of potential pairings to consider. At the top, it’s easy. A fourth fight between titleholders Figueiredo and Moreno must happen next.
That rivalry is currently deadlocked at 1-1-1. If you scored the two fights that went the distance on aggregate, then Figueiredo would come out slightly ahead but Moreno secured a finish in his win. All that’s to say it’s been a back-and-forth series from the beginning. Figueiredo told reporters he hopes to return to action at the beginning of 2023 – ideally fighting in his native Brazil. Moreno said on the weekend he hopes Figueiredo can return by December so they be done with the rivalry once and for all.
If Figueiredo’s injury isn’t healed in time, or his return is delayed for any other reason, the UFC could easily pivot to a Moreno-Pantoja championship bout with the winner facing Figueiredo in a title unifier at some point next year.
Pantoja and Moreno both commented on Figueiredo’s appearance Saturday and Pantoja questioned his countryman’s desire to return in a timely fashion.
“He says he has an injury in his hand and finger, but he looks fat,” Pantoja told reporters after UFC 277. “He can run, lift, but I don’t know, maybe he needs to find a better place to train. But in my position, I need to go back to the gym, work hard, and stay ready for whenever the UFC calls me.”
If Figueiredo were hypothetically not ready to unify the belts and the UFC and Moreno did not wish to wait around beyond December or January then Pantoja would be the natural choice to step in and fight Moreno for his belt. It would be guaranteed fireworks and an easy fight to market.
Whichever directions the organization ends up going, UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard is going to be busy in the coming months setting up the next slew of matchups that’ll shape the division.