UFC Flyweight Division Breakdown: Key upcoming matchups and names to know

Aaron Bronsteter speaks with Alex Perez ahead of his main event at the UFC Fight Night, including the frequent cancellations in the recent years, his company, Acai Republic, why he is called 'Mr. Krabs', and more.

This weekend and next, flyweight competitors headline inside the octagon, bringing the 125-pound weight class into the spotlight as the UFC returns following its one-week hiatus after a historic night in Las Vegas at UFC 300. 

For the last several years, the flyweight division has been a favourite of diehard fans; an action-packed collection of talent that still receives a boost in support on the basis of the UFC thinking about shutting down the weight class more than five years ago. 

After a two-year stretch where the title changed hands between Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno multiple times during the course of their four-fight series, a new era has dawned in the division, with Alexandre Pantoja seated on the throne, poised to defend his belt for the second time next weekend against Steve Erceg in the main event of UFC 301 in Rio de Janeiro. 

Perhaps of greater interest is the fact that several of the established names that remained stationed at the top of the weight class for the last few years have either moved on or are currently question marks, with an emerging class of contenders starting to gather momentum and support as they work their way forward. 

With all that in mind, it’s time to take a look at some of the key matchups on tap over the next several weeks and examine the names to know in the 125-pound weight class as we head into the spring slate in the UFC. 

Matheus Nicolau vs. Alex Perez (UFC Vegas 91 — April 27) 

Nicolau has been a Top 10 fixture since returning to the division after being a part of the talent cull when the organization was moving towards shuttering the weight class several years ago. He carried a four-fight winning streak into his clash with Brandon Royval last year in Kansas City, and returns this weekend looking to get things moving in the right direction again. 

Perez rocketed into contention after earning a place on the roster following a first-round stoppage win on Season 1 of Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS). He won six of his first seven appearances inside the octagon to land a championship opportunity, but he has faced hard times since. 

After losing to then-champion Figueiredo at UFC 255, injuries, medical issues and opponent withdrawals limited Perez to just one fight over the next three years, a first-round stoppage loss to the current champ as he was working his way into title contention. He went the distance in a losing effort opposite Muhammad Mokaev earlier this year, and Saturday’s pairing with Nicolau feels like a potential referendum on his future, with a strong showing likely buying him further opportunities, and a bad loss potentially signalling the need to take a step back in competition in order to regroup. 

Neither man has yet to show they can beat someone from the current crop of contenders and this fight will determine which one of these two divisional stalwarts will get another chance to clear that hurdle later this year. 

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Steve Erceg (UFC 301 — May 4) 

For a couple years, Pantoja was in a similar place as Nicolau is now — stationed as a top talent in the division, but unable to take that final step to establish himself as a legitimate title threat. A three-fight winning streak capped by his demolition of Perez at UFC 277 earned the Brazilian veteran his first championship opportunity last summer. He made the most of it, landing on the happy side of a debated split decision verdict in a clash with Moreno to claim UFC gold. 

Pantoja successfully defended the title for the first time back in December, grinding out a unanimous decision win over Royval to extend his overall winning streak to five and set up this opportunity to defend his title on home soil in the main event of UFC 301. 

Erceg is one of the most unheralded title challengers in recent memory and the next in a line of flyweight hopefuls hustled into championship opportunities despite a limited number of appearances inside the octagon, joining the likes of John Moraga, Ali Bagautinov, and Kyoji Horiguchi. But unlike that trio that stepped in to face Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson during the height of his dominant reign, Australia’s “Astro Boy” has quickly proven himself as a top contender and has a greater chance at unseating the champion next weekend. 

In less than a year on the roster, Erceg has posted a trio of victories, showing improvements and a clearer superiority each time out. After out-hustling David Dvorak on short notice last summer at UFC 289 in Vancouver, he out-pointed late replacement Alessandro Costa at UFC 295 in New York City, and then kicked off his 2024 campaign with a blistering second-round knockout of Top 10 staple Matt Schnell to literally punch his ticket to his forthcoming championship opportunity. 

Pantoja is a dominant positional grappler, but his decision to prioritize position and hunting for submissions over inflicting damage could come back to bite him at some point during this run, perhaps even as soon as next weekend against a crisp boxer and quality scrambler like Erceg. 

Tim Elliott vs. Tatsuro Taira (UFC Vegas 92 — May 18) 

This one gets special mention as Elliott is the preeminent veteran litmus test in the division and Taira is one of its top rising stars, and how things shake out will tell us a great deal about where each man stands in the careers. 

Elliott carried a three-fight losing streak into the summer of 2020, but since then, the former TUF winner and title challenger has posted a 5-2 mark, most recently submitting Sumudaerji in a bantamweight contest at the end of last year. The Missouri native has a funky style that makes him a tough out for anyone, but he’s also historically lost to the best competition he’s faced, which makes him a perfect measuring stick to station opposite an ascending talent like Taira next month. 

Unbeaten in five UFC starts and a perfect 15-0 overall, Taira showed improved hands in his second-round stoppage win over Carlos Hernandez on that same December fight card where Elliott put Sumudaerji to sleep. The surging Japanese prospect is still just 24 years old, but has reached a point where this type of test is in order. 

If he passes, Taira will establishing himself as a contender-in-waiting, and if he falters, there is still plenty of time to go back into the gym, continue working and build to the point of re-taking this test in another 12 months time. 

Other Important Names to Know 

What’s interesting about the flyweight division right now is that there are several key talents that are currently question marks, either because they’re on sabbatical, injured, or struggle to make it to the cage routinely. 

Former champ Brandon Moreno announced recently that he was going to take some time away in order to be with his family and regroup after a seven-fight run of five-round matchups, including six title bouts. He’s only 30 years old and has been a pillar of the division since returning to the promotion in 2019, and should return to that position whenever he opts to return to action. 

Brandon Royval bounced back from his title loss to Pantoja with a split decision win over Moreno earlier this year in Mexico City. He called for a rematch with the champion, which was thankfully not granted, but remains one of the top contenders in the division. 

Amir Albazi was targeted to face Moreno on that Mexico City card earlier this year, but was forced out of the contest after undergoing neck surgery. “The Prince” is 5-0 in the UFC and 17-1 overall, which makes him a legitimate threat in the division, though his time away could set him back a step or two in the pecking order. 

This weekend’s main event was supposed to be a rematch between Nicolau and Manel Kape. But after their initial clash this year was scuttled when Kape came in significantly over the 125-pound divisional limit, Kape was forced to withdraw due to unknown reasons, resulting in his being replaced by Perez. 

There is no denying Kape’s talent, but his focus, dedication, and professionalism can certainly be questioned, and continue to feel like factors that will limit the gifted former RIZIN standout until he genuinely addresses them. 

Muhammad Mokaev has climbed to No. 7 in the divisional rankings on the strength of six wins in as many starts inside the Octagon. The 23-year-old has been positioned as a future champion since arriving on the big stage, and a victory over an established contender this summer — how about Royval, maybe in July, in Manchester — could thrust him into the title conversation. 

Kai Kara-France is another perennial contender currently on the sidelines, having yet to return after being forced out of a clash with Kape last September after suffering a concussion. Many feel like the New Zealander did enough to merit the nod in his close battle with Albazi last summer, but as it stands “Don’t Blink” is sitting on consecutive losses, and will likely find himself facing someone outside of the Top 5 whenever he makes his return to action. 

And finally, keep an eye on both Joshua Van and Felipe dos Santos, a pair of young, talented fighters that appear to have bright futures in the division. The former is already 3-0 in the UFC and 9-1 overall after making his pr debut in October 2021, while the latter gave Kape all his could handle while replacing Kara-France at UFC 291 in Sydney last fall before getting a favourable decision in his sophomore outing earlier this year. 

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