MMA's flyweights loaded with skill, but need time to attract masses

Joe Camporeale-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Some will view the booing that took place in UFC's last two major flyweight fights as a sign people won't accept fighters of that size. That may not be the case, but it's going to take time before they become viable headliners.

John Dodson decisively won himself a shot at the flyweight title on Friday night in Minneapolis. But in the secondary goal, to win the fans over when it comes to himself and the division as a whole, the best that can be said is his explosive finish saved a fight the fans weren't liking.

Dodson (15-5) and Jussier da Silva Formiga (14-2) went more than eight minutes of quick movement and almost no connecting. The crowd started booing early and kept it up until Dodson scored his first knockdown with a left in the fight's ninth minute. A second knockdown, also with a left, hurt Formiga enough that Dodson felt confident going to the ground against the jiu-jitsu specialist, and pounded him out for the win.

In knocking Formiga down with the first two hard punches in the fight that landed, Dodson was able to make a statement to those who complained about a 125 pound division consisting of people who have no knockout power. But even with the finish, and Dodson's trying to entertain the fans by running up the cage and doing a front flip before landing, he didn't fully win over a skeptical crowd at the Target Center.

When it comes to the flyweight division, which debuted in the UFC in March, it's going to be a slow building process.
People have to learn and care about the top names and see the championship bouts as something special. The current UFC audience hasn't fully embraced featherweight sand bantamweights, brought over at the start of 2011, as far as being willing to buy them as pay-per-view headliners. It will take more time for the flyweights, who didn't have an established division on television in the old World Extreme Cagefighting promotion before being brought over.

The new flyweight division started with first champion Demetrious Johnson (16-2-1) and Joseph Benavidez (16-3) as the two stars. They had been two small bantamweights, both good enough to earn a title shot at Domnick Cruz, each losing via decision. They were visibly undersized in that division and were joined by a few newcomers who were ranked at the top in the world before UFC established the division, like Ian McCall (11-3-1) and Formiga. Dodson and green-haired Louis Gaudinot (6-2) came from a third group, small bantamweights who fought in season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter reality show.

Dodson will now face Johnson for the title. UFC President Dana White after the show couldn't specify a timetable as to when the fight would happen. This would be, without question, the two quickest fighters ever matched up in a UFC championship bout. Dodson pointed that out right away.

"I'm going to challenge his speed and see how fast he can go," said Dodson. "I'm going to push him where his strength is. I want to make sure I can keep up with him because I know that's where he can push it. I want to push it faster and harder so we can both be exhausted when that fifth round comes around."

Johnson's win over Benavidez two weeks ago in Toronto to make him the first champion also got booed, and it's easy to tie the reactions together.

Tthat was a polarizing fight that some thought was the best fight at UFC 152. Others thought differently. But what happened in the first eight minutes of Dodson vs. Formiga would have been booed by most crowds, whether they were small guys or big guys fighting a bout with little engagement. It wasn't a reaction that crowds don't want to see smaller fights. They were just fine with Darren Uyenoyama vs. Paul Harris earlier on the show. And it's not like it was the only lackluster fight on the show, nor the only fight booed heavily at points.

Sure, there was a point as Dodson and Formiga kept darting back and forth while neither committed to anything in a nothing-happening first round that different thoughts were going through my head. What if two guys were so fast, so skilled and so well conditioned that neither can connect with the other through a three-round fight? And sure, it wouldn't be hard to recognize they were great fighters, but they would still be having a lousy fight. While some will be impressed with the skill of avoiding all attacks from their opponent, they are going to be the distinct minority.

Dana White, after the show on the Fuel wrap-up, was unhappy with the fan reaction once again.

"It's crazy, another fight that's very important to both fighters, the guy who wins is going to get a title shot, and you get seven or eight beers in a guy and he thinks they're supposed to run in crazy on each other with windmills," said White. "He (Dodson) fought a very good technical fight. They were going back-and-forth, and finally he clips him and ends the fight. Let these guys fight for a minute without booing them."

People who come from a boxing background can't even entertain the idea that fans won't accept fighters because they are small. In that sport, lighter weight fights have always had the most action. In recent years, it's fighters less than 155 pounds who have dominated the big fights and drawn the most attention and money. They can only see ignorance when some UFC fans complain about the size of the guys.

Yet, UFC and boxing have completely different audiences. Boxing in the U.S. has been carried for years by Hispanic fans, who culturally have always supported smaller, gutsy athletes. For the most part, with obvious exceptions such as the night Cain Velasquez faced Junior Dos Santos last year, that audience hasn't fully warmed up to MMA yet.

UFC fans have been always about wanting to see guys who they perceive as bad asses lock horns. And no matter how much athletic skill is involved, that's difficult for some to accept of guys who are 5-foot-2, and they hear the number of 125 pounds, darting back-and-forth.

"They were booing and I was trying to make sure I can pick my shot," said Dodson. "He's (Formiga) the No. 1 guy who was unsigned. He was No. 1 (in the world) previously, before (Ian) McCall and Demetrious Johnson were there. So I wanted to make sure to fight a smart fight and not go in there stupid and swinging wild and give him an opportunity to capitalize on."

People who take from the crowd reactions for the last two major fights that flyweights can't win over the fans also have short memories. It was only seven months ago, the night the flyweights debuted on the big stage, when Johnson and McCall had a controversial draw and Benavidez beat Yasuhiro Urushitani in what was to be the semifinals of the title tournament. Both fights were exciting. Nobody left the show complaining. Booing didn't exist.

This doesn't mean they can headline, at least not yet. It's UFC policy that a championship fight always goes on last. And there are so many shows that it's often not feasible to have two title bouts on the same show, where a fight like Johnson vs. Dodson wouldn't end the show. For a TV card, perhaps it would work in the right city. Cruz vs. Johnson tore down the house as a main event for the bantamweight title in Washington, D.C., a rare TV card that live felt like a pay-per-view. But for a pay-per-view, these guys aren't going to pull numbers on their own, at least just yet.

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