(As UFC turns 20, we revisit each year from 2013 to 1993 with 20 articles in 20 days)
It was almost as if the UFC existed just to arrive at 2012, where it could showcase itself through a national broadcast partner and laugh at two decades worth of naysayers. And there was something legitimately poetic (not to mention fitting) about seeing Cleatus, the broad-shouldered FOX robot, alternating airtime with Nate Diaz and his dual-action middle fingers.
By 2012, the UFC had arrived. But not without a triage unit.
For all the bells and whistles and spray paint to cover the preliminary blood spill before each telecast, there was usually a trail of wounded that disfigured whatever it was that was first intended. Poor Joe Silva was afraid to check his voicemail in 2012, because it was usually a moaning voice at the other end, telling him that the show would just have to go on without him. Behind the scenes, Silva went from matchmaker to makeshift card cobbler on a running loop. Just look at this litany of horror.
Pay-per-views in 2012 became heavily edited fourth and fifth drafts that bumped people like Rich Franklin into starring roles against Wanderlei Silva at UFC 147, in rematches that never occurred to us. UFC 149 in Calgary? It might have been better to just use the spray paint on the camera lens and pretend it never happened. Shawn Jordan and Cheick Kongo essentially engaged in battle at the line of scrimmage for three rounds, which felt like watching a pickpocket toiling to steal our disposable income for 15 minutes. That was, mercifully, the worst of the PPVs that happened.
And that was still one better than UFC 151, which actually didn’t happen.
UFC 151 was the nadir in the year of broadcast television, Murphy’s Law and ultimate suffering. Sokoudjou, a Cameroonian fighter who was always a mysterious figure of unknown potential after knocking out Lil Nog in Pride, injured Dan Henderson’s knee in training. Henderson, who was getting his title shot against Jon Jones and didn’t want to squander the chance, wasn’t exactly forthcoming with this information to Joe Silva. At least not immediately. By the time he fessed up just eight days before his fight, the UFC was left scrambling for a replacement. That’s when Chael Sonnen raised a stoical hand to volunteer, and became the unlikely hero of a card he had nothing to do with.
And that’s when Jon Jones, who turned the fight down, became something other than a 24-year old phenom, and Greg Jackson became a "sport killer," and Dan Henderson disappeared from contention, essentially, forever. UFC 151 disappeared along with him. And now there’s a hole in the PPV lineage with origins back to Sokoudjou, who was just trying to present himself as a reasonable simulacrum of Jon Jones in an afternoon roll. The fight game, it can be said, is all about fate.
Of course, that all went down in late August. In April 2013, we were still dealing in the Sonnen/Jones saga, after they coached opposite each other on TUF, all because Sonnen had -- in a moment of crisis -- been so good as to volunteer his services.
The end result was a mini-revival of the Dark Ages (which we’ll get into next week in between the years 1998-2001).
Yet, while all these things were playing out, the flyweights entered the marketplace. To introduce the weight class, the UFC hosted a four-man tournament that began in Australia to crown its first ever 125-pound champion. The entrants were the maestro Ian McCall, the veteran Yasuhiro Urushitani, and two names who’d been masquerading as bantamweights -- Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez. The flyweights were like electrons…no, they were motorcycles swirling around each other in the sphere of death, just a bunch of frenetic energy that strained the naked eye to comprehend what it was seeing. The flies sent play-by-play men into paroxysms, and stoned dudes into fits of giggles.
But as they fought, people began to wonder: Do I like this? Some people didn’t. At least not at first. The idea of a 5-foot-nothing homunculi trading punches wasn’t the swooping allure of big-bodied headhunters. From the privacy of the couch, these guys, for all their technique, looked like flickable paper footballs. But from the first bouts in Sydney, the flyweights went about making us into small-fry aficionados.
"At that time, when the UFC was thinking about the flyweight division, I just came off a loss to Dominick Cruz and it was only a rumor," says Demetrious Johnson. "I was getting ready to fight Eddie Wineland at 135 pounds, so at that point my mind wasn’t even focused on 125. But then eventually they pulled me out of that fight, and said we’re actually going to do the flyweight division, and you’re headed to Australia.
"I said, Oh, sweet, I’ll be fighting guys who are like 5’3" and 5’2", instead of guys who are 5’11" or 5’9"."
Of course, Dominick Cruz invented the flyweight division. He’d already set back Johnson, and he’d beaten Benavidez twice, leaving him nowhere to go. And for all the knocks on flyweight power, Benavidez was hell-bent on changing those notions with a second-round knockout of Urushitani.
"Mighty Mouse" and McCall fought at a blistering pace for three rounds. The fight, par for 2012, ended in controversy. Because it was a four-man tournament, the UFC had made a provision to allow for a "sudden victory" round in the event of a draw. Johnson was declared the majority decision winner but, when it was revealed that one of the judges made an error in calculating his scorecard and the fight was actually a draw, the decision was converted into a no contest.
"To get the win, and then go into the back and hear Dana White say, ‘it was a draw,’ man, it sucked," says Johnson. "But at the same time Dana gave me my show and win money, and we both got fight of the night, so that was great. I was a little frustrated just because I wanted to go on and fight Joseph [Benavidez], but Matt Hume my coach, said, ‘it’s okay, you’ll get to fight Ian McCall again, you get to go to 125 again, and you can do your diet right.’"
They did fight again in June, and Johnson won the decision. He went on to defeat Benavidez at UFC 152 in Toronto to become the first ever flyweight champion, and he’s beaten everybody he’s faced since then.
The rise of the flyweights, and particularly Johnson, was one of the silver linings in a year that was filled with ups and downs (with far more downs than ups).