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Fortunes changed for five at UFC on FOX 24

UFC on FOX 24 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Saturday's UFC on FOX 24 show looked like a strong lineup on paper, and it delivered. And there were strong wins in the top matches by contenders who are close to, if not ready for a title shot and by a champion who is as dominant as any.

The lone negative was the nagging question. Why exactly did so many regular viewers take a pass on the show.

Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, strawweight contender Rose Namajunas and middleweight contender Robert Whittaker all won in a manner that should lead all three to big fights next time out.

Saturday night's show had one of the lowest audiences in the history of the series. People are quick to point the finger at Johnson. He was pushed as the star the show was marketed around. And while Johnson has never been a good draw on pay-per-view, he's never done badly when it comes to headlining on television.

Few thought Wilson Reis had much of a chance to win the title, and that may be part of it. Reis was one of the biggest title match underdogs in recent years, and the way the fight played out indicated the one-sided odds were correct. But still, in 2013, it's not like anyone expected John Moraga to beat him for the title either, and this show did 15 percent less viewers.

Johnson has been dominant in the division for the nearly five years that there has been a flyweight champion in UFC, as the winner of the initial tournament and only champion. But usually in sports, teams or players so dominant become bigger draws, not smaller. He is hampered by a lack of big name contenders in his division. Anderson Silva really needed Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort to get him over the top as a drawing card. St-Pierre had Matt Hughes and a series of color personalities like Matt Serra, Nick Diaz, Dan Hardy and Josh Koscheck to build interest in his fights.

Johnson was going for a record-tying 10th title defense, but evidently that UFC records was not as a big a draw to the public as records in other sports. There has been more talk in the past year than ever before that Johnson may be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, as well as the fighter with the most overall skill. Of late, he's been placed in the company of Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre as being in the argument over who is the greatest UFC fighter ever. Yet, to the television viewers that didn't increase his drawing power either.

One can argue it was the sports competition, the NBA and NHL playoffs were running head-to-head. But FOX runs a mid-April show every year against the same type of competition. It can't be lack of support for the title match, given it was a show with a title fight and two other fights that had direct title match implications. And from a personality and drawing power standpoint, Michelle Waterson just headlined one of the best drawing FOX shows in recent years, and couldn't have looked more impressive in winning over Paige VanZant. She was talked about before the show as perhaps getting a strawweight title shot with a win.

Whatever it is that causes this doesn't show any indication of changing. There is nobody on the horizon that looks to be generating the kind of momentum to put more interest in a Johnson title fight. At some point he will have the inevitable competition since age is the one opponent even the greatest can't beat. We may not be close to seeing that day, since on Saturday, Johnson looked more like a fighter still on the ascent.

Let's look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of the UFC's maiden voyage to the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON - The one given is that Johnson's next fight will be historical. If he wins his next fight, he'll have the all-time record for UFC title defenses, with No. 11, breaking the record he now shares with Anderson Silva.

The decision on who he faces next seems to come down to two people.

Ray Borg (11-2) has won two in a row, and looked impressive in beating Jussier Formiga da Silva on March 11. But before that, his win over Louis Smolka came when he missed weight by 3.5 pounds. And the fight before that was a loss to Justin Scoggins.

Joseph Benavidez (25-4) has been considered the second-best fighter in the division from its onset. Johnson beat Benavidez in the final of the tournament to crown a new champion. Since then he's gone 9-1, with the lone loss being a first-round knockout to Johnson.

Of the two, Benavidez has more name value and is the more proven fighter, and is coming off a win over Henry Cejudo in a battle of the top contenders.

ROSE NAMAJUNAS - The way the women's strawweight division looks lined up, Namajunas looks to be ready for a shot at the winner of the May 13 title fight with Joanna Jedrzejczyk (13-0) vs. Jessica Andrade (16-5).

Namajunas (7-3) only has one win since a loss to Karolina Kowalkiewicz (10-1) in a bout that helped set Kowalkiewicz up for her title shot. One can make a strong case that the best contenders for the winner of Jedrzejczyk and Andrade should be the winner of the Claudia Gadelha (14-2) and Kowalkiewicz bout on June 3 in Rio de Janeiro. If Andrade wins the title, that would open the door for the Gadelha vs. Kowalkiewicz winner. But Jedrzejczyk has beaten Gadelha twice, and two losses to the champion usually means a tough time getting a third shot. Kowalkiewicz has also lost to Jedrzejczyk.

ROBERT WHITTAKER - Whittaker (19-4) handed Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza his first stoppage loss since 2008. While he immediately challenged Michael Bisping in a title fight, barring a key injury or two, that shot isn't opening up until early next year at the earliest.

Whittaker has two very obvious potential next opponents in Luke Rockhold (15-3) and Gegard Mousasi (42-6-2). The best strategy would be to book that fight underneath the Bisping vs. Georges St-Pierre fight. For one, if there is a main event injury, there would be a strong replacement fighter scheduled on the show.

As far as which of the two Whittaker should face, Mousasi has five straight wins, the last four by knockout with Chris Weidman, Vitor Belfort and Thales Leites as the biggest wins. Rockhold lost his last fight to Bisping, but had won five straight prior, all by stoppage, with Weidman, Lyoto Machida and Bisping on his list. But it's an odd man out game. Mousasi could also face Rockhold, in which case Whittaker could face Weidman (13-3).

ALEXANDER VOLKOV - In an aging heavyweight division, the 28-year-old Volkov (28-6) is the youngest of the top 15 contenders.

The two likely opponents would by Francis Ngannou (10-1), who has looked tremendous of late but is still inexperienced, or Stefan Struve (28-8), who has the experience but has had a roller coaster career. Ngannou, as the No. 5 contender, would be a win that would elevate Volkov the fastest. But Struve may make for a unique visual, with the 6-foot-7 Volkov against the nearly 7-foot Struve.

TOM DUQUESNOY - Duquesnoy (15-1, 1 no contest), the former BAMMA featherweight and bantamweight champion, has 11 wins and one no-contest since his lone career loss to Makwan Amirkhani in 2013, when he was 19 years old. Of his 11 wins since that time, all but one was a stoppage.

Aljamain Sterling (13-2), who defeated Augusto Mendes via decision on Saturday, would be a good next fight. Sterling is a big enough name that it would put Duquesnoy in the thick of things in the division and would be a strong read on where he stands.

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