Is this the last hurrah for the UFC’s flyweight division?
It feels like the promotion’s lightest male weight class has been on life support for ages. But the events leading up to Saturday’s UFC Norfolk headliner have changed what was supposed to be a shot in the arm to a punch in the gut.
Two-division champion Henry Cejudo had already appeared to leave the flyweight belt for dead in his pursuit of big names at 135 pounds. If that wasn’t bad enough, the vacated title is now only on the line for Joseph Benavidez after his opponent Deiveson Figueiredo missed weight for their contest.
On paper, it’s still a fine pairing of two of the best in the world at 125 pounds. But there’s no questioning that the matchup has lost some shine, which is doubly disappointing when talking about a division that has long struggled for relevance.
The same could be said of the women’s 145-pound division, though we may at least see a No. 1 contender emerge from the UFC Norfolk main card. Former Invicta FC champions Felicia Spencer and Megan Anderson take on Zarah Fairn and Norma Dumont, respectively, and whoever puts on the most impressive performance in those two matchups could be next for Amanda Nunes. The featherweight queen is keeping a close eye on this weekend’s events ahead of a possible title defense at UFC 250.
What: UFC Norfolk
Where: Chartway Arena in Norfolk, Va.
When: Saturday, Feb. 29. The entire event will air on ESPN+, with the seven-fight preliminaries starting at 5 p.m. ET, and the five-fight main card starting at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
Let’s just get it out of the way: It sucks that Deiveson Figueiredo missed weight, and this fight is considerably less intriguing now that only one man can actually win the flyweight championship.
That said, it’s Joseph Benavidez’s time anyway.
Ever the bridesmaid, Benavidez was the de facto answer for who was the world’s second-best flyweight for years before Henry Cejudo came along and shook up the apple cart. But keep in mind, Benavidez did beat Cejudo when they fought in 2016, so it’s not as if Cejudo toppling Demetrious Johnson removed Benavidez from the equation. He’s always been a fast, hard-hitting, volume-striking world beater.
On the other side of this matchup we have Figueiredo, an absolute buzzsaw of a man. He’s patient and has a rocky chin, so he won’t be bothered by Benavidez stinging him over and over again. He only needs that one big punch to turn things around. With 14 of his 17 wins coming by way of finish, the stereotype that flyweights don’t have stopping power definitely does not apply to Figueiredo.
It’s hard to bully Benavidez, though. He’s been in the cage with heavy hitters like Dustin Ortiz, Alex Perez, Cejudo, and Eddie Wineland, and none of them have been able to push him around (only Johnson, who ironically was not considered a finisher at the time, managed to land a KO blow on Benavidez). Figueiredo might be the most dangerous of them all, so Benavidez’s striking game has to be sharper than it’s ever been.
Because I see any scenario that goes to the scorecards favoring Benavidez, and I’m not predicting a Figueiredo finish, then I have go with Benavidez for the win. It will be “and new” on Saturday, not “and no.”
The lanky Zarah Fairn brings an impressive 73-inch reach to this matchup, and her game plan has to be to tag Felicia Spencer early and make the former Invicta champ think twice about standing with her. Spencer’s striking has improved with every appearance, but her bread-and-butter is still getting the takedown and hunting for a choke. She shouldn’t deviate from that here.
One has to wonder how Spencer will bounce back from her first loss after dropping a one-sided decision to Cris Cyborg in her last outing. There’s no shame in losing to the most decorated women’s featherweight of all time, but Spencer learned there’s another level to this game, and it remains to be seen whether she levels up from that experience, or if it negatively affects her ability to pull the trigger.
Still just 29, Spencer has plenty of room to grow, and if she stays smart and takes this one to the ground early, she should get a submission finish and possibly the attention of Amanda Nunes.
On paper, this one should be fireworks. But for some reason, I’m worried these two might have too much respect for each other’s abilities to truly throw down. Ion Cutelaba and Magomed Ankalaev both have legit sambo backgrounds, so expect there to be plenty of grinding clinchwork in this one.
In space, the bouncy Cutelaba is going to present a lot of problems for Ankalaev. He can quickly get steam behind his punches, though he does have a tendency to telegraph his heavier shots. He’ll have to be more unpredictable than usual if he wants to get through Ankalaev’s defenses. Ankalaev makes good use of kicks to keep opponents at bay, and they’ll serve him well against a headhunter like Cutelaba.
I still feel like the grappling will be a huge factor here, and if that’s the case, then Ankalaev has the advantage. Not only has he shown he can control fights with his wrestling, he also has enough of a counter game to foil Cutelaba’s advances.
Ankalaev by decision.
Norma Dumont is a live underdog and Megan Anderson will have to avoid any sort of letdown if she wants to stay in the featherweight title picture. Anderson was a favorite against Felicia Spencer once upon a time, and that outing went poorly for her.
Dumont is giving up a lot of size in this matchup, which is going to make things difficult for her with Anderson kicking away from long range. Should they grapple, the developing wrestling of Anderson could be the difference. Both of Dumont’s finishes are by submission, but she isn’t a grappling specialist by any stretch.
A background in Sanda might give Anderson pause, as Dumont presents a look she hasn’t seen before, which could make for a methodical first round as the two feel each other out. Anderson has got the big game experience now, though, and the longer the fight goes on, the more I favor her to make adjustments and eventually put Dumont away. Look for Anderson to find a finish in the third round.
And here we have our second fight on the main card with a weigh-in offender.
Grant Dawson missed weight by an egregious 3.5 pounds, as if he didn’t already have an advantage over Darrick Minner, who is stepping in as a replacement for an injured Chas Skelly with little more than one week’s notice. You don’t always want to assume that fighters who miss weight have an advantage, or that fighters stepping up on short notice are at a disadvantage. But those are two factors working against Minner here.
Skill-wise, it’s no secret what Minner wants to do. The man has 21 submission victories. If Dawson’s team hasn’t studied up on Minner, he’s going to find the debuting veteran breathing down his neck, throwing heavy punches upon entry and then ducking in to get a hold of Dawson by any means necessary. A lack of proper opponent prep time may actually be an issue for Dawson as well.
The good news for Dawson is he has a grappling-heavy approach that works well against a variety of styles. As well-versed as Minner is on the ground, Dawson’s top control and ground-and-pound is just what the doctor ordered to deal with a squirrelly submission game. We should see a few fun scrambles, but it’s Dawson who will do the actual damage and either finish with strikes or take a decision.