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UFC flyweight title mess may be the division’s poetically heartbreaking end

UFC Fight Night: Benavidez v Figueiredo Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Fighting in his first UFC main event, Deiveson Figueiredo chose to walk out to the theme song from “Mission Impossible.” Which is fitting after he missed weight the day before, thereby making himself ineligible to win the UFC flyweight championship. The tune also worked as the official sounds of the UFC Norfolk main event.

After all Joseph Benavidez has been through, after all the flyweight division has experienced, impossible seems about the right descriptor. And somehow, afterward, it fit even better. No one left with what they wanted and the whole weight class ended in flux.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be Benavidez’s night. In fact, the division was supposed to belong to him from the beginning. It’s mostly forgotten now that when he squared off with Demetrious Johnson for the inaugural championship in 2012, it was Benavidez that got top billing, and Benavidez that was considered a sizable favorite to win. Of course, that didn’t happen. Then, after he worked his way back to a rematch with Johnson a year later, he lost again. Since then, he has been in the void, good enough to beat almost all of the top contenders, but never quite rising to the top spot.

It’s been a long pursuit of gold, but Benavidez never wavered. Even after losing the second time to Johnson, he didn’t look to switch divisions. He kept his eyes on the prize and kept winning. Heading into last night, he’d captured nine out of his last 10, but at 35 years old, his window was undoubtedly closing.

If karma was real, Benavidez would have had his day in the sun as the savior of the division that UFC president Dana White has long considered folding. Especially after Figueiredo missed weight by 2.5 pounds prior to their championship fight. That disastrous scale-reading meant that only Benavidez would be eligible to actually win the belt on Saturday night, in what could have been a perfect climax to his fight story. But no, the MMA gods do not always reward the just or the persistent. Sometimes those are the prime targets of their cruelty.

This was one of those times, a sadistic kind of finish that had to leave many shaking their heads in sympathy of Benavidez’s suffering. He was doing just fine, winning the first round on all three judges’ scorecards when things all went sideways in the second. It all started with an inadvertent clash of heads, a butt that ripped a gash in his forehead. Moments later, it was a crushing right hand from Figueiredo that put Benavidez down and led to the finish.

And just like that, it was over for him. And maybe over for the division, too.

“I feel like this isn’t real right now, that it’s some freaking nightmare,” Benavidez said after the loss, standing in the cage with his his head hung in disappointment and his skin slit open.

It was one of those nights for him, and one for the rest of the flyweights alongside him. Even Figueiredo, who got to celebrate a knockout win over the man most consider the second-best talent the division has seen, didn’t earn what he should have. He left the arena without the flyweight belt that he otherwise could have earned, and he also lost out on a chance to take home a $50,000 performance bonus. Instead, he’ll just go home with a memory.

In retrospect, maybe we should have known the division was doomed from the very beginning. The first fight in history was a downright fiasco. Demetrious Johnson and Ian McCall fought three rounds, and Johnson was announced as the winner. However, about two hours after they fought, it was revealed that there was a scoring error. In fact, the judges’ cards added up to a draw. Because it was a tournament fight, there had been a contingency to fight a fourth round in such instances, but the scoring error made that impossible, and the two had to have a full rematch months later.

While Johnson went on to win, later capture the title and bring some stability to the top of the division, his reign did nothing to convince UFC executives that the flyweights could generate big business.

All this time later, nothing has changed. To be fair, Benavidez was not expected to drastically alter the landscape, but a late-career championship would have been something. It could have at least been a joyful story in a division that has not had much to celebrate. It could have been a memorable moment, well earned. Instead, it may signal the end of everything he’s worked for, and for the division he worked so hard to conquer. He never reached his goal, and neither did the flyweights, but there was honor in the attempt, there was glory in the chase. If it is the end, that will have to be enough.

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