For six years, the UFC flyweight division had nothing but stability. Demetrious Johnson held the title for 2,412 days from 2012 to 2018, compiling a UFC record 11 consecutive title defenses.
But since “Mighty Mouse’s” dominant run on top of the division, the 125-pound weight class has been volatile. Henry Cejudo, the man who dethroned Johnson, had just one title defense and Deiveson Figueiredo had just two, including a draw against Brandon Moreno. There has not been a title defense at flyweight since that bout, in December 2020.
Figueiredo and Moreno were embroiled in a series of fights — four total — over the past two-plus years. Moreno seemed to put a cap on that, winning the title for a second time Saturday night at UFC 283 via third-round TKO in Rio de Janeiro. After the bout, Figueiredo said he would be leaving the division, moving up to bantamweight.
That leaves Moreno all alone on top, at least for now. The question now is: Can Moreno establish himself as a long-term champion and bring consistency back to a division that had nothing but for its first half-decade-plus of existence with Johnson as champion?
Let’s take some time to reset the division after the Moreno-Figueiredo tetralogy and see what the future might hold.
What does Moreno bring to the table as UFC flyweight champion?
Moreno’s stardom has grown exponentially over the past few years. Him becoming the first-ever Mexican-born champion in UFC history in 2021 was massive. The UFC brought him on a media tour in Mexico and the United States, which included a meeting with Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Back in September, Moreno was chosen by premier Spanish soccer organization LaLiga to tour some of the country’s clubs as a collaboration between the league and the UFC. Mexican American star Cain Velasquez, the former UFC heavyweight champion, blazed the trail in Latin America for MMA fighters, and Moreno is beginning to make that now look like prime real estate.
Boxing is one of the most important sports in Mexico, a country that understands and cherishes a great fight. Moreno, a Tijuana native who grew up working in his parents’ piñata business, has a crowd-pleasing style and has been embraced by Mexican fans as MMA interest grows in that country. Over the next two years, the UFC is set to open a performance institute in Mexico City. It’ll be only the third such facility, joining the headquarters in Las Vegas and Shanghai. That tells you all you need to know about how important Latin America, specifically Mexico, is to the UFC’s future plans. UFC president Dana White has long said he wanted a homegrown Mexican star in the UFC. He has one now in Moreno, and it’ll be interesting to see how both Moreno and the popularity of the sport in Mexico evolves with him as champ.
Who is the most worthy title challenger to Moreno’s throne?
Alexandre Pantoja is a no-brainer choice to be the next contender. He owns a win over Moreno back in 2018, plus another exhibition victory over Moreno on “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2016. The Brazilian fighter has won three in a row, including back-to-back submission finishes, to put him near the top of the rankings at flyweight. On Saturday night, he and Moreno exchanged words following Moreno’s win over Figueiredo.
Pantoja, Moreno said, congratulated him for the victory, but then got a little “aggressive” when asking when Moreno’s first title defense would be. One can’t blame Moreno for not wanting to deal with that at that moment. He had just won the title for a second time and surely wanted to have a few moments to celebrate with his family and team before having to worry about his next bout, which is likely months away. In any case, Pantoja is the obvious selection for a title nod, and the reigniting of their rivalry after UFC 283 will likely make great promotional fodder for the UFC.
What fighter is set to emerge as a contender in 2023?
Matheus Nicolau finishes Matt Schnell in Round 2
Matheus Nicolau grabs a big win over Matt Schnell at UFC Fight Night.
If Moreno does end up getting by Pantoja, there’s a long list of interesting contenders behind him, even with the surprising retirement last year of Askar Askarov, a man many thought would be a future champion. Brandon Royval is probably just a win or two away from a title shot, as is Matheus Nicolau, who is on a four-right UFC winning streak.
Another fighter to watch, who might actually be the most dangerous in the division, is Manel Kape, the former Rizin Fighting Federation bantamweight champion. He has more power in his hands than most flyweights, similar to Figueiredo. Kape, an Angola native, has also trained at American Kickboxing Academy with the likes of former champions Khabib Nurmagomedov and Daniel Cormier, so his wrestling game is solid, too. Kape has won three straight, and his only UFC losses came against Pantoja and Nicolau.
One more name to keep an eye on: Muhammad Mokaev. The Dagestan-born fighter, who lives and trains in the United Kingdom, has dominant wrestling and has started his UFC career at 3-0 with three straight one-sided victories. Mokaev is just 22 years old and appears to be the future of the division.
What does the next year look like at flyweight?
Manel Kape makes quick work of Zhalgas Zhumagulov
Manel Kape uses a flurry of punches to finish Zhalgas Zhumagulov in the first round of their bout.
Moreno proposed the idea of headlining a UFC pay-per-view event in Mexico for his next title defense in the UFC 283 postfight news conference. Maybe that’s something the UFC will consider, especially with Mexican fighters Yair Rodriguez, Alexa Grasso and Irene Aldana all top contenders in their respective divisions right now. Add in Mexican American top prospect Raul Rosas Jr., who is just 18 years old, and the UFC could put together a really good card centered around Mexican fighters later this year.
As far as title challengers, Pantoja is likely next in line, as we went over above. Kape is scheduled to fight former title challenger Alex Perez in March, and a win could push Kape to a title shot. Royval, Nicolau and Kai Kara-France, whom Moreno beat to win the interim title last summer, are currently not booked. One would assume some iteration of those three will be matched up against each other. Amir Albazi is a prospect who could end up getting a big contender fight next, too.
What does Deiveson Figueiredo going to bantamweight mean for 125 and 135?
Figueiredo’s last non-Moreno fight was a title defense against Perez at UFC 255 in November 2020. The only other current contender Figueiredo beat in his run was Pantoja, in a banger of a fight from 2019. He needs a new challenge, and moving up is good for both him and the rest of the flyweight division, because there is a clearer path to Moreno for future big fights and he will no longer have to make the big weight cut to 125.
But bantamweight is an absolute minefield. It will not be an easy go for the power-punching Figueiredo at 135 pounds, especially considering strong wrestlers, like Aljamain Sterling and Merab Dvalishvili, sit at or near the top of the weight class. Sterling, the champion, will likely defend next against former double champion Henry Cejudo, who also happened to coach Figueiredo last year. Sean O’Malley is in that mix, too. After those three, there’s Marlon “Chito” Vera, Cory Sandhagen, former champ Petr Yan and Dvalishvili. Vera is fighting Sandhagen next, and Yan is fighting Dvalishvili. But Figueiredo can be thrown into that mix, or perhaps given a legend like Dominick Cruz, who is still hanging around the contender group. Bantamweight is already arguably the deepest weight class in MMA, and Figueiredo’s future presence only strengthens it.