Flyweights operating under fans' radar
LEMOORE, Calif. -- The night before Nonito Donaire starched Fernando Montiel to seize the Mexican's two 118-pound titles in Las Vegas, mixed martial arts' top-ranked flyweight, Brazilian Jussier da Silva, competed amidst far less fanfare for, quite literally, one-hundredth of the boxer's purse.
Da Silva, a 25-year-old submission specialist who rose to No. 1 at 125 pounds after out-pointing Shooto world world champion Shinichi Kojima in a non-title affair in 2009, won his American debut in December against Danny Martinez. His second effort on Friday versus Ian McCall paid him $3,500 and occurred under similar circumstances.
Martinez and McCall, a pair of WEC veterans, had campaigned at bantamweight, which unlike the 118-pound boxing limit is established at 135 pounds in MMA, prior to moving down to meet "Formiga."
As the unknown king of an unheralded weight division, da Silva approached his fight at the Tachi Palace, a central California hotel and casino located on tribal land that showcased the WEC before it was purchased by Zuffa, believing pundits were correct about his stature at 125 pounds. That, however, evaporated after three rounds against McCall, who survived a difficult opening period to take a unanimous decision.
Sitting with his trainer in the warm-up room afterward, da Silva, a slender 5-foot-5, quietly went about deconstructing the first defeat of his career (he thought he won), which will remove him from the top spot when MMA Websites and blogs release new rankings.
"I will work my way up the rankings again and try to be my best, as always," da Silva said.
Who deserves to be the top-ranked flyweight in MMA?
Should it be McCall, the man who beat the man? Or is it young Darrell Montague, who put on a perfect performance to capture the Tachi Palace Fights' flyweight title against Ulysses Gomez following da Silva's loss?
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How about Alexis Villa, an unbeaten 39-year-old bronze medalist for Cuba in Greco-Roman wrestling in 1996? Pat Runez? John Dodson? Mamoru Yamaguchi or another of the myriad Japanese fighters at 125?
"You beat the No. 1 guy, you're the No. 1 guy," said TPF matchmaker Richard Goodman, the driving force behind bringing a division to the U.S that was largely reserved for Japanese promoters. "That's how it works in my book. That's how Jussier got the ranking, he beat the No. 1 guy."
More important than any individual ranking is the ability for flyweights to be exposed to a larger audience.
Will the spotlight that 135- and 145-pound fighters have attained since UFC adopted the divisions last year be possible unless UFC does the same for 125?
UFC president Dana White has said he wants his organization to adopt flyweights sooner rather than later, but the logistics of adding a new class make it highly unlikely that will happen in 2011, considering the event-by-event release of fighters by UFC would only worsen if room was required for another 28 contracts. Strikeforce is said to have no interest in showcasing male fighters under 155 pounds. And Bellator has not yet indicated that it will hold a tournament at 125.
For the time being, that job falls to TPF, which promotes without a television deal and streams fights over the Internet.
" We're trying to show one of the best divisions in the world that's just not getting noticed. Our job is to bring it up and maybe the UFC will take it in just like they did the bantamweight and featherweight divisions.” -- Tachi Palace Fights matchmaker Richard Goodman, on the plight of the flyweights
"We're trying to show one of the best divisions in the world that's just not getting noticed," Goodman said. "Our job is to bring it up and maybe the UFC will take it in just like they did the bantamweight and featherweight divisions. Hopefully these fighters will get enough credibility where they go to the big shows."
The emergence of a fighter who connects with fans is key.
Da Silva may have been considered the best, but he was unrecognizable to casual fans and many MMA loyalists who watch the sport closely. Until Urijah Faber became the first crossover featherweight, that division suffered a similar fate.
Faber, who competed at Tachi Palace before Zuffa picked him up as part of the WEC deal, "made the 145 division worth watching," 23-year-old Montague (9-1) said. "I'd like to do the same at the 125 division."
It was expected with victories on Friday that da Silva would challenge Gomez for TPF's belt in May. That won't happen now. Montague, a high-energy striker out of California, said he expects to defend the belt against McCall in "one hell of a fight that should be on ESPN."
McCall's trainer, Colin Oyama, said the flyweight division should garner heavier attention than it does, since action is often furious and because MMA fans want to see a scrap. Oyama said the diminutive size of boxing's top draws leads him to believe that MMA fans have no legitimate argument against watching the flyweights; they just haven't had the chance.
Shooto, Japan's tenured MMA sanctioning body, has hosted the most high-level bouts at 125. Oyama said his fighters received a $2,000 purse to fight in Japan. They were also required to book their own travel.
"By the time we're getting tickets, we're paying $500 to get experience out there," the trainer said. McCall's payday on Friday totaled out at $5,000 -- $3,000 guaranteed.
Though purses and notoriety remain limited, there is power in being considered No. 1. If and when Zuffa comes calling to a growing and exciting weight class, the fighter who has established himself as best will rightly benefit most. It would also provide new life for fighters such as McCall, who are undersized at 135.
"If [UFC] made the weight class, they'd have a lot of guys drop weight," he said. "Demetrious Johnson, Antonio Banuelos, Joseph Benavides -- all top-ranked guys at 135 who would drop down. I don't see why we wouldn't have just as exciting a talent pool as any other division."
Like boxers Donaire and Montiel, it's conceivable a pair of 125-pound mixed martial artists would someday battle at a combined purse of $600,000. Or, at least, not at such a severe fraction of that number. Yet for the foreseeable future, no matter how good they are, flyweights will be relegated to bingo halls.
"I'm rooting for the division to keep growing, and it will get more value," said da Silva, now 9-1. "People think about heavyweights and bigger divisions, but I want people to pay more attention."
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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