Flyweights: Why Are Flyweights and Demetrious Johnson the Lowest Drawing Fighters in the UFC?
Posted by Jeffrey Harris on 07.31.2014
Flyweights are some of the fastest and most exciting athletes to step into the Octagon, but why don't the fans seem to agree? Jeffrey Harris takes a look at why Demetrious Johnson and the flyweight division aren't taking off!
Greetings everyone. This is everyone's friendly neighborhood 411mania Jack of all Trades, Jeffrey Harris. To quote Bad News Barrett, if you happened to click here expecting my regular weekly MMA's 3R's column...
The MMA's 3R's column that have I have presided over for several years has now been retired from the MMA Zone. Now that could very well be good news for some. However, the good news is that I will be remaining in the MMA zone to bring you some columns of my views on MMA news and issues. And for this week, I wanted to address the lack of drawing ability for UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and the UFC flyweight division.
When I look at the flyweight 125 pound division, I see pretty much everything I want to see out of MMA. The action is super fast. The fighters tend to have excellent stamina and cardio for days. Watch any flyweight fight, and you will rarely see the fighters get tired. The champion of the UFC flyweight division is easily one of the classiest individuals around. He does everything right. And yet, Demetrious Johnson has not been able to grow by leaps and bounds as a draw for the UFC. Based on the reported PPV numbers for UFC 174, headlined by Johnson, it was one of the lowest-drawing UFC PPVs in recent memory. So what is the issue with flyweights and Johnson as a champion that they have not been able to draw interest inside the Octagon?
When you look at Johnson, you cannot deny his credentials. He is without a doubt one of the greatest fighters on the planet. When he moved down to UFC's new flyweight division, he was already a top 5 fighter and contender at a higher weight class. He came up short in his bantamweight title bout shot against Dominick Cruz, but he put in a tough effort. While Johnson was undeniably a top contender, he was still relatively small for his weight class. Due to his height and size, flyweight was likely his more ideal weight class. The problem? There was no flyweight class in the UFC. It had been rumored for years for the WEC, but then ZUFFA merged WEC and the UFC, bringing over all the lighter weight classes. However, in 2012, UFC finally announced that they would be starting a 125 pound flyweight division. Johnson would be one of the premiere fighters of the division, taking part in the tournament to crown the inaugural flyweight champion.
The clear favorite to win the tournament was Joseph Benavidez. Benavidez had also been a contender at bantamweight. He had a reputation of being more of a finisher than Johnson was at the time. The fight was a closely contested battle, but it was Johnson who ended up edging out the fight and winning the decision, becoming the inaugural UFC flyweight champion in the co-main event at UFC 152. On that card, the flyweights were underneath a light heavyweight title bout between champ Jon Jones and Vitor Belfort in Toronto. According to Dave Meltzer, the card did an estimated 450,000 PPV buys. The higher number was likely based off of the interest in Jones and Belfort's light heavyweight title bout.
Following his title win, Johnson's next several title bouts were kept on Fox. In his first title defense, Johnson fought The Ultimate Fighter Winner John Dodson in the main event at UFC on Fox 6. In the Fight of the Night, Johnson rallied back from some early knockdowns to outpoint Dodson in the later rounds to win the decision. Now here are the actual ratings numbers for that fight. The fight card had an average household rating 2.4 with a 4 average household share. The fight card had an average viewership of 4.2 million viewers. The show peaked with 5.2 million viewers for the title bout between Johnson and Dodson. Considering this was a fight card that also featured a big light heavyweight bout between Glover Teixeira and former champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and also a lightweight title eliminator bout between Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis, the show's audience growing and peaking for the flyweight title bout is actually quite impressive. The main event actually averaged a 3.5 ratings in the key male demographics of 18-34 and men 18-49. Based on ratings data from Fox, the key demo ratings for Johnson/Dodson were even higher than the Ben Henderson/Nate Diaz lightweight title main event at UFC on Fox 5. In addition, Johnson/Dodson's average viewership, peak viewership, and key demo numbers even surpassed the lightweight title bout for Ben Henderson vs. Gilbert Melendez at UFC on Fox 7.
Johnson's next UFC title bout was UFC on Fox 8 against John Moraga. Despite having the reputation as being a grinder and decision winner, Johnson dominated Moraga and ended up actually submitting him late in the fifth round to get the win. The fight card drew an average of 2.4 million viewers. The fight did considerably less numbers in the key male demos with a 1.5 rating. In Johnson's defense, the card was not as stacked and did not have as big of an undercard to prop his title fight up as UFC on Fox 6 did earlier in the year. Plus, the fight card happened in the summer when less people are watching network TV. By comparison, the show did slightly above the numbers of UFC on Fox card at the same time the year before, which was UFC on Fox 4, headlined by Mauricio "Shogun" Rua vs. Brandon Vera.
Enter UFC on Fox 9. Johnson was defending his title against his old rival Joseph Benavidez in a rematch. Their first fight was a split decision. Benavidez had won three fights to earn his title shot. He had just knocked out two of his opponents as well: Jussier da Silva and Darren Uyenoyama. The belief was that if any fighter was going to win the fight by knockout, it would be Benavidez. Johnson, despite finishing his last fight, was not seen as a fighter with knockout power. However, Johnson shocked the world with a stunning first round knockout. It was likely the most impressive win of his career to date. With the win, Johnson became the *only* UFC champion to successfully defend his title three times in 2013. No other fighter or UFC champion accomplished this in 2012. Now the good news is the fight averaged 2.9 million viewers, surpassing Johnson's numbers for UFC on 8. Unfortunately, Johnson was unable to score the higher numbers the UFC on Fox 6 fight card managed, and the Fox 9 card also occurred during football season.
One could argue that flyweight is still a very thin division with a short list of contenders. The division has been around just over two years. It does not have the depth of the bigger, more stacked divisions in the UFC. However, Johnson's competition has undeniably been legitimate. Dodson won his season of The Ultimate Fighter by knocking out TJ Dillashaw. Dillashaw later went on to win the UFC bantamweight title from the incredibly dominant Renan Barao. Benavidez as a fighter was a legit top five fighter in multiple weight classes. He has come up short in all his title opportunities, but other than his last title bout against Johnson, those fights were close split decisions.
UFC 174 was really Johnson's first big test on PPV. After introducing audiences to flyweights and Johnson as the champion on Fox, I saw UFC 174 as the test to gauge to see if audiences were willing to pay to see the flyweights main event a UFC PPV card. Despite the flyweights delivering some exciting fights and Johnson being a tremendous fighter and champion, the fight was hardly a barnburner. The card was debilitated by injuries. Other than a showcase welterweight bout between top 5 contenders Rory MacDonald and Tyron Woodley, the fight card is seen as a disappointment. Now all that aside, I think the UFC did need to experiment to see how a flyweight title fight and guy like Johnson would do on a PPV after having him headline Fox.
With the flyweight division and Johnson being unable to draw, I believe the problems are twofold. First, I think audiences were likely conditioned to seeing the flyweights for free on TV. The flyweights and Johnson have proven they can draw some decent numbers on Fox. Two of Johnson's flyweight title bouts in 2013 drew better numbers than UFC on Fox 11 and UFC on Fox 12. I think that means that Johnson is a pretty reliable and consistent ratings grabber for UFC on Fox TV viewers. For a solid card, his title bouts can easily manage say 3-4 million viewers or more. I think the problem is though that UFC PPV buyers do not want to pay to see flyweight title bouts on PPV. After UFC put on several flyweight title bouts on free TV in 2013, the main UFC audience was conditioned to getting those bouts for free. So while Johnson can be a decent draw for TV, he cannot draw on PPV. With his title bouts, audiences are not really as willing to shell out the money to watch him on PPV. However, I can just as easily argue that he can be a TV draw for UFC that he can't be on PPV. I think Ben Henderson has a similar affect on TV ratings. Henderson's main events have drawn some of UFC's better numbers on Fox Sports 1 and Fox. However on PPV, Henderson is not a considerable draw.
I think the second problem is something more mental and emotional for fight fans directed at the flyweights. I think there are a lot of fans out there that simply do not like the flyweights and Johnson because they are small. Fight fans are generally attracted to big larger than life personalities like Chael Sonnen or they are attracted to fighters with larger than life physiques. Case in point Brock Lesnar at his peak, Alistair Overeem at his peak, and so on. For MMA fights, fans like to see big fights and are generally prejudiced against smaller fighters. Now I am not saying this is absolute. Urijah Faber is clearly a popular fighter. He may not be able to draw big numbers on PPV, but ever since his title bout in the WEC with Jens Pulver in 2008, he became a ratings grabber for ZUFFA. His WEC 48 headliner with Jose Aldo actually did pretty big numbers for WEC's first and only PPV event, considering fans claimed it would bomb. I think the problem is that UFC really just needs to work harder to condition fans in showing them that flyweights are solid fighters and they are exciting. MMA reporter Luke Thomas has criticized Demetrious Johnson as being too "dry." Now that might be true, but I find Johnson no less dry than the personality of Cain Velasquez. Cain Velasquez is definitely an animal in the cage, but he has seldom shown one hit knockout power either.
I see Johnson's next test in terms of drawing ability at UFC 177. There he is being matched up against Chris Cariaso in a co-main event title bout. The headliner is a rematch between TJ Dillashaw and Renan Barao for the bantamweight title. The bantamweight division is not known as a money division either. UFC 173, headlined by Dillashaw vs. Barao I, pulled an estimated 200-250,000 PPV buys. So perhaps the UFC is trying to experiment how two lower-drawing divisional titles will draw together on PPV. Another way to look at this is now the UFC wants to try and condition audiences into buying Johnson as champion on PPV now.
I simply feel bad for Johnson getting this type of scrutiny because he does everything right. He is without a doubt the fastest fighter I have ever seen on the UFC roster. He was the 411 Fighter of the Year for 2013. He is a man that really embodies the American dream. He really does everything right. He does not talk trash. He is a classy individual. He acts professionally at media events and toward his opponents. Now this could be symbolic that fans do not really want classy sportsman types, but that is another issue for another column.