The UFC is ushering in a new era.
A new television deal with industry-leading ESPN kicks off Saturday night, once again illustrating the fact that the dark ages of the sport are firmly in the rearview mirror.
Upping the ante even further, the promotion has created a new championship belt, calling it the “Legacy Belt”, to be presented to the winner of Saturday’s championship main event, pitting reigning featherweight champion Henry Cejudo, looking to make the first defence of his crown, against current bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, who aims to become the fourth fighter to hold UFC titles simultaneously.
While on paper, the ESPN era kicks off with a bang, in reality, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the future of the flyweight division.
Since the division’s introduction in 2012, it struggled to capture the imagination of the casual audience. Inaugural champion Demetrious Johnson led the charge over the course of his near six-year run, dominating every foe placed in his path, including a knockout victory over Cejudo at UFC 197 in 2016.
When Johnson dropped a split-decision to Cejudo in the rematch at UFC 227 this past August, the former champion took his talents to ONE Championship, as part of a blockbuster trade also involving undefeated welterweight Ben Askren.
Cejudo, for his part, immediately called for a super-fight with Dillashaw, who relished the opportunity to become a two-division champion.
However, MMA is nothing if not unpredictable….
In the aftermath of the Johnson-Askren “trade”, it was reported by FloCombat that the UFC intended to cut a majority of its 125-pound fighters, and eventually do away with the flyweight division entirely.
Suddenly, the proposed champion vs. champion clash became much more than just another super-fight.
For Cejudo, not only is the bout an opportunity to defend his crown by defeating a man many consider to be the best bantamweight to ever compete, but a victory, in his eyes, would also rejuvenate the struggling division, providing many fighters the opportunity to remain under the UFC banner.
For Dillashaw, it’s simply about his legacy. The 32-year-old said as much at the pre-fight press conference, explaining that fighting in its very nature is a “selfish sport” and ultimately that he doesn’t care about the fate of the division after Saturday night.
Comments like those didn’t sit well with fighters at 125-pounds, namely Joseph Benavidez, a former training partner of Dillashaw’s, who admitted during fight week that some of his friend’s comments have caused him to openly question their friendship.
Meanwhile, the UFC has remained tight-lipped ahead of Saturday’s event, unwilling to state publicly whether or not the flyweight division will remain intact moving forward.
What started as a champion vs. champion clash about legacy has now become personal, but for more than just the two champions inside the Octagon.
As UFC on ESPN+ 1 kicks off, flyweight fighters, as well as the rest of the world, will be watching with bated breath. After all, more than just a shiny new championship belt hangs in the balance in Brooklyn.