Under the Microscope | Why won’t the UFC let go of women’s featherweight?

Cris-Cyborg-Megan-Anderson
PhotoCred: Getty Images

February 11, 2019, marked the two-year anniversary of the UFC women’s featherweight division’s creation. Coincidentally this also happens to be the birthday of Megan Anderson who is essentially one half of the entire 145-pound female roster.

UFC 208 in 2017 was when the division was created with a bout between two bantamweight contenders in Germaine de Randamie and former champion Holly Holm. Since then there have been no more than two fighters signed to the UFC that haven’t fought in the bantamweight division at some point during their careers.

Those two being the aforementioned Australian in Anderson, and former divisional queen, Cris “Cyborg” Justino. Everyone else has filtered in and out from the 135-pound weight class that sits below them.

Two years is quite a long time for it to take to build a division. Thus begging the question; why won’t the UFC just let the featherweights go?

They can say it all that they want about how the plan is to keep and grow the class, yet there has been no indication of that being true what so ever.

In fact, it’s practically been the opposite.

Season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter was supposed to be a good start to finally bringing in some fresh faces. However, since the conclusion of it in November 2018, all but two fighters were kept by the UFC and both are now anticipating bantamweight bouts for their sophomore UFC appearances. That includes the season’s believed natural featherweight winner, Macy Chiasson.

Therefore we need to start doing some examining and what better way than by going under the microscope. What could be the reasons why the UFC won’t let go of the female featherweight weight class? Let’s try and find out.

The egotism

For the UFC, there are certain areas that can have arguments in favor of their No. 1 business competitor in Bellator MMA. But there is absolutely no argument to be made in the case of the UFC that they have outdone Bellator in regards to the women’s 145-pound weight class.

Getting rid of their “division” would be an acceptance of defeat in a way for the UFC. And having already canceled a recent event in UFC 233 that was to have gone head to head with Bellator, they surely wouldn’t like to have any more losses on their record… Despite the denial of the event’s cancelation…

Bellator literally beat the UFC when it came to the acquisition of the featherweights as they created their division a whole two years prior to them.

Surely it could be argued that if it wasn’t for Cyborg, the UFC wouldn’t have even gotten into this position in the first place as initially, Cyborg fought in two 140-pound catchweight bouts before the inaugural 145-pound title bout was held at UFC 208. Thus showing the promotion’s reluctance to pull the trigger… Along with their lack of patience with Cyborg.

Regardless, that’s no longer the point. Bellator has snatched up plenty of talent that the UFC could have obtained before Bellator even got the chance. And even when they had the opportunity, they let Bellator bring them in anyway.

Bellator has won the divisional battle of the 145-pounders and there just isn’t enough “suitable” fighters left to meet the UFC’s satisfaction. Announcing an official removal would just be the check mark in the record books that Bellator won another one.

Look at the men’s flyweight division for example… The UFC is currently in the process of releasing every fighter that loses and phasing the weight class out entirely. Bellator, ironically, doesn’t happen to have a flyweight division of their own.

Of course, it could be just a coincidence. But with Bellator’s continued success, it doesn’t seem unrealistic. Also, setting Cyborg and Anderson free like they did with Gegard Mousasi, Rory MacDonald, and Ryan Bader would just bolster Bellator further.

Gold, gold, gold, and more gold

PhotoCred: YouTube

In the most recent decade of the UFC’s history, they have undeniably loved to hand out some gold straps and the numbers support that. According to MMAjunkie statistician Mike Bohn, the UFC has held 21 interim title bouts (includes the upcoming Kelvin Gastelum vs Israel Adesanya bout).

Seven of those 21 came from 1993 to 2010 with the remaining 14 all being made from 2012 to now. It’s all about that gold.

After looking at the Bellator aspect of things, there doesn’t seem like much other reason for featherweight to be kept around. Especially at its current stage and pace. But having it around does give more opportunities for title fights to be had.

And as UFC President Dana White himself has said in the past when providing reasoning for interim titles, the UFC very rarely if ever make pay-per-view main events that aren’t headlined by title fights. And it seems that it very well could make a difference numbers wise… Whether it’s interim or undisputed.

With that in mind, let’s see how big of an impact that the featherweight division has had on the idea of “title fights must headline.”

There have only been five featherweight title fights in UFC history. Three of those came as event headliners and were the only title fights on the card.

Therefore, despite the UFC’s current all-time high in the number of divisions that they have (12), the featherweight division has indeed kept them out of some tough situations when it comes to having “sellable” pay-per-view events.

Surely this is the main purpose as to why the UFC would hang onto the division outside of “keeping up” with Bellator. Because the three buy-rates for all events aren’t anything spectacular (380K, 260K, and 200K).

Remove those headliner title bouts and the main events of each would have been Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Edson Barboza, Frankie Edgar vs Brian Ortega, and Anderson Silva vs Derek Brunson.

Out of those names, Silva has been the only one who has been a consistently proven sell and funny enough, that event he was on did the lowest buys of the three. Nurmagomedov’s highest as well as only PPV numbers without the aid of Conor McGregor equal to 350K (his interim title bout vs Al Iaquinta).

Lastly, Edgar’s current peak came in 2010 against BJ Penn in their rematch with 570K. His second highest was 375K (six total PPV main events).

In conclusion, without those three featherweight title fights, it’s safe to assume that the numbers for those events would have been worse than what they were.

Waiting on the proper catalyst

PhotoCred: WMMARankings

Circling back to something alluded to when discussing Bellator; the UFC took their sweet time when it came to pulling the trigger with the then Invicta FC champion, Cris Cyborg.

It took the UFC three years after the absorbing of Strikeforce and introduction of female fighters in 2013 to finally give Cyborg a shot. And that’s despite eventually working out a deal in March 2015 while she was still with Invicta.

Seemingly one who always has some problem or worry surrounding her whether it be negotiation wise or with the UFC themselves, at a point, Cyborg found herself openly mocked and criticized by Dana White. Obviously, an incident that didn’t help progress things with the future UFC champion.

With that considered, had cooperation been made earlier, the UFC could have even beat Bellator to the punch in the featherweight race as all along we knew that Cyborg would be the UFC’s centerpiece for a potential division.

Perhaps that wasn’t what they wanted though.

Cyborg remained persistent to reach the ultimate proving ground and did so. But the immediate plan was to try and ease her into the bantamweight division with cuts to 140-pounds for her first two UFC bouts.

Then, once they were ready to create her division, they impatiently didn’t include her in the inaugural title bout because she wasn’t ready and fully recovered after making two grueling cuts to 140-pounds as she was requested to.

Even now that Cyborg is no longer the champion, Amanda Nunes has said that she was one and done in her return to 145-pounds. Thus making things all the more difficult for the UFC in regards to Cyborg and the division. That is unless they’ve been waiting for this moment to set her free as she is currently trying to secure a new deal as her current contract expires next month.

It’s not the strongest theory, but it is still one that deserves mentioning. Having the right building block that is willing to play ball more often than not could be just what the UFC has been waiting for this entire time.

Whether that comes in the form of the only other featherweight in Megan Anderson or someone else.

PhotoCred: FanSided

After breaking things down, it seems pretty clear cut why the UFC may be hanging onto their desert-like featherweight division for as long as they have.

Because until some actual legitimate moves are made, nothing else suggests that the heartbeat of this project won’t solely live on vicariously through only one or two fighters.

Check out the previous articles in the Under the Microscope series here:

  1. What warrants an immediate rematch? 
  2. Is the UFC hyping the wrong fighters?
  3. How big of a deal is card fight placement? 
  4. Is equality in the UFC a myth? 
  5. Which fighters left the UFC on their terms and why? 
  6. Is the UFC ridding of flyweight at the wrong time?
  7. Is it the atomweights’ time in the UFC?

This article first appeared on BJPenn.com on 2/21/2019