Over the last 15 years, the women’s MMA scene has seen its share of ups and downs in popularity. The bantamweight, strawweight and featherweight divisions have housed the majority of the biggest stars. Sitting between the 115- and 135-pound weight classes, the women’s 125-pound flyweight division had yet to reach the popularity achieved by these other divisions. At the start of 2017, Invicta Fighting Championships was the leader in promoting contests at 125 pounds. By the end of the year, though, other top players began emerging and crowning champions in the division. In 2017, it was all about the flyweight ladies.
Bellator MMA announced in January that it would crown its first women’s champion at 125 pounds at some point in 2017. To fans of women’s MMA, it sounded all too familiar. In 2012, when the promotion was still helmed by Bjorn Rebney, Bellator began promising that it would crown a 125-pound women’s champion while promoting fighters such as Munah Holland, Michelle Ould, Zoila Frausto and Jessica Eye. The opportunity never materialized. It took more than five years, a regime change and a new crop of fighters, but the promotion has finally lived up to its promise.
On Nov. 3, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane became the California-based promotion’s 125-pound champion with a fifth-round submission triumph over Emily Ducote at Bellator 186. Bellator already had a stable of quality fighters competing in the division, but the company hasn’t stopped adding new faces either. Bellator’s signings this year include former UFC fighter Valérie Létourneau and undefeated prospect Juliana Velasquez, a top bantamweight prospect who dropped 10 pounds to try her luck in the Bellator cage. Another quality signing came in the form of Alejandra Lara, who submitted Lena Ovchynnikova to collect the biggest win of her eight-fight career and throw her name into the title picture.
Most fans of the women’s scene hoped but doubted that the UFC would add the weight class this year. The division lacked the star power of a Ronda Rousey or Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, so it was anyone’s guess if the weight class would ever make an appearance under the bright lights of the Octagon. Seemingly out of nowhere, UFC President Dana White announced that the industry leader would indeed add the flyweight ladies to the roster, using The Ultimate Fighter platform to crown the first UFC women’s 125-pound champion. The news came a little more than two years after White stated that it would be a while before we would see female flyweights inside of the Octagon. This made the category the 12th weight class and fourth women’s division promoted under the UFC banner.
The UFC quickly began tryouts for the 26th edition of the TUF reality show. The promotion already had ties with Invicta, the premier promoter of women’s MMA, and a strong talent pool to draw from worldwide. It was a surprise to many, however, when the list of participants was revealed. Absent from the list were most of the top-ranked fighters at 125 pounds. Instead, the UFC was relying mostly on prospects. The exceptions, of course, were Roxanne Modafferi, former Invicta flyweight champion Barb Honchak and DeAnna Bennett, who was listed in the top 10 before leaving the flyweight ranks for the strawweight division. The absence of many elite competitors from the list prompted some in the media to claim that flyweight was not deep enough to be included amongst the ranks of the UFC’s other divisions.
Opening her career with a 3-2 professional record, former King of the Cage flyweight queen Nicco Montaño entered the competition as the No. 14 seed. However, her standing at the beginning of the show would prove unimportant. The 28-year-old went in as the underdog for all three of her bouts on the show, but she knocked off former Invicta bantamweight champ Lauren Murphy, up-and-comer Montana Stewart and the aforementioned Honchak to earn a shot at the inaugural UFC women’s flyweight title.
Montaño was originally slated to face Sijara Eubanks, herself a massive underdog in the competition, in the title bout, but it was not to be. Eubanks was forced out of the contest due to complications caused by a tough cut to 125 pounds. Modafferi, a 14-year veteran of the sport, stepped in for Eubanks. Modafferi has seen great success at both bantamweight and flyweight. Even with the experience edge and an ever-improving game, she could not slow down the rise of Montaño.
After crowning its inaugural women’s featherweight champion earlier this year, the UFC made history once again when it crowned Montaño on the biggest stage in MMA.
There are some obvious growing pains coming under the UFC banner with the addition of the flyweight ladies. Once considered one of the deepest talent pools on the women’s scene, the bantamweight division has thinned out considerably as a result of the inclusion of the flyweight division. Top 135ers, including the aforementioned Murphy, Alexis Davis, Katlyn Chookagian, Liz Carmouche and Valentina Shevchenko have opted to move down in weight. Many fighters have been considering a move up from strawweight as well. However, due to a huge talent pool to draw from at 115 pounds worldwide, the effects are not as apparent or harmful to this division. The promotion will have to make some important moves going forward to keep bantamweight healthy and appealing to fans.
The flyweight division’s growth was not limited to North America. The Polish KSW organization welcomed Ariane Lipski, who took home flyweight gold by submitting Diana Belbiţă in front of 58,000 fans. Lipski, the promotion’s first 125-pound women’s champion, made a successful defense of her crown in October when she tapped out Mariana Morais in the very first round. The victory pushed Lipski’s winning streak to eight fights, with five knockouts and two submissions included in the run.
Some may be wondering what will happen to Invicta FC. The company only promotes one category — the 105-pound atomweight division — that the UFC has not yet touched. The organization has also lost most of its top talent to competing bodies. Once the premier platform for female athletes to compete and raise their value in a changing market, Invicta may not be as necessary as it once was. While it remains a solid place for talent development, we can expect any top prospect or champion to be snatched up by the major players in MMA. If Invicta wants to stay relevant, then it is going to have to make some changes. It needs to allow time for fighter development and fans to get attached to promising athletes. Sending fighters to the UFC and Bellator too early could damage the brand in the long run.
2018 is already shaping up to be a big year for the women’s scene, and more specifically for the flyweight ladies. Expect more big names to enter the division and get ready for a battle for talent between the top players in MMA.