Demetrious Johnson (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Champion or Challenger: Who Makes a Division Exciting?

Excitement. It’s what we as human beings long for in life. It’s that memory you have of shaking each and every present on Christmas Eve in an effort to figure out what you were getting. It’s that feeling one gets from watching their significant other or their children accomplish something extraordinary. It’s very clear what makes one excited and what can elicit this reaction. In the world of MMA, it’s not always so simple.

Titleholders sit atop the mountain and look down upon those grasping for a chance for their own fame and advancement. The path to the title can be a grueling and arduous journey for the striving mixed martial artist seeking the elusive championship gold. Or it could be a short, expedited trip. They could be a decorated journeyman or someone who knows how to talk their way into a title bid.

What really makes an MMA division exciting? You’ll probably come up with two answers: the champions and the challengers. Without a solid set of either, a division is bound to create little to no waves.


Case in point, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. The UFC flyweight kingpin most recently defended his title against Tim Elliott at The Ultimate Fighter 24 Finale last weekend. It was Johnson’s ninth straight successful title defense. He is now tied with Georges St-Pierre for consecutive title defenses and is two wins away from overtaking Anderson Silva as the UFC’s all-time leader in this category.

Yet, it’s not Johnson’s success that needs pointing out. Instead, it’s the performance of the challenger, the aforementioned Elliott. Elliott was not supposed to be a challenge for the champion. He was considered by many to be a lamb led to the slaughter. It was expected to be just another easy win for the champion. The consensus could not have been more wrong, though.

The UFC’s flyweight division has struggled significantly since its inception. This has been due in part to women’s MMA coming shortly thereafter, creating an amazing addition to the UFC. Since then, the UFC has only had one flyweight champion, the aforementioned Mighty Mouse. He’s been a very non-vocal one, too. Many fans probably don’t tune into a Mighty Mouse bout just because they really don’t know who he is. There’s also the idea that flyweights aren’t as exciting or that they move around too much — no joke, these are things that have actually been said during flyweight bouts.

Flyweights have cardio for days, skill sets that rival each and every larger weight division and talent unbounded. Unfortunately, none of this has really been on display in flyweight title bouts. Johnson has dispatched of each and every opponent with relative ease. His most exciting bout was his last one against the aforementioned Elliott. In this case, it’s mostly the challengers that have failed to make the division exciting.

At nearly the opposite side of the spectrum lies the UFC’s light heavyweight division. Names like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Vitor Belfort, Tito Ortiz, Rashad Evans, Forrest Griffin and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua were in the mix going into 2011. Then came Jon “Bones’ Jones and the beginning of one of the most dominant runs as light heavyweight champion. Jones captured the title at the young age of 23 to become the youngest champion in UFC history. He went on to defend his title against veterans Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, the aforementioned Belfort and against rising challengers Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira and Daniel Cormier, who snagged the belt after Jones landed in trouble outside of the cage.

Since Jones has been out of the game, “DC” has defended the title just once, against Gustafsson. Sadly, Cormier has been slated to defend his title twice more, against his bitter rival Jones and at UFC 206 in the main event against the man he had previously defeated for the title, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson. The problem is that now that Jones has been out and will continue to be out of the title picture, the division seems to be in a logjam. Rumble is waiting for his chance again, just one year after a failed bid at the title. Teixeira looked to be coming for a shot before running into Rumble. As far as other contenders in the division, it’s safe to say that the light heavyweights have one of the smallest title contender lists in all of the UFC. It’s up to Cormier at this point to make the division exciting again. He needs to keep taking fights and, quite frankly, getting a lot of people to continue to not like him for whatever reason they may have. In this case, it’s the champion who must make the division exciting.

There are endless challengers waiting at bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight, welterweight and middleweight. Heavyweight is a hurdle for another time. The women’s divisions seem to have erupted with ample challengers striving for a chance at gold. Conor McGregor is going to be on the sidelines for at least the next seven months, but he has a laundry list of challengers calling him out — from three different weight classes, no less. McGregor has made his division exciting again. It’s time for the rest of the UFC to follow suit, especially the flyweights and light heavyweights.