The MMA universe is expanding, and more rapidly than you think. On the eve of Shooto world champion Shinichi "BJ" Kojima defending his title and divisional mantle against Yuki Shoujou and the growing excitement surrounding Zuffa's plans to integrate the 125-pound division into WEC in the near future, it is an apropros time to talk history and take stock of all things flyweight in this sport's space and time.
The last two years have represented enormous strides promotionally, competitively and financially for the sub-lightweight classes both globally and in North America. While the purses still lag a bit behind fighters 155 pounds and north, featherweight fighters are not only viewed as legitimate citizens of the fighting populace but are actively celebrated to the point where discussion of a Mike Thomas Brown-Urijah Faber rematch is fervent and heated. 2008 saw Miguel Torres' in-cage brilliance put the bantamweight division on the MMA map for the majority of fans, and while he has yet to reach Chuck Liddell levels of cultural consciousness, his ascent is both startling and refreshing, given the fact that it was just a few short years ago that the viability of lightweights in MMA was still routinely mocked.
However, while we may laud these recent developments for western MMA discourse, the world of Shooto was playing host to bouts at 137 pounds since its professional inception in 1989, with bouts at 126 pounds as early as March 1992, a full 20 months before UFC 1 even took place. If there is one sterling contribution to the greater MMA consciousness that Shooto must be commended for, it is an unflinching and unwavering dedication to MMA truly as sport, which has long manifested itself in the form of providing and promoting a venue for lower weight fighters.
The history of the flyweight division as we know it, however, is a bit more brief. It was in 2001 that Shooto authorities decided to fully establish a 123-pound weight class, following the competitive success of their 143- and 132-pound divisions in years prior. September 2002 saw the division's first significant bout, as former 132-pound world champion Mamoru Yamaguchi was upset by BJJ all-star Robson Moura, who was making his MMA debut. Moura's surprise win accelerated the promotional plan for the division heading into 2003, as Shooto promoters created a series of bouts in the division designed to divine a world champion by year's end.
That March, Yamaguchi dominated Homare Kuboyama to a lopsided decision. Two months later, upstart Yasuhiro Urushitani put on a single-leg takedown defense clinic and upset the grappling king Moura, setting the stage for a Yamaguchi-Urushitani bout at the 2003 year-end show to crown the first world 123-pound champion of professional Shooto.
The bout was transformative in more than just one way. While Yamaguchi would take a unanimous decision and begin his reign as the king of the blossoming division, becoming the only man to hold Shooto world titles in two weight classes, the bout also marked the champion's more familiar image: At the behest of his sponsors, he abandoned his earlier skate punk aesthetics, growing a mustache and an afro in the style of 1970s Japanese boxing icon Yoko Gushiken.
For nearly the next three years, Yamaguchi reigned over Shooto's 123-pound division, and by extension, the flyweight world, which was essentially fully contained within Shooto's walls. However, despite the length of his reign, a host of factors undermined his potential as champion. In his first title defense in August 2004, he won a majority decision against his rival Robson Moura, avenging his upset loss two years prior. Unsatisfied with a close points loss, Moura erupted and launched a protest against the decision, which the International Shooto Commission granted, making the bout a draw and erasing Yamaguchi's revenge.
His reign also saw the rise of the first significant non-Shooto flyweight, as brash-talking firebrand Setsu Iguchi ran up a 7-0 record in GCM events, including an upset of perennial top Shooto contender Yasuhiro Urushitani. Iguchi's crossover to Shooto was inevitable, and it was thought that while the flyweight division was still globally relegated to the small stage, Yamaguchi-Iguchi could be the division's first serious superfight. The bout even prompted the normally straight-lace folks from leading Shooto promoter Sustain to manufacture a pro-wrestling-style showdown between the two fighters in the ring following Yamaguchi's May 2005 decapitation of hapless Stonnie Dennis.
Unfortunately, the cruelty of reality conquered the designs of the flyweight showdown as Iguchi floundered following his Shooto debut. By the time the Yamaguchi-Iguchi bout happened in May 2006, not only had the promotional juice of the fight evaporated, it was a foregone conclusion, as Shooto's afroed ace hacked Iguchi's face apart with clinch knees en route to a one-sided doctor stoppage.
In need of validating performances against interesting rivals -- the plot device that so often defines the greatness of prizefighters -- Yamaguchi's foil then became Shinichi "BJ" Kojima. Their trilogy, however, would be his ultimate undoing as champion. Despite seemingly having done enough to take a points win their March 2006 bout, Yamaguchi only retained his belt on a draw. When they rematched seven months later, it took just 98 seconds for Kojima to take Yamaguchi's back and choke him unconscious to take his throne. In their third encounter this past September, Yamaguchi was 78 seconds from regaining his title on the scorecards when he was snagged in a guillotine that gave Kojima the thrilling come-from-behind victory.
As the second king of the flyweights, BJ Kojima's reign has been uninspiring to say the least. While his theatrical comeback in the third bout with Yamaguchi was a high point, his miserable showing in his first title defense against Yasuhiro Urushitani in March 2007 and his embarrassing, aborted jump up to bantamweight have marred his stature. He is, nonetheless, a favorite heading into his March 20 title defense against the dynamic and exciting Yuki Shoujou, who should at least provide an action-packed bout for the largely flagging champion.
The Future of the Flyweight Division
Ultimately, the outcome of the Kojima-Shoujou bout may not matter. While it is for figuratively all the flyweight marbles, the division is beginning to bubble and brew anew. The current climate of the flyweight division may be extremely ephemeral. We already witnessed the radical restructuring of the featherweight and bantamweight divisions once they globalized, as the weight classes escaped their tiny enclaves in Japan and international fighters got the opportunities they long deserved.
California's Palace Fighting Championship has already quickly carved its niche as a brilliant regional venue, and their emphasis on the flyweight division has been formative. Likewise, Washington D.C.'s Ultimate Warrior Challenge staged their first 125-pound bout in February in which John Dodson and Jose Villirisco stole the show with the blazing brand of action that often typifies the division. In a climate of earnest copycatism, more promoters are going to be looking to follow suit, especially with Zuffa's revelation that the WEC cage may host 125-pounders by the tail end of 2009.
The international talent pool is deepening rapidly. For years, there have been scores of talented athletes who, based on their weight, have had little opportunity to compete in MMA. Some, such as aforementioned Greg Jackson product John Dodson or gritty Guamanian Jess Taitano, have had to routinely take fights at bantamweight or above in order to stay active. Others, like the aforementioned Jose Villarisco or grappling stud Ulysses Gomez, have just recently made MMA debuts because their natural weight classes are now accessible.
At this juncture, the division can rapidly expand on the principle of "if you build it, they will come." For instance, just by virtue of Shooto Brazil holding regular events over the last year, the promotion has fostered the development of several outstanding Brazilian flyweight prospects such as Jucie Formiga, Ralph Lauren and Maicon William.
The crossovers are going to pour in, multiplying exponentially as more promotions afford flyweights the card space. As one of the most popular nak muay in the stadiums of Thailand, Rambaa "M-16" Somdet was the first significant crossover to the flyweight division and will serve as a template for strikers. Robson Moura paved the way for BJJ star crossovers, a role now filled by brilliant BJJ world champion Daniel Otero. And, last but surely not least, the potential influx of outstanding wrestlers from the collegiate and international ranks will be something to behold. 1996 Olympic freestyle bronze medalist Alexis Vila has quietly already racked up a 5-0 record, and he may be the most intriguing prospect in the entire division.
For years, systematic discrimination of the lower weight classes was MMA's version of "turtles all the way down"-style idiocy. At a time that the flyweight division was getting its act together in Japan, many western fans were questioning whether Jens Pulver and B.J. Penn were worthy of headlining a UFC pay-per-view and scoffing at the notion that 155-pounders could ever sell. The eventual acceptance of the lightweight division started the snowball of interest that has led fans to not just tolerating but championing MMA's featherweights and bantamweights.
The flyweight division's holistic integration into MMA is only a natural progression. With the promotional blueprints for organizations both regional and international alike in the near future, flyweights are assured the shine they're long overdue. Kojima-Shoujou, for all its value in the moment, is not likely to give us our first truly great flyweight. However, as the division rapidly globalizes, that moment may not be so many light years away. Then, as Hawking might suggest, we shall all -- philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people -- be able to take part in the discussion of the way flyweights exist.