At both extremes of division, the sport of mixed martial arts struggles. There aren’t enough talented big men to have quality heavyweight divisions across the board, nor are there a sufficient number of gifted athletes competing at 135 pounds and below to create adequate challenges for the best fighters on the planet.
It’s a consistent reality that takes its toll on two MMA headliners in early December, rearing its ugly head at both Bellator 166 and The Ultimate Fighter 24 Finale.
We start with the more obvious example, one that starts and ends with one name: Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson.
Far and away the greatest flyweight mixed martial artist on the planet, Johnson has sprinted past — and perhaps lapped — even his most talented contemporaries. Both a dynamic striker to counter elite grapplers and an elite grappler to counter dynamic strikers, “Mighty Mouse” has an answer for everything. He thrives in all areas, exposing the slight weaknesses of truly elite contenders, and amplifying them into devastating victories for himself.
A champion too dominant for his own good, Johnson became a problem for the UFC from the moment roman numerals forced their way into his resume. Johnson vs. Benavidez II or Johnson vs. Dodson II, the UFC quickly ran out of names to challenge the sport’s pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter just three defenses into his title reign.
Cue The Ultimate Fighter 24, a tournament built entirely on the gimmick of finding one more name destined to bite the dust before Johnson ventures back into a world of rematches and trilogies. Should Johnson beat the last man standing at TUF 24 (and he really, really should), he essentially has three options in front of him: Johnson vs. Benavidez III, Johnson vs. Cejudo II or Johnson vs. Horiguchi II.
Hellbent on breaking the UFC’s consecutive title defense record held by Anderson Silva at 10 straight, Johnson needs three more wins to take that throne for himself. Chances are he gets there without so much as a scratch on his face. Chances are, though, he’ll have to reunite with fighters he’s already crushed to do so.
Again, this isn’t an issue exclusive to Johnson and the UFC. Rematches often plague the sport as a result of dominant champions like “Mighty Mouse” or a low total of quality challengers like Bellator’s bantamweight class.
Bellator 166 marks the fourth time Joe Warren competes for a Bellator title in six years. A former featherweight and bantamweight (interim and undisputed) champion with the company, Warren looks to snag the undisputed bantamweight crown once more in a rematch against the man he dethroned a little over two years ago. Warren’s gone 2-2 since defeating Eduardo Dantas in 2014, dropping the title to Marcos Galvao in 2015 (who lost it back to Dantas in 2016).
“It’s a very normal fight for me,” Warren told MMA Weekly. “It’s another title fight, another title shot in Thackerville, it’s like my home territory there. Dantas and I fought there in the same situation a few years ago, and I beat him, so it’s a real comfortable situation.”
Warren doesn’t ride an impeccable winning streak into his latest attempt at Bellator gold. A dominant victory over Sirwan Kakai is all the 40-year-old Michigan native has going for him. It was a win that followed perhaps the worst loss of his pro career — a submission defeat to Darrion Caldwell in a bout that lasted just over three minutes this March.
Issue is, more than anything, a lack of viable talent available at 135 pounds. Rostering just 12 fighters at bantamweight, Bellator’s championship scene over the past four years has been a mix of Warren, Galvao and Dantas. Add in a forgettable name or two for safe measure, but this trio essentially sums it all up.
Caldwell seemed a promising name to follow, but a defeat to Joe Taimanglo in July (one Bellator is shamelessly trying to correct, mind you) showed enough flaws in his game to take a step back and reconvene. That said, one win over the only man to beat him Saturday at Bellator 167 and “The Wolf” likely propels himself into a title shot he already earned with a win over Warren earlier this year.
Let’s not even imagine the monotony that’ll ensue if Warren actually beats Dantas Friday at Bellator 166, either. Warren vs. Caldwell II is about as enticing a matchup as Warren vs. Galvao III.
For as much as we can express and analyze the problems concerning both Bellator’s bantamweight and the UFC’s flyweight divisions, there’s not much that can realistically be done. Outside of forcing Johnson to lose interest in breaking the company record and take his talents to bantamweight, or infusing Bellator with a slew of unavailable or nonexistent fighters, we’re bound to get more of the same.