UFC 2018 Mid-Year Title Race Report Part One: Flyweight to Featherweight

Marlon Moraes UFC Utica UFC Fortaleza, Raphael Assuncao
Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

We’re nearly halfway through the year, and title races in several UFC divisions are heating up. Others? Not so much. Where are the title pictures in the promotion’s weight classes headed as we enter the second stanza of 2018?

Due to injuries, bad weight cuts, and more, the year has had a start-and-stop feel to the title races in many of the UFC’s divisions. We’ve still had several title fights, but haven’t seen any UFC championships change hands yet this year. That is likely to change at some point in 2018.

Despite the messy matchmaking, we’ve been treated to some impressive performances, fun match-ups, and even some dolly-drama that still boggles the mind. Given the less-than-straightforward action atop many of the UFC’s weight classes thus far this year, what do we have to look forward to the rest of 2018?

We decided to take a look at the title races in each and every division in the promotion, and where they could be headed during the next six months. We’ll have four parts, with a few weight classes featured in each part. In this inaugural edition, we’re breaking down the title picture for the rest of the year in the men’s flyweight, bantamweight, and featherweight divisions.

Flyweight: Zzzzzzzzz

There hasn’t been a UFC division with less going on in the title picture than the men’s 125-pound weight class.

A major reason for that is champion Demetrious Johnson’s shoulder surgery in January. Another is number one contender Joseph Benavidez’s torn ACL, which sidelined him for 14 months. Luckily, Benavidez is slated to return at UFC 225 against Sergio Pettis.

Benavidez is currently on a six fight winning streak. Despite already having two losses to Johnson under his belt, the flyweight division is lacking contenders. Over the last few years, Benavidez has a better resumé than anyone else. Barring a surprising booking for Mighty Mouse’s next title-defense, Benavidez could get another shot sometime in 2018. But, Benavidez needs to defeat Pettis first.

There’s also Henry Cejudo, who has done nothing but improve since suffering back-to-back defeats to Johnson and Benavidez in 2016. Cejudo is yet to fight this year, but earned victories over Wilson Reis and Pettis last year. If the promotion really doesn’t feel the need for Johnson-Benavidez 3, they could go with Johnson-Cejudo 2 instead.

While the top six ranked UFC flyweight fighters have one fight between them in 2018 (Jussier Formiga defeating Ben Nguyen at UFC 221), things should pick up in the second half of the year. With Benavidez-Pettis scheduled, and Johnson due back soon, we have our hopes up for some fun flyweight fights over the coming months.

Bantamweight: Moraes Making Moves

The first bantamweight title bout will take place in the second-half of the year, when TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt rematch for the belt in July. Even though we were treated to nearly a year’s worth of buildup for their first fight at UFC 217, nobody is complaining about getting to watch these two rivals throw down again. If it didn’t happen now, it would’ve eventually. Which is better? Who’s to say?

The fight was almost the short-notice main event replacement for UFC 222, but Dillashaw turned the bout down. Now, we’ll be getting it as the main event of UFC 227.

Dillashaw made it clear he didn’t want to grant Garbrandt an immediate rematch. He contrasted the situation to the road he had to take in order to get another shot at the 135-pound title after losing it to Dominick Cruz in January of 2017. Due to the lack of another contender taking the clear spot as the next challenger, Garbrandt is benefiting from being a much bigger draw than, say, Jimmie Rivera or Marlon Moraes.

For Rivera, things could’ve been much different as we head into the final six months of the year. Initially slated to fight Dominick Cruz at UFC 219 last December, Rivera was pulled from the card after Cruz was removed due to injury. Then, Rivera was given the main event slot of UFC Utica against fellow hopeful title-challenger Marlon Moraes a few months later. In about half a minute, the narrative in the 135-pound title-picture drastically changed.

Marlon Moraes UFC Utica
Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Coming into the bout Rivera had won 20 consecutive fights, including five in a row in the UFC. With a win over Cruz to cap off 2017, Rivera would’ve had even more of an argument to be the next-in-line to challenge Dillashaw. Instead, that road was made to go through Moraes, who stopped Rivera in his tracks with a stunning head-kick KO in 33 seconds.

Now, rather than Rivera, Moraes is the fighter with the best case for a shot at the belt after we enjoy Dillashaw-Garbrandt 2. A couple of other fighters, namely Cruz and Raphael Assuncao, might have other ideas.

Cruz has a relatively recent win over Dillashaw, and an even more recent loss to Garbrandt. His resumé speaks for itself. Just as they did with Dillashaw-Garbrandt 2, we could see the promotion hot-shotting a Cruz title-rematch, regardless of who wins at UFC 227.

For Assuncao, the situation is a bit tougher. Despite having victories over both Dillashaw and Moraes, the Brazilian is by far the lowest profile fighter of the bunch. Assuncao has won three fights in a row, and lost just once since August of 2011. But, two finishes in those 11 bouts leaves something to be desired from a promotional standpoint.

Each of these guys has a chance at getting a title-shot in 2018, given the right circumstances. Things change quickly in MMA, and the bantamweight division has already proven that this year. We wouldn’t hate seeing Moraes matchup with either Dillashaw or Garbrandt in the coming months, but there aren’t many wrong answers in the 135-pound title-picture at the moment.

Featherweight: Don’t Doubt Ortega

There’s no doubting who the King of the Featherweights is, following Max Holloway’s duo of victories against former champ Jose Aldo last year. The Hawaiian has arrived.

He had the chance to cement that status with even more certainty when he was scheduled to fight Frankie Edgar, for the second time, at UFC 222 in March. Instead, it was Holloway’s turn to suffer an injury. Rather than sit on the sideline and wait for Holloway to heal, Edgar took a risk. That risk was Brian Ortega.

Ortega took advantage of the short-notice opportunity, somehow managing to look more impressive than he did in his win over Cub Swanson a few months earlier. The undefeated 27-year-old KO’d the former lightweight champ in the first round, and became the new number one contender in the 145-pound weight class.

Ortega will be the opponent for Holloway’s first title-defense of the year at UFC 226 in July. We can’t wait. This match-up is must-see action, and is one of the most stylistically interesting bouts of the year. The winner will probably defend the belt once more in 2018, depending on their health. So, who could they possibly face?

If Frankie Edgar still has his sights on a featherweight title fight, he needs to get there sooner rather than later. His bounce-back win over Swanson, following the loss to Ortega, was a great start. With another win under his belt, or the injury bug biting someone other than him, Edgar could easily find himself fighting for the belt later this year.

While there’s no need for Holloway-Aldo 3, it’ll take more than back-to-back losses to the Hawaiian for us to doubt Aldo. He gets a stern test against the on-fire Jeremy Stephens at UFC Calgary in late July. Should Aldo earn the win, and Holloway lose the belt, the Brazilian could find himself in the title-picture conversation as well.

Don’t count out Stephens, either. We know the idea of “Lil Heathen” getting a title-shot in 2018 seems odd, but the dude is on a roll. He’s won three straight bouts, knocking out Doo Ho Choi and Josh Emmett already in 2018. Two of his last three losses, dating back to 2015, have come against the likes of Holloway and Edgar. If Stephens can overcome Aldo, he’ll deservingly be one of the best options available for a late-year featherweight title bout.

Let us know what you think about the title-races in these divisions, and where you think they’re headed for the final half of the year! Comment below, on Facebook, or reply on Twitter! Don’t forget to check out the parts that follow this piece for a look at the rest of the title-pictures in each and every UFC division for the rest of 2018.