It’s not hard to understand why the flyweight division, as one of the UFC’s youngest weight classes, is still going through some growing pains. After all, this is a division that was founded when the UFC only had four 125-pound fighters on its roster in early 2012, and they were instantly paired up and sent off to fight in a tournament for the organization’s flyweight title. It was a good way for the UFC to kick off a new division, and with former bantamweight contenders Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez in the mix, it gave fans that were unfamiliar with the flyweight fighters a reason to tune in. Throw in a ready-made fan favorite in Ian McCall, and the UFC basically had three flyweight stars in its pocket before a 125-pound fight even took place in the Octagon.

Two years later, Johnson, Benavidez and McCall are still holding strong as the most popular fighters in the division, along with former TUF winner John Dodson, but outside of those four mens, the division is still completely void of stars. The casual fan is more likely to wonder who the two fighters in the Octagon are than be excited for an average flyweight fight, and many of the guys ranked in the lower half of the division’s top 10 are probably unrecognizable to an average MMA fan.

It probably doesn’t help that the top four at flyweight are expected to knock off any other fighter they compete against, but if anything, that’s another reason the UFC needs to try to spice up the division. Without adding a few fighters that MMA fans can get excited about when they’re matched up with the McCalls and Dodsons of the division, there’s really no point in getting excited about the division at all.

Many fans thought they were going to have a new reason to care about the flyweights when the UFC signed highly touted prospect Sergio Pettis, the younger brother of current lightweight champion Anthony, to a contract earlier this year. Pettis had split his time between the flyweight and bantamweight divisions during his 9-0 run prior to signing with the UFC. After winning the RFA flyweight crown back in June, it felt like only a matter of time before we saw “The Phenom” make his Octagon debut. After all, having family ties to a popular fighter like “Showtime” was only going to make Sergio a must-see fighter for many MMA fans, and his reputation as a highly talented prospect only added intrigue to the anticipated arrival of 20-year-old fighter. If any division needed a shot in the arm like Pettis could help provide, it was definitely the flyweight roster, and Pettis seemed primed to be in position for a few big opportunities early on in his UFC career.

When Pettis was announced as a bantamweight for his UFC debut, the head-scratching began.

It’s not that Pettis was going to single-handedly become a savior for the flyweight division, but he was one of the highly touted prospects that only comes along once or twice a year and the 125-pound weight class seemed like a perfect fit for him. Not only would Pettis immediately become one of the more popular fighters in the flyweight division, but with barely 20 fighters listed on the UFC’s 125-pound roster, “The Phenom” would be on the fast track to a spot in the top 10 and a few massive opportunities.

Compare that to the bantamweight division, which currently has two champions and double the number of fighters as there are at flyweight. It’s going to be a much slower climb to the top at 135 pounds, and it seemed bizarre that Pettis would opt to compete at bantamweight instead of attempting to take a fast track to a title fight.

It seemed like the UFC lost an opportunity to create a new star in the flyweight division by signing Pettis as a bantamweight, but in reality, this is probably the correct choice for both the UFC and Sergio.

Despite his obvious talent and a knack for UFC gold in his blood, Pettis is better off taking a slower, more gradual build towards title contention at bantamweight than getting thrown to the wolves in the UFC’s 125-pound division. Although it’s easy to bash the UFC’s smallest division for its lack of depth, there’s no denying that the top fighters in the division are extremely good at what they do. With top-ranked bantamweights Scott Jorgensen and Brad Pickett both dropping down to 125 in the next few months, the flyweight division is suddenly going to have six or seven extremely talented fighters making up the bulk of its top 10. However, unlike at bantamweight, there will be no chance to gradually move up the ranks towards a top-10 matchup.

As good as Pettis has looked in smaller promotions, it’s hard to believe that he’s ready to compete with the Dodsons and the McCalls of the division. With less than two dozen fighters currently on the UFC’s flyweight roster, the UFC would have little choice to but match Pettis against a top-ranked contender within his first two or three fights.

By starting out in the bantamweight division, Pettis will have a chance to get his feet wet against slightly easier opposition for his first few fights inside the Octagon. The bantamweight division is still full of tough guys, but the jump from UFC newcomer to top-ranked contender won’t come quite as quickly for Pettis. Considering that “The Phenom” isn’t even old enough to drink yet, that’s probably a good thing. Plus, who knows, after a few fights Pettis may decide to take his talents south to flyweight and add a spark to the division as a contender in a much bigger way.

As tempting as it must have been for Pettis to sign with the UFC and immediately attempt to jump into the title mix at 125, Pettis and the UFC probably made the right choice by setting him up at bantamweight. He was slated to make his debut against Vaughan Lee at UFC 167, but will now take on Will Campuzano, who oddly enough steps into the bantamweight bout after a strong run of his own as a flyweight. Lee and Campuzano, not Dodson and McCall, comprise the level of competition against which Pettis must prove himself right now.

It’s obvious that both the UFC and the MMA community are excited about Pettis’ potential, and much like the UFC has done in the past with highly touted young fighters such as Jon Jones and Rory MacDonald, the promotion seems content with letting Pettis grow as a fighter before matching him up against the best the UFC as to offer. Pettis may never end up being as successful as a guy like Jones or MacDonald, but the UFC has booked him to make sure he’s on that path heading into his Octagon debut.

It’s obvious that the MMA community sees Pettis as a potential future star, and by letting Pettis gradually work his way into title contention, the UFC is showing that it believes it as well.

Photo: Sergio Pettis (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.