After Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson absolutely destroyed top contender Joseph Benavidez to retain his UFC flyweight belt in less than three minutes late last year, it became clear that Johnson had entered a league of his own as the premier fighter at 125 pounds.

The decisive victory was a major feather in the cap of the flyweight champ. After squeaking by the Team Alpha Male veteran in their inaugural title fight back in September 2012, Johnson was finally able to prove his superiority over his rival. When you throw in his convincing victories over John Dodson and John Moraga that were sandwiched between the Benavidez bouts, it’s clear that Mighty Mouse has become one of the most dominant fighters in the promotion. The problem is, the UFC is going to have a tough time keeping him credible unless the promotion can add some star power to its prestige-deprived flyweight ranks.

With Benavidez in his rear-view mirror, the list of viable challengers to Johnson’s flyweight belt is at an all-time low. There’s no doubt that Johnson and Benavidez are the two most popular fighters in the division, and since Johnson has already defeated fan-favorites Dodson and Ian McCall, he’s going to be fighting opponents with little to no fanfare for at least his next fight or two.

If there’s a bright side to having no real stars in title contention, it’s that the most deserving fighter usually gets the shot at the champion. When names get thrown out of the window, the fighter with the best resume is usually the one that gets the push to the next level. Following a three-fight winning streak and a victory over another top flyweight contender in John Lineker, Ali Bagautinov left little doubt that he is the man most deserving of a crack at Johnson. He’ll get his shot at UFC 174 this summer.

Despite having never competed outside of his native Russia, Bagautinov entered the UFC with a bit of hype behind him due to his reputation as an exciting fighter on the Russian circuit. After being awarded a main-card spot opposite Marcos Vinicius for his UFC debut in front of a partisan Brazilian crowd for Vinicius, it didn’t take long for “Puncher King” to live up to his billing.

Bagautinov landed a big shot early in the bout to put Vinicius on the ropes, and although the Brazilian was able to tough it out and even put Bagautinov in trouble at one point, the Russian fighter was eventually able to score the knockout late in the bout. The win was an eye-opener for fight fans looking for potential title contenders in the shallow flyweight division, and it caught the eye of matchmaker Sean Shelby enough to earn Bagautinov a spot on a pay-per-view main card his next time out.

The step up in competition turned out to be a bout with Tim Elliott on the UFC 167 main card last November. Elliott is known to fight at the same sort of frenetic pace that Bagautinov likes to set, and most fans expected an incredibly fast-paced war of attrition between two of the divisions toughest fighters. That’s exactly what they received.

It was clear from the onset that Bagautinov was the technically superior striker. He was for the most part able to avoid the onslaught of offense coming at him from Elliott while making sure to get his licks in at the same time. However, it was the relentless pressure from Elliott that made this fight competitive. If he couldn’t land with the accuracy and power that Bagautinov was throwing, he could sure as hell land more. Elliott’s strong performance in a losing effort only made the unanimous decision win for Bagautinov more impressive.

After two consecutive “Fight of the Night”-worthy performances—neither fight actually won an award—a fighter with a little more clout probably would have been able to slip into a flyweight title fight. However, since half of the people reading this still don’t know how to pronounce Bagautinov, “Puncher King” was going to have some more work to do.

When Bagautinov was matched up against top-five ranked John Lineker at UFC 169 just a few months after the Russian was able to take out Elliott, the fight was viewed as a platform for the winner to try to sneak into a title bout. With Johnson waiting on the sidelines after beating Benavidez in December, there was no obvious challenger to the flyweight belt and both Bagautinov and Lineker were riding impressive winning streaks into the fight.

Lineker was on an impressive four-fight streak that had seen him finish all but one of his opponents with strikes. Ordinarily, this type of run at 125 pounds would be enough to get a crack at UFC gold, but the Brazilian had also missed weight in three of his five UFC bouts. The promotion wasn’t going to take the chance the Lineker’s weight issues would ruin a title fight, so he was pushed into another bout with a top contender instead. A win for the Brazilian would likely result in a title fight as long as he made weight, but Bagautinov’s future was much less certain. Unless the former sambo champion could put on an impressive performance in a win, the title shot was likely still up for grabs.

Although Bagautinov may not have blown everyone away with his performance against Lineker, he was able to show off parts of his game that we hadn’t seen before en route to his decision win. He found most of his success on the feet in his first two UFC bouts, but against a dangerous power puncher like Lineker, the Russian native decided to show off his sambo background in order to get the job done.

A dominant first round for Bagautinov consisted of the Team Jackson’s fighter spamming takedowns and keeping his explosive opponent on his back. It appeared he had quickly figured out the blueprint to beating Lineker. However, a dicey second round that saw Lineker pepper Bagautinov’s body with hooks and leave the Russian in obvious pain towards the end of the round put the result into doubt. Bagautinov was able to gut it out and return to his game plan in the final round to pull off the decision win. It was anything but easy, but it allowed him to prove that his ground game and toughness were up to par if the promotion decided to grant him a title bout.

It took a few months, but the UFC finally decided that Bagautinov was the best option to fight Mighty Mouse this summer. After former bantamweight contender Brad Pickett underperformed in his flyweight debut by winning a surprisingly competitive decision over Neil Seery in March, Bagautinov was the clear top pick to throw in the cage opposite Johnson, whether or not he’d proved he could compete on a championship level. With the fight actually signed, it will be interesting to see how Bagautinov performs when he’s thrown into the fire.

On paper, this is a fight that Mighty Mouse should dominate in all areas. Johnson has outperformed some of the top strikers in the division in Dodson and Benavidez over the last year, even scoring a quick knockout over the latter. That could spell trouble for Bagautinov, who showed glimpses of weakness on the feet against Vinicius and Elliott, not to mention that he tried to avoid the situation entirely against Lineker. When he’s had success on the feet, Bagautinov has either been balls-to-the-wall aggressive or waited back to counter an equally aggressive striker. Johnson’s ability to dart in and out of the pocket is going to make either one of the strategies tough to implement, and since he’s made the drop to flyweight, there’s been no real blueprint on how to slow down the champ on his feet.

Things don’t get any easier on the mat against Johnson, whether for Bagautinov or any of the other top fighters in the division. Johnson’s incredible footwork and elusiveness make him ridiculously hard to grab a hold of, and it’s no picnic getting Mighty Mouse to the mat even if you get your hands on him. Bagautinov was able to get Lineker to the mat with relative ease, but the champ is a completely different kind of animal. Even the Russian’s world championship in sambo doesn’t instill a ton of confidence in his ability to get Johnson to the mat and keep him there.

Bagautinov is likely coming into this title fight with a puncher’s chance at best. Against an opponent as difficult to hit as Johnson, that’s pretty much a worst-case scenario. In all likelihood, Bagautinov is going to put on an exciting fight. He may even be able to get a few shots in on the champion in the process. But it’s hard to envision a scenario where “Puncher King” is able to pull off an upset. Johnson is just a level or two above him in too many key areas of the game for Bagautinov to have a realistic chance at winning more than a round or two, let alone the fight.

It’s stunning to realize how outgunned Bagautinov is despite clearly being the fighter most deserving of the title shot. It shows off both the dominance of Johnson and the crippling lack of depth in the flyweight division right now. Benavidez and Dodson are still considered the second and third best fighters in the weight class, but both men have a ways to go before they can get back into a title bout. Pickett is an intriguing option due to his past win over Mighty Mouse, but his lackluster debut at 125—combined with the fact that it’s been four years since he defeated Johnson—takes a lot of luster out of that match-up.

This title fight is likely going to be met with a bit of cynicism from MMA fans. But look at the big picture. This was really the only option for the UFC at this point. The number of credible challengers in the division is at an all-time low, and the UFC had to suck it up and make do with what it had. Bagautinov is an exciting fighter who has put together a solid winning streak. You can’t ask for much more than that in a division where the champion is quickly establishing himself as a fighter on another level than his competition. As the number of quality flyweights starts to grow, so will the competition Johnson has to face on a fight-to-fight basis. Hopefully there will come a day when Mighty Mouse has to run into a murderer’s row of opponents. Until then, Johnson is going to keep dominating.

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.