UFC president Dana White is a man who has always seemed able to sell anything when it comes to his business. For some reason, those skills as a salesman have never really translated into his approach to the flyweight division -- a division that sees it's newly-crowned champion make his first title defense in the main event of UFC 255 on Saturday when Deiveson Figueiredo puts the belt on the line against Alex Perez.
Figueiredo is just the third champion in the history of the division and now is placed in the position of needing to become the face of a weight class that has struggled to gain mainstream attention and was close to being cut entirely from the UFC.
The first champion in division history was Demetrious Johnson, who held the championship for more than 2,000 days, defended the title successfully 11 times, established himself as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world and produced some of the most spectacular moments in UFC history. Still, the story of Johnson's time with the promotion is largely dominated by accusations the UFC never lived up to the opportunity to promote the best fighter in the world and bitter words exchanged between Johnson and White.
When Johnson finally lost the title via split decision to Henry Cejudo in their highly-competitive rematch, the UFC executed the first trade in promotional history, sending Johnson to ONE Championship in exchange for Ben Askren just months later.
Cejudo seemed an easier sell than Johnson to White, who told ESPN, "I had a guy who was completely dominant. Every time he fought he was exciting and he always went for the finish, but people didn't care. Nobody cared whatsoever about Demetrious Johnson. Henry Cejudo might be that guy that people care about."
Where Johnson built a following as one of the early figures in combat sports who created a following playing video games on Twitch, Cejudo was more willing to play into the standard promotional game of big trash talk and "cringe" moments that would easily go viral.
However, Cejudo made just one title defense -- knocking out T.J. Dillashaw in just 32 seconds -- before moving up to bantamweight. Cejudo won the 135-pound championship and vacated the flyweight title, leaving the struggling division without anyone at the wheel.
Figueiredo seemed placed as the B-side in his first fight with Joseph Benavidez at their UFC Fight Night clash in February. Benavidez had built a resume as the second best flyweight in promotion history, having lost to Johnson twice, with one of those by very close split decision, and owning a win over Ceudo. With the vacant title on the line, Figueiredo missed weight, losing his opportunity to win the title. And, when he knocked out Benavidez in the second round, a second flurry of controversy followed after it appeared an accidental headbutt stunned Benavidez to set up the finish.
He removed all questions in the rematch, however, hurting Benavidez on the feet before submitting him on the ground in the first round. With that, Figueiredo became champion and the division had a path forward.
But it once again felt as if UFC was skeptical of its champion's ability to sell with the promotion scheduling Figueiredo's first defense against former bantamweight titleholder Cody Garbrandt. That fight was booked despite Garbrandt never having fought at 125 pounds and only having a single victory since the beginning of 2017.
"We want him to prove he can make 125 pounds and fight someone in my weight class," Figueiredo told MMAFighting.com before the fight had been scheduled. "After that, if he wins, he can come fight me. But we don't agree with him coming down and skipping the line and going straight for the belt against me. He needs to prove he can make 125 and fight someone. It would be unfair if the UFC puts him straight for the belt. I think the UFC has to respect the others that worked hard for a title shot."
With Garbrandt forced out of the bout due to injury, Perez got the call to step up. While the Garbrandt fight was a bigger fight in terms of profile, Perez is the more established talent at flyweight.
Now comes the hard work for Figueiredo. In a division that has struggled with visibility, will he be able to establish himself as a dynamic finisher fans are willing to tune in to see? And will the UFC throw the full weight of their promotion behind the division and the champion?
It begins with the Perez fight. Simply winning may not be enough to start building Figueiredo up as star. He may need to become a blend of personality, excitement and longevity to capture the imagination of the fans -- and his promoters. Of course, that didn't work out for Johnson. But Figueiredo seems to know the division is his to guide moving forward.
"I'm the lead singer of the flyweight division," Figueiredo said during a UFC 255 virtual media day interview. "I come to bring excitement to the weight class and I'm going to put on a show on Saturday, that's for sure. Once again, I'll prove why our weight class deserves praise."