LAS VEGAS — Two years ago, the UFC transaction wire was churning with flyweights who were being released from their contracts. Near the end of 2018, the great Demetrious Johnson was traded for Ben Askren, a fighter that UFC president Dana White had repeatedly and viciously mocked.
The message, even though White wasn’t talking, was unmistakably clear: The division’s days are numbered.
But two years later, the flyweights are in the best position they’ve been in since the UFC added the weight class in 2012. It has a champion, Deiveson Figueiredo, who is a budding star, and a slew of exciting young contenders.
Figueiredo made his first title defense Saturday by catching Alex Perez in a slick guillotine as Perez hopped to the mat in hopes of using his wrestling. Figueiredo reached to the side, caught Perez’s neck and forced the tap at 1:57 of the first.
“If you don’t like this guy, you ought to stop watching fights,” UFC president Dana White said of Figueiredo. “Find a new hobby if you don’t like watching him.”
Figueiredo joined the UFC in 2017, just as the UFC began to thin out its roster of 125-pound fighters. He believed deeply in his ability to be a difference-maker, but he wasn’t certain if he’d get the opportunity.
He saw fighters leaving left and right and didn’t know if he would be next.
“I was very very concerned about the finish of the flyweight division,” Figueiredo said. “When I saw the people talk about the finish of the division, I was worried. I came to flyweight division to knock everyone out, to submit them and to show everybody the excitement and the power of the flyweight division.”
As Figueiredo spoke of his plans — he’s expected to come back on Dec. 12 at UFC 256 to face Brandon Moreno, who stopped Brandon Royval on the undercard — he was asked why he thinks he can capture the imagination of the fan base when a fighter as great as Johnson did not.
Johnson is one of the greatest fighters who ever lived, but he was not a hugely popular champion.
“I have style; I have charisma,” Figueiredo said.
He also has talent, and loads of it. Moreno figures to be a significant challenge for him, though he simply shrugged off the thought he may have problems. Moreno got the finish as he took Royval down late in the first and was punching him when Royval’s shoulder popped out.
It made him the logical next contender, and White confirmed after the card that Figueiredo would fight in December, be it at UFC 256 on Dec. 12 or on a Fight Night card the following week. Wallid Ismail, Figueiredo’s manager, said it would be Dec. 12.
Figueiredo didn’t seem to care much what was next. He just plans to put together a long streak of defenses.
“It’s true that [former champion Henry] Cejudo was a great champion and important for the flyweight division,” Figueiredo said. “But I am the champion now and I am going to hold this for a long time and show the world what I can do. I am going to be champion for a long time and I am predicting there are going to be a lot of knockouts and submissions coming up.”
Shevchenko delivers commanding victory
He wasn’t the only great flyweight fighting on Saturday. In the co-main event, women’s champion Valentina Shevchenko won a unanimous decision over Jennifer Maia, but the big news is that she dropped the second round.
Shevchenko has been so dominant that when she doesn’t completely run away from the opposition, it’s news these days.
Maia was tougher than expected, but Shevchenko said she felt she was in complete command.
Maia is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt but Shevchenko kept taking her down. Instead of playing away from Maia’s strength, she focused on what she wanted to accomplish.
“I have no doubt in my ground game, no doubt in my stand-up and no doubt in my wrestling,” Shevchenko said. “I don’t feel fear in any position. I’m confident in any of those positions.”
She’ll wind up fighting Jessica Andrade next, and Shevchenko said she wants to get back quickly. She is interested in a third fight with bantamweight/featherweight champion Amanda Nunes, but White suggested she may see strawweight champion Zhang Weili if she beats Andrade.
She said she’d like another crack at Nunes, but not in an empty arena.
“That third fight has to be something big,” she said. “It has to be the right time and the right place with a lot of crowd and a lot of energy. It will happen some day and when it does, it will be huge.”
Huge was a word that was thrown a lot on Saturday. It was a huge night for the flyweight division, on both the men’s and the women’s side.
For the men, though, it was particularly significant. There was at least a buzz about the 125-pounders after so much indifference for so long. The only thing Figueiredo had to complain about was not getting a post-fight bonus.
“He’s a showman,” Ismail said of Figueiredo. “If you like to be entertained, he’s going to entertain you and he’s going to do a lot of spectacular things.”
More from Yahoo Sports: