Among the men and women, they might not be the most popular batch of competitors. But everyone has an opinion on the flyweight divisions. Whether it’s negative or positive, it’s generally pretty strong in one direction or the other.
In 2017, the UFC finally decided to bridge the gap between the 115-pound strawweight class and the 135-pound bantamweights. In doing so, it somehow managed to dilapidate what was arguably the strongest women’s division worldwide in MMA. At least for the time being…
Fast forward to October 2020 and things at 125-pounds are starting to heat up heavily once again.
It’s taken the UFC’s division about three years to get to this more solidified ground of top competitors. However, the dominance of their champion, Valentina Shevchenko, casts a familiar spell over the community similar to that of Demetrious Johnson during his run. Thus presenting the image that the division is weak when in reality the champion is just that damn good. For example, look at how much more openly excited for the UFC men’s flyweight bouts the community has become since Johnson departed for ONE Championship.
The 125ers were always talented, exciting, and competitive amongst each other, it was just that they were a notch below those at the peak. The same has started to be said about Shevchenko and her line of challengers. For a while, that was a bit of the same notion for Bellator’s undefeated queenpin, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane. But in 2020, the promotion has bolstered their roster significantly as new threats have emerged and things are seriously ramping up.
Bellator now has a very strong batch of fighters holding down the top of the mountain. Whether it be with new signings or homegrown stars further developing.
The aforementioned Macfarlane is the only flyweight champion that Bellator has ever had. And during her reign, “The Pineapple Princess” has become a bonafide superstar and icon for her home of Hawaii.
Boasting a stellar 11-0 record, Macfarlane’s entire pro-MMA career, outside of her debut, has come inside the Bellator cage. Her six victories by submission and one via TKO accompanied by four consecutive title defenses have solidified her as one of the best in the world and a flyweight legend.
The champion has passed every test to this point with flying colors by utilizing her superior grappling skills against every one of her opponents. There’s proven to not be many who can hang on the ground with the 10th Planet BJJ brown belt. But on paper, that appears to be inevitably changing here in the not so distant future. And if it doesn’t, then it will further show just how excellent of a fighter and champion “The Ilimanator” truly is.
A Lethal Shadow
At this very moment, four different contenders have rock-solid claims at getting the next title shot in Bellator’s flyweight class. The only difference is that one of them has had their claim for the longest amount of time and likely should have gotten it already.
As impressive as Macfarlane’s double-digit perfect record is, it’s not alone among the division’s finest. After securing her last victory in December, Brazil’s Juliana Velasquez also joined the esteemed champion with a lovely 10-0.
Five fights into her Bellator tenure now and the Judo black belt has firmly established herself as the top challenger. Of those five wins, two ended with TKOs of Kristina Williams and Rebecca Ruth, while the other was an armbar of Na Liang. In the two wins that saw Velasquez go the distance, she most recently outworked Bruna Ellen with the other coming against former title challenger, Alejandra Lara.
Velasquez’s technique is sharp and dangerous everywhere, whether striking or dishing out her Judo throws. Having seen what she’s done in 10 straight fights now, the 34-year old is one of the flyweight division’s current best regardless of promotion. Yet she remains the most overshadowed.
So, realistically, the little titles for these fighter entries could see three different variations of “The Champion”, but it’s better to try and be slightly more creative than that. Either way, “Miss Dynamite” Denise Kielholtz is the second of three recent or current titleholders among this bunch.
Like Velasquez, Kielholtz is also a phenomenal Judoka that possesses a black belt in the art. However, her grappling is surprisingly not what she’s best known for.
6-2 in her MMA career, the Amsterdam native first joined Bellator as a notable 14-1 kickboxing champion. And it wouldn’t be long until Kielholtz claimed the Bellator Kickboxing flyweight crown and still hangs onto it to this day — that’s assuming that Bellator Kickboxing is in fact still a thing… Her record now sits at 18-2 overall.
As much as fans have gotten accustomed to seeing Kielholtz’s beautiful striking, she is absolutely no slouch on the ground. The Team Schreiber representative actually has more submission wins on her MMA record than finishes by strikes. All of which were executed in unique fashions starting with a scarfhold armbar to an Americana before getting the much more common rear-naked choke.
Seemingly fully focused on MMA now with the KB league in limbo, Kielholtz has been blazing hot in her last four fights. All of which she’s managed to score finishes in. The most recent three all coming in less than two minutes and fifteen seconds.
In her first MMA main event, Kielholtz put away the most recent title challenger, Kate Jackson, in only 42 seconds. Something that Macfarlane couldn’t do in five whole rounds. There might not be a flyweight in the division right now worldwide that has more going for them than “Miss Dynamite”.
The Perennial Elite
Vanessa Porto (22-8) is finally getting her long-awaited opportunity to fight on one of MMA’s biggest stages.
A 15-year veteran of the sport, Porto is one of the division’s longest-standing perennial elites. She’s been a consistent force in the global top 5 and for a good while was just stuck in that Jon Fitch or Urijah Faber-like position of not being able to beat the tippy top fighters.
Ultimately, persistence has been key for the Brazilian as she’s only worked harder and harder to continually improve over time. It ended up paying off with a shiny new title this past year when she defeated Pearl Gonzalez to become the Invicta FC champion. The third time was the charm in title fights for the Americana, Sao Paulo native.
Since then Porto has defeated top prospect out of Mexico, Karina Rodriguez, to extend her winning streak to four.
Her experience is unmatched in the division especially pertaining to her new home of Bellator. It remains a surprise that the UFC decided to skip out on the Porto sweepstakes when starting up their weight class, but here we are.
And as she comes in as a streaking champion that didn’t lose her title, that’s argument enough to give Porto an instant crack at Macfarlane. Either way, her supreme well-roundedness, and elite-level veteran savvy will be tough to deal with for anyone standing across the cage.
Similar to Porto, Liz Carmouche (14-7) brings in some serious experience to the Bellator roster. Like a fine wine, the two seem to only be getting better with age.
Carmouche has historically been one of the best and strongest wrestlers among the fighters in the bantamweight division. Since dropping to flyweight upon the UFC’s creation of the division in 2017, that’s been shown to an even more effective degree.
“Girlrilla’s” lone losses at 125-pounds came against Shevchenko where she was essentially shut down over the course of five rounds. The other being in her divisional debut in what arguably should have been a win against Alexis Davis. Outside of those fights, Carmouche has majorly had her way with all of her opponents.
In her Bellator debut in particular which came this past month, Carmouche scored her first victory by finish since 2013 by submitting an always game DeAnna Bennett. We saw glimpses of the old Carmouche with some new motivation having jumped ships.
If your nickname isn’t “Bullet”, then stylistically Carmouche continues to show she’s never an easy out for anyone and one of the top fighters at 125.
Judo and gold appear to be the themes of the Bellator flyweight ranks. And that’s partly in thanks to one Kana Watanabe.
Yes, admittedly, Watanabe is not currently a Bellator flyweight. However, the RIZIN and Deep Jewels standout made her debut in the promotion to close out 2019 where she continued her winning ways against Ilara Joanne. The late third-round TKO boosted Watanabe’s record to 9-0-1.
Competing as part of the Bellator and RIZIN cross-promotion that we saw throughout 2019, Watanabe hopes to continue what she started. That being a climb toward a title which her other two fighting homes lack. Having impressed Scott Coker plenty in her debut, it wouldn’t be crazy if we see her added into the mix longterm.
What the Judoka brings to the table is, well, some more damn good Judo like we get from Velasquez and Kielholtz. The biggest difference perhaps being that Watanabe imposes herself in a much more aggressive fashion and is one of the strongest fighters in the division worldwide. Seeing her vs. Carmouche would be a treat just to see who outmuscles who.
With her striking gradually improving to accompany her great grappling skills, Watanabe would no doubt be a darkhorse to become Japan’s first Bellator champion. A feat that would make her only the third MMA champion in a major North American promotion.
At the still-young age of 26, Alejandra “Azul” Lara has already suffered defeat to two of the fighters discussed. Those being Velasquez and the champion in Macfarlane. Perhaps both were cases of too much too soon for the Colombian and Lara has turned a new leaf in her pair of fights since the consecutive losses.
Firing with a ferocity we hadn’t quite seen prior, Lara put an end to Taylor Turner by TKO in round one of their clash. Then she went on to put on an elbow clinic for three rounds against a fellow former title challenger in Veta Arteaga. “Azul” has displayed that she was only getting started.
When it comes to the rest of the fighters mentioned, Lara still feels to be a slight notch below. But she’s worth a mention as to what makes the division so great. On top of that, she also happens to be the youngest and least experienced.
Though, Lara’s only growing and getting better which makes for some potential matchups down the line to be rather intriguing. Especially as far as striking encounters are concerned.
Drake is an MMA writer based out of Brush Prairie, Washington, USA who specializes in feature pieces, the women’s fight scene, lists, news coverage, and rankings. He has been a passionate fan of MMA ever since 2009. Drake has most notably written for BJPenn.com, FanSided, The Body Lock, South China Morning Post, MyMMANews, WhatCulture, Cageside Press, Sherdog, The Scrap, and MMA Today. He has also written for and created video content for RT Sport. As for other sports, Drake is a longtime fan of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @DrakeRiggs_ . Also check out all of his video content on YouTube at YouTube.com/DrakeRiggs where he uploads fighter interviews, podshows, and various other types of content.