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The bizarre reality of the featherweight division in women's MMA

·Combat columnist
·4 min read
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LAS VEGAS — It’s easy to forget that in the 1970s, if you wanted to watch an NBA playoff game on television on a weeknight, you had to stay up after the late local news and watch it on tape delay.

Then, along came Larry, Magic and Michael and the league changed forever. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan quite literally made the NBA what it is today.

Now, no one is saying that Cris Cyborg, Amanda Nunes and Kayla Harrison are going to do for mixed martial arts what Bird, Johnson and Jordan did for the NBA. That’s far-fetched.

That being said the three women represent the three best featherweights in the world and are really the only viable competitors in that division. Nunes is in the UFC, Cyborg in Bellator and it looks increasingly likely that Harrison will re-sign with the PFL, her manager Ali Abdelaziz told Yahoo Sports.

“At the end of the day, I’m in this business to make money,” Abdelaziz said. “Kayla was about making history. I disagreed with her. She wanted to go to fight Amanda [because] at the end of the day, everybody thought Amanda was the GOAT. I love Dana White, but Dana was wrong. She is not the GOAT. Ronda [Rousey] was not the GOAT. Cyborg is definitely not the GOAT. The GOAT is Kayla Harrison.

“We know if Amanda would have won [her bantamweight title fight in December against Julianna Peña], Kayla might have went to the UFC and fought her. But at the end of the day, she’s the GOAT. Everybody should be chasing Kayla now. It looks like the PFL is going to write the bigger check. The deal is not done. There are a couple of issues … but everybody knows my relationship with the PFL is solid.”

So when it becomes official and Harrison is back with the PFL, it will leave the three best in three different leagues, which is bizarre. Germaine de Randamie has fought a few times at featherweight and was the UFC’s inaugural 145-pound champion, so she could potentially slide into that group as well, but she’s primarily a bantamweight, has been inactive recently and most significantly doesn’t have the aura that Nunes, Harrison and Cyborg do.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 10: Amanda Nunes of Brazil poses on the scale during the UFC 269 ceremonial weigh-in at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)
UFC champion Amanda Nunes is one of three elite featherweights in the world who compete in different organizations. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)

Harrison has fought primarily at lightweight in the PFL, which is an even bigger wasteland in terms of talent than featherweight is. So while Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, is great, she’s never proven it by beating a widely respected opponent.

A win over either Nunes or Cyborg would do that for her.

But at least for the time being, a Nunes-Harrison fight won’t happen because the UFC doesn’t co-promote. Bellator president Scott Coker has been willing to co-promote, so there’s a chance that Bellator and the PFL could get together and put on Cyborg-Harrison.

There are problems with that, too. PFL’s tournament schedule might make it difficult to get the fight in, and Bellator and PFL are battling for position as the No. 2 promotion in MMA. Would they do business with each other while that’s going on. Perhaps, but it’s no guarantee.

And so we sit here with three singular talents with spectacular records who have no one of comparable talent to fight. Nunes won’t defend the featherweight title for a while now, anyway. Her next fight is going to be a rematch at bantamweight with Peña and if she wins that, the possibility exists of a rubber match.

Cyborg doesn’t have a great opponent, particularly since Cat Zingano opted not to fight her.

And Harrison in the PFL’s lightweight division is kind of like Jordan playing on the junior varsity.

It’s odd that there aren’t more qualified 145-pounders in women’s MMA, because there are plenty of women of that size in boxing. But until there is, the talents of these three is going to go largely to waste.

Each has something remarkable to fall back on. Cyborg was one of the pioneers of women’s MMA and helped popularize it with her first-round finish of Gina Carano in 2009. Nunes knocked out Cyborg in less than a minute and became the first woman to hold two UFC titles simultaneously. And Harrison has two gold medals in her trophy case as a testament to her greatness as a fighter.

Combat sports, no matter the form, are at their best when you have two evenly matched fighters who both believe they’re the best and have something of significance to fight for.

Hopefully, we’ll get that, but it’s looking increasingly like the women’s featherweights are going to remain in a barren wasteland with little interest other than a handful of times a year.