We're three months removed from Demetrious Johnson's shocking 1st round knockout of Joseph Benavidez, which marked his 3rd successive flyweight title defense since winning the inaugural belt over Benavidez back in 2012. His next title fight is not yet scheduled nor do we know his opponent. The leading candidate is Ali Bagautinov, who bested John Lineker at UFC 169 last month, but he's not been guaranteed the next crack.
Based on the UFC's latest top 15 rankings, I've separated each fighter into one of four different tiers. The 1st tier is reserved for those who are most likely in the running for a title shot this year, the 2nd tier is for those near the top 10 floating around as contenders, the 3rd tier is essentially the same as the 2nd tier but includes recently defeated title challengers and a few ranked in the 11-15 range, and the 4th tier is for the gatekeepers and others who have a long way to go.
Ali Bagautinov (#5). In just 3 UFC fights he's knocked off top 10 ranked John Lineker and Tim Elliott. His other win came against Marcos Vinicius, who not only was KO'd out of the UFC but was KO'd in his next fight after his release, so that really isn't a big win at all. He has the strongest case for a title shot based on the Lineker and Elliott victories, and I believe he's who the UFC will choose next.
John Dodson (#1). He hasn't fought since October and has been somewhat of a "forgotten man" because of it. I believe that Dodson, who took the first two rounds against Johnson in their January 2013 fight, has the best chance among this crop of contenders to unseat Johnson as champion. Dodson's last outing was a tremendous KO of Darrell Montague, and he is pound-for-pound one of the hardest punchers in the sport. It will probably take another win for him to get consideration for a rematch, but I'd favor him over virtually the rest of the field.
Zach Makovsky (#10). Granted, Makovsky's wins have come against Scott Jorgensen, presently winless in the division, and Josh Sampo, who isn't ranked. That said, he's looked outstanding in both fights and is deserving of a step up in competition. For the sake of a "fresh matchup,"he's arguably at most 2 wins away from a title shot.
Ian McCall (#3). While "Uncle Creepy" does have a loss to the champ on his record, their preceding fight in March 2012 did end in a draw. The flow of the action was favoring McCall before the final round came to a close (and the scorecards were incorrectly tallied). Alas, his record in the UFC stands at 1-2-1, but he maintains his high ranking based on his prior success in Tachi Palace Fights. McCall is generally exciting to watch, and Johnson vs. McCall 3 isn't out of the question if McCall stays healthy and notches a few more wins.
Jussier Formiga (#7). He's been immensely disappointing in the UFC. Superior strikers Dodson and Benavidez blasted him with ease and his only win was a decision over Chris Cariaso. He's got Scott Jorgensen coming up next week, and he should be able to prevail. From there it's all about finding some level of consistency to get his name into Dana White's "mix," which I secretly believe is a blender filled with various fruits.
Brad Pickett (#11) The Englishman has a win over Johnson (4 years ago at bantamweight), and it wasn't particularly close. That's just about the only bit of leverage he has. He wants a title shot and a TUF coaching gig, and while that's ambitious, the UFC shouldn't entertain it. Pickett really didn't show anything to suggest he should leapfrog everyone else, and needed every bit of effort to knock off a massive underdog in Neil Seery. If you're vouching for him based on his popularity then that is surely based on his fanbase in England. Otherwise, he's yet to appear on a UFC main card in North America and has had more than half of his fights aired on either Fuel TV or Fight Pass, so he's not a known commodity here. Could the UFC grant him a title shot and sell it based on his 2010 win over Mighty Mouse? Sure. They've had zero problems in the past just arbitrarily awarding title shots based on storylines and name value over actual merit, but this doesn't feel like one of those instances.
Joseph Benavidez (#2). Sadly for Benavidez, he's in danger of becoming 125's Urijah Faber. Good enough to beat the rest of the division, but not enough to dethrone the champion. Losing by KO for the first time in his career, particularly against someone not known for punching power, is absolutely devastating. He's fighting Tim Elliott at UFC 172, but it's going to be incredibly difficult to justify a 3rd fight with Johnson based on the December knockout.
John Moraga (#4). Completely non-competitive title fight with Johnson coupled with a debatable win against Dustin Ortiz takes him out of the running for the foreseeable future. Curiously, he's ranked 4th ahead of Bagautinov despite Bagautinov having the superior resume.
John Lineker (#6). Here's why Lineker is in the 3rd tier - He can't make weight. It's a waste of everyone's time if he is consistently tipping the scales heavy, and he's not even managed 125 lbs in any of his fights. Even ignoring his shortcomings as a fighter (takedown defense, general disregard for jabs and defending punches), there's no point in putting Lineker in the discussion of a 125 lbs title threat when he's been coming in at 126 and above.
Tim Elliott (#8). Elliott is a massive flyweight who stands as the only fighter John Dodson has beaten in the UFC but failed to finish. It's tough sledding for Elliott considering he's lost to both Dodson and recently Bagautinov, and is an underdog against Joseph Benavidez next month. If he can upset Benavidez then it's a game-changer, but if the more likely result of a loss occurs then it's hard to see any path to contention for him.
Darrell Montague (#15). Montague is hanging onto his ranked status by a thread, and it's hugely important that he beat Kyoji Horiguchi to avoid an 0-2 start to his UFC tenure. A win at least rebuilds his path towards the top as he's got just the one defeat to a talented striker in Dodson, but a loss instead can start up an argument for Horiguchi belonging among the list of flyweight's best.
Louis Gaudinot (#12). The Phil Harris guillotine choke finish was sweet and puts him at 2-1 in the division, although technically the win over John Lineker was at a catchweight. Tim Elliott thoroughly dominated Gaudinot last August, and he's ranked towards the bottom end of the top 10, so that doesn't speak well for his future prospects. I wanted to put him in the bottom tier but the Lineker victory is a feather in his cap, so with favorable matchmaking he could sneak into a higher position.
Chris Cariaso (#9). I have no idea why he's still ranked in the top 10. He has 3 wins at the weight class and 2 of them (Iliarde Santos and Josh Ferguson) were immediately cut afterwards. His performance against last minute replacement Danny Martinez was wholly uninspiring and frankly it confirms his status as a gatekeeper who is ranked way too high. Cariaso's next scheduled bout is in May against Louis Smolka.
Dustin Ortiz (#13). He was a bit unlucky to drop the decision to John Moraga, but I think that fight says more about Moraga than anything else. Ortiz's other UFC appearance was a TKO of Jose Maria Tome, who was promptly released. His next opponent is Alp Ozkilic in Abu Dhabi next month, who is unranked and coming off a loss.
Scott Jorgensen (#14). Despite losing his flyweight debut to Zach Makovsky, Jorgensen is somehow ranked 12th. The Makovsky loss dropped him to 1-4 in his last 5, with the sole win coming against John Albert, who is out of the UFC. For the most part, Jorgensen is a treat to watch, and at the height of his WEC career was a title challenger at 135 lbs. But I sense that Jorgensen has peaked as a fighter and a change in weight class isn't the magical solution.
Feel free to add your agreements, disagreements, and who you think is (or should be) next in line for Demetrious Johnson.