Is There Anybody Left at Flyweight for Demetrious Johnson?
Mixed martial arts has seen a number of dominant champions in its day. Fedor Emelianenko ruled the heavyweight division for seven years; Anderson Silva destroyed every top middleweight, and a few light heavyweights, in his path for more than six years; Georges St-Pierre took down welterweight after welterweight for six years; and Jon Jones has destroyed the world’s best light heavyweights since 2011. However, for various reasons, none of those all-time greats reached the point that UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson is currently at.
Johnson is the most dominant fighter in the UFC. On Saturday, he survived early trouble from an unlikely and unorthodox contender – Ultimate Fighter winner Tim Elliott – and took complete control of the fight over the remaining four rounds to extend his number of championship defenses to nine since capturing the belt in 2012. The victory placed Johnson into a tie with Georges St-Pierre for the second-most title defenses in UFC history. Anderson Silva is the current record-holder with 10 defenses, and Johnson has made it clear he has every intention of breaking that mark. With only two defenses to go before number 11, it doesn’t look like anybody will stop him.
Perhaps 5’3” and not the world’s largest flyweight, Johnson doesn’t look the part of a stereotypical dominant mixed martial arts champion, but he appears to have mastered every facet of the game. Not only is he tremendous technically, he excels at less teachable aspects. He may be the quickest fighter in the sport, and his ability to adapt his game plan mid-fight is like none other. There are no clear weaknesses in his game, and no 125ers that would come in as anything but heavy underdogs against him.
Some other dominant fighters have had periods where a good deal of people considered them virtually unbeatable within their division. However, that period inevitably ends, whether because the fighter ages, a potential weak point is exposed, or one or more remarkably talented potential opponents emerge. Johnson is unique in that he’s made it this far and none of the three points mentioned in the previous sentence apply to him. Tim Elliott challenged him in round one on Saturday, but nobody went to sleep that night believing Elliott would have as much as a small chance in a rematch – that’s how decisive Johnson was in the final four rounds. All great champions have moments like Johnson did in the first round against Elliott, and only the most elite of them rebound like Johnson did. It wasn’t the first time he showed he could turn things around.
Johnson fought closely, although not quite as close as the official scorecards would indicate, against Joseph Benavidez in his first flyweight title bout in 2012. The rematch came around just a year later because nobody doubted Benavidez’s ability to give Johnson a real challenge. Rather than face another 25 minute fight with a real challenger, Johnson knocked him out in two minutes. In January 2013, Johnson faced adversity against John Dodson, suffering two knockdowns. He came back to win the final rounds and thus the fight, and later routed Dodson – a man some considered his only major potential challenger – in a rematch. Rematches appear to be just one of his many strengths.
After Saturday night, Joseph Benavidez, who narrowly escaped the cage with a decision win against Henry Cejudo on the card card, appears to be the most likely contender for Johnson. Since their last meeting, Johnson has demonstrably grown as a fighter, while Benavidez, 32, seems to have remained stagnant. That likely means another rough night out for Benavidez, although he may prove tougher to oust than last time around.
Beyond Benavidez, there is Wilson Reis, who was in line for a title shot this summer until Johnson withdrew due to injury, and Jussier Formiga, who beats everybody but the very best in the division. Everybody else has either already tried and failed at beating Johnson or isn’t close to the opportunity.
Johnson’s current spot in which he sits unapproachable at the head of the table is the result of both his abilities as well as the state of the remainder of the division. There is no hiding that flyweight is the weakest men’s division in the UFC; it’s a product of both the recency of its introduction into the company (it held its first flyweight bout in 2012) and the overall lack of 125-pound competitors. Whereas Jon Jones’ legacy will be boosted by the idea that he dominated a series of established world class fighters – many of them former UFC champions – Johnson’s will be handicapped because he took out less established fighters and ruled a division in its infancy. That doesn’t mean Johnson isn’t the most talented fighter currently walking the planet, it’s just a statement of the reality of his division’s perception.
Records are the only things remaining for Demetrious Johnson at flyweight. No opponent in the division remains unconquered of those that demand conquering. Johnson is in a class by himself, and that’s a special, rarely-seen spot.