Johnson Now Among the All-Time Greats
UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson faced a very good opponent in Wilson Reis on Saturday night, and then proceeded to make him look like a guy plucked off the local circuit for the chance of a lifetime. There is nothing but effusive praised to be said for Johnson’s performance over the weekend, as he completed his record-tying tenth consecutive title defense by submitting a world-class grappler in Reis. It was just another fight for Johnson in which everything clicked; the striking, the grappling, the movement, the mind, and the cardio were all on point and combined to make him untouchable.
When prompted after the fight, Johnson himself became his biggest advocate in the endless discussion over the greatest fighter of all time. “[Georges St-Pierre], Anderson [Silva], they were great champions, but I’m the best champion to ever step into this octagon. I’m finishing my opponents. There’s not another champion out here that can mix it up – wrestle, strike, clinch.” UFC president Dana White, who has long promoted the 42-year-old Silva as the greatest of all-time, agreed with Johnson at the post-fight press conference.
For the past few years, the discussion regarding the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time has centered on four fighters, all with some argument for the top spot. There is Fedor Emelianenko, who made a complicated debate simple when he ruled the heavyweight division for seven years and by the end of his reign, he was generally considered the greatest fighter of all-time. Of course, Anderson Silva is up there, with his strongest run also lasting about seven years. Georges St-Pierre, the welterweight king who traded the top pound-for-pound spot back-and-forth with Silva for years, is also in the running. At some point, Jon Jones, who at 23-years-old began the greatest single-year campaign in MMA history and to date has never truly lost a fight, joined the elite fraternity.
Johnson’s big run began in 2012, with a pair of decision victories over Ian McCall and Joseph Benavidez to emerge as the winner of a tournament to crown the first flyweight champion. He had a stroke of luck in the form of major mathematical incompetence to allow him to get there. In a semi-final match with McCall, Johnson was declared the winner by decision in the case of a close fight that saw McCall pound on a depleted Johnson to close out the final round. After both fighters had returned backstage, it was determined that there was an adding error and the fight had actually been scored a majority draw. Under the rules of the tournament, a draw would have sent the match into an overtime round, in which McCall would have had a major advantage over Johnson, who gassed badly following a rough weight cut. Instead, since the commission did not immediately discover the error, the pair returned to fight three months later, when Johnson won a unanimous decision.
“Mighty Mouse” never turned back. Fights with McCall, Benavidez, and John Dodson were close, but after that, Johnson took it to another level. He rattled off dominant victory after dominant victory, including in rematches against Benavidez and Dodson. After Saturday’s one-sided victory over Reis, Johnson unquestionably has entered into the company of Emelianenko, Silva, St-Pierre, and Jones.
Trying to determine a definitive all-time greatest of those five is a fruitless expedition. No one fighter’s achievements place them far ahead of the other four, and all five are still actively competing, with two still in the prime of their careers. All of their cases have great strengths, and some weaknesses.
Fedor Emelianenko was effectively unbeaten in the first 33 fights of his career, including victories over nearly all of his era’s top heavyweights. He did it all as a fairly small heavyweight, which gave him a serious speed advantage over many opponents. From 2004 to 2010, he was widely ranked as one of the top three pound-for-pound best fighters of the sport, often in the top spot until the tide began to shift toward Silva and St-Pierre around 2008 and 2009. However, even during his best period, Emelianenko was stuck competing with the occasional novice or fighters that otherwise had no business being in a ring with him.
Anderson Silva is unique in that he had major success in three different weight classes. He unseated the world’s top-ranked welterweight, Hayato Sakurai, in his eighth fight. Later, he became the world’s best middleweight and held that spot for nearly seven years. During his time as the number one middleweight, three times he moved up to light heavyweight and destroyed his opposition, most notably Forrest Griffin. Going against him, the middleweight division was considered among the weaker division for most of his time on top, and there were a few fights in which he was forced to rebound from bad spots.
Georges St-Pierre was beating top-level welterweights dating back to before he first won the championship, and during his time on top, he dominated opponents from bell to bell in a very strong division. From the second round of his fight with Josh Koscheck in August 2007 to the fourth round of his fight with Jake Shields in April 2011, St-Pierre won every single round on every single judge’s scorecard, a span of 31 complete rounds. On the downside, St-Pierre only finished one opponent after winning the title for a second time and suffered an upset loss to Matt Serra just as he entered his prime.
Jon Jones might be a runaway number one at this stage if personal and legal issues as well as a failed drug test had not marred his past two years. Jones tore through 13 opponents on his way to a title shot, even dominating Matt Hamill in a fight he lost by disqualification. In 2011, Jones dominated Ryan Bader, Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson, and then submitted Lyoto Machida to complete an unequalled calendar year. After that, he beat former champions Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort before moving on to the modern top light heavyweights in Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira, and Daniel Cormier. Jones was peerless from 2011 through early 2015, but since that time, he has only fought once, a wide but unimpressive decision against an overmatched Ovince Saint Preux. Those four years were better than anybody else’s four best years, but of the big five, Jones has had the shortest run on top to this point.
Demetrious Johnson has reached a level at which his opponents have no obvious holes to exploit. He out-struck the most dangerous puncher in his division, decimated an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler in the clinch, submitted one of the best submission grapplers in the division, and has twice beaten the division’s perennial second-best fighter. He was also an elite bantamweight, climbing up to a title shot against Dominick Cruz in 2011. Strength of competition is the weak point of Johnson’s argument, as the flyweight division is young and lacks the depth that other divisions feature. Some of Johnson’s title challengers have been raised up from the obscure deep depths of preliminary cards just to give him a warm body to fight.
All five greats still have a chance to enhance their respective resumes, although Emelianenko and Silva, both north of 40, do not likely have any significant accomplishments ahead of them. St-Pierre will return from a long absence with the opportunity to become one of only four two-division champions in UFC history, the first step in a three-part plan to strengthen his legacy. Even in his inactivity, Jones, just 29 years of age, is still the presumed best light heavyweight in the world, and he will return this year with an opportunity to prove it. As for Johnson, he has no major threats at flyweight, and at the age of 30, he has only been getting better. He and Jones, and perhaps St-Pierre, are in a long race to raise the bar, and there can only be one winner.