Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch explains the context of Demetrious Johnson’s historic but woefully underappreciated 10-fight reign as UFC flyweight champion.
While watching the main event of UFC on Fox 24, I was once again staggered by the sheer brilliance of Demetrious Johnson. In the past I have called the flyweight champion a “fighting computer,” but this was something different. Something greater. This was a supercomputer, overclocked but running cool and clean. No glitches, no miscalculations. I watched Johnson take apart Wilson Reis like a mechanic calmly studying the parts of an outmoded car, and I knew I was watching true greatness. The perfect embodiment of everything that mixed martial arts can be, a conglomeration of the many styles and techniques available to fighters in this sport, all contained in the lithe frame of a five-foot-three dynamo who grows more confident and more complete with every fight.
And then someone sitting next to me said something. “He’s not very good.” My eyebrows shot up. “Who, Demetrious Johnson? What do you mean? He’s the best in the world.”
“No,” they replied. “The other guy.”
And somehow that was worse. Though he is oft underappreciated, Johnson’s talent is evident to anyone who watches him. Visit any one of his last dozen fights and you will see a near-perfect fighter. Watch those fights in order and you will see that fighter grow more and more perfect over time. But what is perfection without context? How can you be impressed by a mountain-climber like Johnson if you imagine that his opponents are stuck struggling up foothills?
I had to retort. I pointed out that Wilson Reis is a world-class challenger. In the UFC’s flyweight division, he has only ever been beaten by Jussier Formiga, another fighter so skilled that he could have won a title shot of his own with a handful of more forgiving matchups. I noted also that Reis, a powerful wrestler and silky submission grappler, was usually the one submitting his opponents, that, in fact, he had never been submitted before Demetrious Johnson stretched out his arm and forced him to tap.
But I must admit, it was a hard case to make. Not because Wilson Reis is a bad fighter, but because he looked anything but in the cage with Johnson.
This sentiment, that Johnson looks great because he dominates a shallow talent pool, is woefully widespread. In part, I think this is a product of poor marketing. The UFC has made some strides to promote Johnson recently, each attempt met with a shocking level of disinterest from casual and hardcore fans alike.
His opponents, however, have not received anything half as bright as the champion’s flickering spotlight. Many of them can’t even get the push of a main card slot granted to most serious contenders. It took Kyoji Horiguchi three thrilling wins to get an early main card bout at UFC 182. Prior to that, he competed once as a Fight Pass curtain-jerker, once on the Fox Sports 2 prelims (does anyone actually have that channel?), and once on the main card–of a show that aired only on Fight Pass. Two knockouts and two dominant decisions, no promotion.
Before his competitive tilt with Johnson, Tim Elliott toiled away on the shrinking stage that is The Ultimate Fighter. Hardly anyone watched as he ran through four champions of lesser promotions, racking up two submissions and two convincing decisions. That might’ve been a fight that got Johnson over, as he was pushed hard and fought through a debilitating injury while still managing to earn a lopsided 49-45 unanimous decision.
And as for Wilson Reis? Little fanfare surrounded the announcement that Reis would be the next man to challenge Demetrious Johnson in 2016. So when those plans were sidelined and Reis was forced to take another fight to ensure his shot, the UFC might have viewed it as an opportunity to lend Wilson a little heat. Instead, they buried him on the prelims of a lackluster pay-per-view. And rather than celebrating his hard-nosed victory over a surprisingly game Ulka Sasaki, fans were left with little choice but to bemoan the fact that his was one of nine fights to go to decision that night, just another undercard bout overshadowed by an uninspired main event.
Maybe there is more to it, but I can’t help but think that Demetrious suffers for the nonexistent attention given to many of his opponents. Instead of lauding his achievements, fans question his competition, a myopic misinterpretation of Johnson’s otherworldly dominance. I wonder if maybe the promotion centered on him would be better received if fans grasped the magnitude of the obstacles he has overcome during his reign.
So, the context.
Johnson has defended his title 10 times since winning the inaugural UFC flyweight belt in 2012, tying the record of legendary champion Anderson Silva. Not only have all of his challengers been top 10 fighters (champions rarely receive tune-ups in the UFC), but six of them are still ranked in Sherdog.com’s top 15. Had John Dodson not moved up to bantamweight after his second loss to the champion, that number would be seven.
The combined record of Johnson’s 10 challengers is 138-36-1. That is an average of 13.8 wins against 3.6 losses (and one tenth of a draw), or a winning rate of 79 percent. Impressive as that figure is, we also have to look at the origins of those losses. Before fighting Johnson, Wilson Reis had only been beaten at flyweight by Jussier Formiga, one of the few top contenders Johnson has not yet had occasion to beat. In the UFC, Tim Elliott was beaten by John Dodson, Ali Bagautinov, Joseph Benavidez, and Zach Makovsky. Three of those men battled Demetrious Johnson. John Dodson suffered no UFC losses at flyweight other than the two to Mighty Mouse. Likewise for Kyoji Horiguchi and Joseph Benavidez. Horiguchi has won his last four bouts with aplomb, and Benavidez is riding a six-fight win streak–both undefeated since their losses to Johnson.
Even the champ’s lesser challengers take on a brighter glow when we assess their level of competition. Two of the five men to defeat John Moraga have fought for the title. Sergio Pettis, the most recent man to best him, will likely do the same if he manages to get past Henry Cejudo in May. Both of the men who beat Ali Bagautinov fought and fell at the foot of Johnson’s throne. Even Chris Cariaso, one of the least likely challengers to take on Mighty Mouse, has only been beaten at flyweight by two title challengers, the aforementioned Sergio Pettis and Jussier Formiga, and the champion. As a bantamweight, he bested tough veterans Will Campuzano and Takeya Mizugaki, and lost a close split-decision to hard-punching contender Michael McDonald.
So not only are Johnson’s challengers winning almost all of the time, but outside of their fights with the champion, they are only really losing to one another. In a way, the UFC’s flyweight pool is rather shallow, with only 31 men on the roster, but the waters are choppy enough to force even the strongest swimmers to strap on their lifejackets. It would be easy to imagine half of these contenders winning and holding the title were Mighty Mouse to leave MMA behind, perhaps to pursue his career as a Twitch streamer full-time. And I believe that any one of them could win the vacant belt on a good night.
To properly appreciate Demetrious Johnson, take another look at the careers of his foes. Watch Henry Cejudo and Joe Benavidez go toe-to-toe in a three-round war, and then remember that Mighty Mouse put both of them away in under three minutes. Check out John Dodson’s brutal knockout of John Moraga before you question the fact that Johnson was able to shut him down and pick him apart with almost arrogant ease. And if you find yourself questioning the champ’s victory over Wilson Reis, recall that Reis beat both Bryan Caraway and Zach Makovsky within his first five fights. Keep in mind the way that he effortlessly outclassed a scrambly Dustin Ortiz on the ground in 2016. Remember that, before Demetrious Johnson, Wilson Reis had never been submitted in 28 fights and nearly 10 years of pro competition.
The UFC’s 125-pound roster may be slim, but the fighters populating the top 10 are very, very good. That Johnson makes his challengers look like amateurs does not make them amateurs. Rather, it suggests that Johnson might just be the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, and surely the best flyweight to ever grace the cage. To understand the pound-for-pound brilliance of Demetrious Johnson, who forged a world-class career at bantamweight well before developing the calculated style that has led him to 10 consecutive title defenses at flyweight, you have to give his competition their due.
The truth is, flyweight is a very strong division. Demetrious Johnson is just that much stronger.