LAS VEGAS — Somewhere around Year Four of his otherworldly run, Demetrious Johnson started to be thrown into discussions about the all-time MMA greats.
Only casually at first, mostly as an afterthought or an honorable mention. Often the conversation would be prefaced with an ‘if.’ An easy qualifier. If Johnson could establish an outright dominance over the UFC’s flyweight class… if Johnson could add win upon win to his breathtaking streak… if questions about his popularity and drawing power could stop overshadowing his skillset… if his unanimous decisions could melt into finishes and if the talent pool at 125 pounds could mature into a murderer’s row to compliment its main man.
Then, and only then, could he fully join the discussion.
But at some point, a funny thing happened.
Those wins kept piling up and that streak kept on chugging along — until one day, the questions and the qualifiers simply ceased to matter. There were no more ifs. Johnson’s quiet consistency had eroded them all away until his face was firmly chiseled onto the Mount Rushmore of all-time greats. It was the sport’s greatest covert ascent, almost as if it happened overnight and no one noticed until the day the community awoke and the discussion had already been settled, Johnson’s bearded mug grinning sheepishly among star-studded terrain.
Now, his place in history is inarguable. On Year Six and counting, “Mighty Mouse” has become a conversation starter, one of the rare few required to be thrown into the mix whenever anyone mentions the MMA G.O.A.T. — joining the likes of Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, and for some, Fedor Emelianenko.
On Saturday, Johnson will attempt to extend his résumé farther than anyone has before him. If he defeats Ray Borg at UFC 216, Johnson’s remarkable number will extend to 11 consecutive defenses of the UFC title, eclipsing the hallowed record set by Silva at the end of the Brazilian’s legendary reign.
But should numbers alone propel Johnson’s feats above what other all-timers have done? It’s a fun debate, and one that will stretch on long after Saturday night.
“I believe [his streak] is better than all of those guys, because he dominated just about everybody,” argues UFC 216 heavyweight Derrick Lewis. “He didn’t play with them and he didn’t toy with them. There wasn’t close fights. He really dominated just about everybody he fought.
“This sh*t is hard. It’s hard to go out there and win one fight, but he went out there and won 10 fights in a row. Being a champion, doing that — guys come in there as his opponent, they’re going to fight for the belt and you know they’re going to try to have the best camp as possible, and he’s still out there dominating guys and beating guys like the way he has been.
“I wouldn’t want to fight him,” the genuine goliath of a man adds. “That’s the only guy in the UFC divisions I wouldn’t want to fight.”
Lewis isn’t alone.
In fact, perhaps surprisingly, nearly all of UFC 216’s main card fighters agreed in some way or another.
“GSP is the guy who was the reason I started fighting. The first guy I saw fighting was GSP, but I just think [Johnson] does it better than everybody else,” says Beneil Dariush.
“It’s not just that he’s beating these guys. He’s smaller than them. He doesn’t always have the reach. He doesn’t always have the height. He doesn’t always have the weight. But he finds a way to win, and he wins in dominant fashion.
“I don’t think we even understand how good (he is). I think a lot of times we don’t even see how good his footwork is for his striking. We don’t understand his transitions, how good they are, from striking to takedowns, and then from his grappling to his ground-and-pound, from his ground-and-pound to submissions. The guy does it so well. You know how they say you’ve got a black belt in jiu-jitsu or a black belt in whatever? It’s not just that he has a black belt in all these things — he’s black belt level — but he’s got even a higher level of transitions, and I think that puts him above all the other guys, whether it be Jon Jones, whether it be GSP.”
Naturally, there are plenty of people in the fight community who disagree, and they have plenty of worthwhile factors to point to, whether it’s Johnson’s strength of schedule weighed against Jones’ or St-Pierre’s, or even his flair for the dramatic weighed against Silva’s or Emelianenko’s.
And all of those points are valid. There are few rights or wrongs in a case as subjective as this.
But more so than anything else, it’s simply fascinating that the G.O.A.T. debate is even taking place, because less than three months ago, it appeared to be settled.
In the wake of Jones’ ferocious knockout of Daniel Cormier at UFC 214, the MMA world trampled over itself in a rush to proclaim Jones the one, true greatest who ever did it. Now, though, since that performance no longer exists in an official capacity, an uncomfortable question has been raised, one that lingers in the air as Jones’ case makes it way through the USADA pipeline.
Should “Bones” or Silva even be considered in the G.O.A.T. discussion with their muddled PED past?
That, too, appeared to be a topic of surprising agreement among Saturday’s fighters.
“I think if you do get caught doing that stuff, it’s hard if not impossible to come back from,” says Evan Dunham. “I definitely think it puts an asterisks next to your name.”
“It takes the legitimacy away from your reign,” says Borg. “When Anderson Silva got popped, he ended up saying it was a tainted supplement — but at the same time, you never know. You never really, and especially when you’ve had an issue in the past, it makes you think, like, ‘Well, how many wins did he get while he was on the juice?’ So I think if you were ever popped for a PED, then it totally throws out the greatest of all-time (conversation).”
It’s a fair topic but also a complicated one considering MMA’s murky history with drug testing. One needs to look no further than back to the early aughts, when the inmates were running the asylum during the era of monsters in Pride and the UFC.
But regardless of where you stand, Johnson’s unblemished history remains one of the biggest checkmarks in his favor. Over more than a decade of professional competition, “Mighty Mouse” has never suffered through a single extracurricular issue, much less the type that befell Jones and Silva in recent years.
“I’m not just singling out Jon Jones, but I’m singling out anyone who’s taken drugs to accomplish their goals,” argues Matt Hume, the longtime coach of Johnson. “Are we just going to then open it up and say, ‘Let’s see what Demetrious Johnson would do with PEDs in his system?’ Because then we can compare him to those guys. But he’s done more than any of the guys, and he’s beaten guys who are on PEDs in title defenses, who’ve tested positive later. And he’s done all that without taking anything, and he never will. I mean, he doesn’t even use supplements.
“So yes, if people are taking things that they shouldn’t be taking to help their performances, then it doesn’t count (when measured) against the guys like Demetrious Johnson who do it cleanly.”
Ultimately, the debate is one that will be answered more clearly with time.
Johnson is only 31 years old. He could conceivably continue along this pace for several more years. He says he wants to shoot for 15 title defenses, and then maybe even more. It sounds implausible, but once upon a time, so did 11. And what then? How many wins would it take? How many wins should it take?
At what point does the G.O.A.T. debate cease to be a debate at all?
Only time will tell, but it’s sure to be a wild ride.