On Saturday night, to depressingly little fanfare, Demetrious Johnson attempts to break the UFC record for most consecutive championship defenses. Based on degree of difficulty, it should arguably be the promotion’s most celebrated achievement ever. Historically, title reigns have been blips in time. To put it into context, Johnson has been the undisputed flyweight champ for almost five years. During that stretch, the lightweight belt has been ping-ponged from Benson Henderson to Anthony Pettis to Rafael dos Anjos to Eddie Alvarez, and finally, to Conor McGregor.
Before Johnson can lay claim to the record, he must first defeat Ray Borg in the UFC 216 main event, and he’s an overwhelming favorite to do so. According to BestFightOdds.com, Johnson is a -1200 favorite.
The lopsided perception of the bout is one of several causes for the seeming disinterest in the matchup; another is Borg’s relatively low profile. The challenger, just 24 years old and sitting at the No. 3 spot in the UFC rankings, only got the fight after Johnson waved off the possibility of a more intriguing matchup with former bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw.
There are legitimate reasons why many are discounting Borg’s chances. For one, he comes into the fight with only a modest two-fight win streak, victories over Louis Smolka and Jussier Formiga. The more recent of the two, against Formiga came in March, and the outcome was still in doubt as the match reached the midway point of the final round. At that point, with the match tied at one round apiece on the judges’ scorecards, things were trending Formiga’s way for the determining round. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist was on Borg’s back, using a body triangle while looking for a submission.
The position is Formiga’s favorite, and it seemed likely he’d at worse ride out the round to victory. Instead, he got a surprise, as Borg used a technical escape to brilliantly reverse position and end up on top. For the final two minutes, he landed hard offense to steal the round and seal the fight.
That pivotal sequence was instructive on Borg as a fighter. His most important strength is the ability to create and excel in scrambles. That moment against Formiga cannot be overemphasized; to escape and reverse such a position against a high-level black belt is exceedingly difficult. To do so under pressure of losing is remarkable.
In several fights, Borg (11-2) has used his improvisational ability to take control. He did the same against Louis Smolka, who is arguably the better standup striker of the two, but couldn’t stop Borg from taking him down or reversing advantageous positions against him.
Striking is probably’s Borg’s weakest attribute. While he often shows fine head and lateral movement in the early going, he is overly reliant on his overhand right, and often abandons his technique in favor of wild, winging strikes. His shortcomings are born out in the stats. For his career, according to FightMetric, opponents land more strikes per minute against him than he does against them – 1.71 to 1.51. That type of negative ratio is one rarely seen among champions.
There are signs of evolution. Starting with his bout with Smolka, Borg moved to Team Jackson-Winkeljohn, a camp with a track record of helping fighters reach full potential. He showed improved striking against both Smolka and Formiga, although he still reverted to old habits at times.
Even with a leap in ability, Borg is likely to be at a disadvantage in tools against Johnson, who has one of the most complete games MMA has seen.
Johnson (26-2-1) is a far more dynamic striker, using a variety of strikes and showcasing the deftness to effectively switch stances. His favored punch is a step-in right hook that he’s used to great effect over the years, but his real advantage lies in the unpredictability of his attack. He may throw that right hook, or a flying knee, or an elbow or a high kick, techniques that all come with snap. But he has historically done his best work in the clinch, where he has overpowered most of his competition over the years. His most memorable moment in the position came against Olympic wrestling gold medalist Henry Cejudo, who knows a bit about the position. Still, Johnson did brilliant work there, landing knees to the body, a hard elbow and then a knee to the head en route to a TKO win.
The unpredictability and variability of strikes are what makes Johnson so effective; opponents can’t prepare for any one thing, because like most great fighters, he is quickly able to adjust his offense to whatever openings are available rather than pre-planning an attack.
He applies that to the rest of his game as well. When opponents overextend themselves in their strikes—as Borg has done in the past—Johnson will go low and initiate a takedown. While his takedown accuracy is not elite (he lands 53 percent, per FightMetric), Johnson also uses the threat of the takedown to keep his opponents guessing. That indecision can often become crippling over a five-round fight; causing opponents to lower their outputs while he racks up the strikes. Unlike Borg, who is out-landed by his foes, Johnson has out-landed his opponents by over 2-to-1 historically.
There’s no space to breathe on the ground either; in his last fight, Johnson submitted the decorated black belt Wilson Reis via armbar.
The ground and its resulting scrambles should be the most competitive part of this fight. Borg is one of the few flyweights who can come close to matching Johnson’s scrambling ability, and he has illustrated effective groundwork, collecting six career submissions (including five rear naked chokes).
His striking, though, at last check does not seem quite ready for this step. At his age, he could use more seasoning, and Johnson should have a big edge on the feet. He’s simply more refined and has more tools there.
Another thing worth watching is that Borg has had weigh cut issues in the past. He’s missed the limit in two of his last four fights, and in the championship match he won’t have the one-pound allowance; he has to hit 125 on the nose. A difficult cut could be a major issue against Johnson, who likes to force his adversaries into a relentless pace. On top of that, Borg has to be prepared for his first five-rounder. All this is coming on the heels of an illness that knocked him out of the UFC 215 main event just 48 hours from action.
For Borg to win, he has to out-perform even his best past showings. He would have to take Johnson down repeatedly and keep him there. He’d have to show much tighter striking. He’d have to out-scramble Johnson at nearly every turn. Those are all tall orders. Johnson’s history speaks for itself. His biggest advantage will come in the standup, and as the rounds go on, he will separate himself from Borg. As the challenger’s frustration mounts, he will begin to overextend and leave himself open to counters. Here’s saying Johnson takes advantage, and sets the UFC record in style, finishing with a fourth-round TKO.