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UFC 216: Demetrious Johnson vs. Ray Borg Toe to Toe Preview

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Phil and David break down everything you need to know about Mighty Mouse vs. Borg for UFC 216, and everything you don’t about rage quitting.

Demetrious Johnson vs. Ray Borg co-headlined UFC 216 this October 7, 2017 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada, U.S.

One sentence summary

Phil: Can DJ find the Borg to his McEnroe?

David: Futility precedes resistance.

Stats

Record: Demetrious Johnson 26-2-1 Draw Ray Borg 12-2

Odds: Demetrious Johnson -1150 Ray Borg +950

History / Introduction to both fighters

David: DJ may never be to MMA what Alex Honnold is to climbing, but his game has gotten progressively better even in dominance over elite fighters, and well…I’m just saying – if ever there was a better time to extrapolate disruptive innovation from tactical prizefighting; maybe DJ is a better example than a prizefighter getting destroyed by a boxer in a boxing match. DJ’s reign still needs a nemesis, and it would be fitting if the Borg was it. Am I silly to doubt that?

Phil: You are not. Despite the fact that there has been an undue amount of hate directed towards Borg as an opponent, he’s not the most outmatched DJ challenger (that dubious honour belongs to Chris Cariaso). However, it sometimes just doesn’t seem to matter. No matter what gets thrown at the Mouse, he makes everyone look like their game has more holes than a colander. Many people have mentioned how he adapts to everything that gets thrown at him, so maybe it is appropriate that he’s fighting the Borg. A Borg. Whatever.

David: It’s easy to forget that Borg, with seven UFC fights, is still only 24 (recently turned, no less). His two losses also read and feel like the limitations of youth; never outmatched physically, the inexperience of adaptation and tactics contained an otherwise dynamic game that I don’t think Scoggins or Ortiz could replicate today. This is a big fight that I hope lives up to the expectation of Borg making the bout interesting in spots.

Phil: As mentioned, this is not a blowout, near-sure win in the same way that, say, Wilson Reis or Chris Cariaso were. They were known quantities, tough but not terribly threatening fighters that could be easily and safely boxed into positions where DJ could carve them up at will. Borg is young, incredibly physically talented, and is someone who clearly “gets” how to fight. We haven’t seen where his progression curve caps out yet, although DJ is about as hard a benchmark as you’re likely to find anywhere in the sport. Not getting destroyed would be a big positive.

What’s at stake?

David: Two metaphysical angles I think are important. If DJ somehow lost, it would be a stylistic defeat – which up until this point has been difficult to even imagine. DJ’s not like Machida – a fighter whose mysteriousness is mistaken for variability. But it would be fascinating to note the stylistic consequences of a DJ loss. The second angle is the existential crisis the division faces. How do you bully a great fighter? That was answered in Miller’s Crossing, dear Baldfather. “You’re exactly as big as I let you be and no bigger and don’t forget it – ever.”

Phil: I think it also depends how DJ lost. If he got caught in a guillotine, or Borg landed the uppercut or the flying knee of his life, I think people would pretty much just sigh and chalk it up to the brutal high variance of the sport. If Borg somehow beat him in a decision? Managed to win rounds en route to a finish? That would be seriously impressive, and it might even get people hyped about his road back to the belt. Sadly, the fact is that the simple reason why it would be so impressive is that it’s so unlikely.

A win cements DJ’s place in the record books, of course, as the UFC’s winningest champion. Some people will be critical of his level of competition, but overall the high points of his resume (Dodson, Benavidez) stack up with the best.

Where do they want it?

David: A lot of fighters approach pugilism – as British James Franco so eloquently articulated – as a series of nodes. Each move (like a jab) branches out into options (cross or step-in) intended to tap into areas of strength (takedowns for the wrestler, combinations for the striker, etc). Johnson works more like an algorithm, chaining sequences together that work on their own to establish a set rhythm that maximizes success. Entries (angle posture), and exits (scrambles and resets) vary depending on what’s optimal at any given moment. As a result, opponents are left confused because they they’re either fishing for the finish, or bobbing for the sustained pressure apple. The key is unbroken rhythm. Plenty of fighters are well rounded in spectacular ways, but where most fighters use different transitions and varied tactics in intervals, DJ bundles everything together into kid’s meal sized unstoppable asskickery. He is the waves of the eternal shore. Crash against him and be broken, to quote some people’s favorite X-Men supervillain. Or disruptive innovation, in other words.

Phil: DJ has reached that point where “pressure fighter” and “counter fighter” become blurred, because every mistake gets punished, whether it’s a strike or a positional error. There is minimal room for error, and the minute someone steps out of one phase, DJ is ready to punish them in another. Witness how he corralled Kyoji Horiguchi’s blitzes with round kicks, or used takedown chains to set up the clinch on Dodson. DJ isn’t perfect in any given phase (although he’s close in the clinch), but he is at very worse the second or third best striker, or wrestler, or perhaps even submission grappler in his weight class. Combine that skill together with the ability to effortlessly move from one phase to the other, amazing baseline athleticism, and an incredibly adaptive mind, and you have someone who has made some very very good fighters look very bad.

David: Borg has a lot in common with some of DJ’s other opponents in that he’s a contender coming into the fight with less momentum, and more moxy. He’s looked good in his last two fights, but the intrigue is somewhat low. Borg is talented in a specific area – his movement. Grappling is how he gets fed, but the difference between Borg and other grapplers is that his speed and movement are perfectly synchronized. He’s phenomenal at moving laterally, taking the back, and pivoting out of danger. His ability to switch positions, and contain an opponent’s upper body movement is practically second to none. He handled Louis Smolka that way – using clinches to transition into takedowns and scrambles. The problem with Borg is that even though he’s creative on the feet, and has fast hands, there’s no real bridge. It’s similar to the Ronda Rousey problem; devastating in close, but without that bridge (zero boxing, Pez dispenser head movement, and no wrestling tactics to speak of), she’s vulnerable to moves that maintain that fight bridge (like quick feet, jabs, and anticipatory movement). Borg isn’t that bad, obviously, but there’s overlap in the way he relies on timing, and quick outbursts to score shots and move in for takedowns.

Phil: When Borg first came to the UFC, he was something of a mystery: he had fought mediocre opposition, and was relatively inexperienced. His debut against Dustin Ortiz was revealing, because he gave Ortiz a hell of a fight, keeping up with him in the scrambles. It showed that Borg was a natural talent, but it also showed how much he had been able to rely on physical gifts outside of the UFC: absolutely blazing speed, a knack for scrambling, most notably in his ability to teleport to the opponent’s back. In his time since, we haven’t seen any dramatic stylistic changes, but we have seen a much more cohesive approach. He’s a wild striker, but a much more comfortable one who’s less likely to be panicked by offense coming back his way. He’s become far better at landing interstitial strikes in the clinch, which is somewhere that he’s almost certainly going to find himself. If his best chance on the feet is to land something huge, then he has an array of low-percentage, high-reward tools: a massive uppercut, bicycle kick flying knees, and I’m sure he’s only picked up more at Jackson’s.

Insight from past fights?

David: Borg’s fight with Smolka is a good example of just how bad Borg is liable to look. With no jab to speak of, he resorted to wheel kicks and arbitrary combinations to capture the clinch. As we’ve seen time and time again, for all the weapons Johnson has at his disposal, his clinch might be one of the most effective of all. Strong, but active, Johnson manages to make the clinch big, sequencing offense through and from it (as he did against John Dodson). Borg makes the clinch small, using it to filter for takedowns. And there’s no weapon Borg has in the clinch that Johnson can’t do twice as effectively.

Phil: For all his improvements, Borg has yet to really win a UFC fight on the feet. His fight against Formiga was fantastic, but again, it mostly played out in the clinch and in scramble situations. It was also extremely close. When Scoggins stranded Borg at range he was near-helpless. If Borg shows that he still has a phase where he’s weakest, then DJ will put him there, and keep him there.

X-Factors

David: Borg has missed weight twice in his last two fights, so there’s always that. Perhaps a bigger x-factor will be if Demetrious has been streaming Mario Kart in drunk driver mode.

Phil: How much does that loss to Max Holloway burn, when DJ got beaten in their videogame head-to-head? How much is it playing on DJ’s mind? Is he really thinking about how to break Anderson Silva’s record? Or is he steaming over how Holloway owned him in Smash Brothers?

Prognostication

David: Stylistically, this fight is just bad for Borg. He uses limited striking to clinch, and then grapple. Johnson slays in the clinch, and is a better defensive grappler than Borg is an offensive one. Borg’s head movement isn’t even as tactical as UFC commentary often makes it sound. He moves left and right, defensively, but his chin will be up in the air for counters all day if comes in with standard one-twos. Demetrious Johnson by TKO, round 5.

Phil: Borg has the tools to make an upset happen: he’s dynamic, unpredictable, and aggressive. He’s at a camp which excels in making those attributes work However, the DJ-Hume team have already beaten that camp twice. Like Elliott, Borg might conceivably be able to put a scare into DJ in the scrambles, but elsewhere he simply hasn’t shown the level of skill he needs. [Editor’s note: I’m guessing this means you’re picking Ray Borg by flying kesa besama?)


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