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When it comes to beyond-the-norm title reigns in mixed martial arts, it’s hard not to mention UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. If the oddsmakers are correct and he proves victorious against Ray Borg at UFC 215 this Saturday in Edmonton, Alberta, he will hold the record for the most consecutive title defenses with 11. That would break the mark set by Anderson Silva and statistically put him on the short list of fighters worthy of Greatest of All-Time consideration.
Why then is Johnson so overlooked outside of statistics and raw data? He checks every other box. He has been an active champion, putting his title on the line more than twice a year on average; he has headlined four UFC on Fox events; he has avoided the performance-enhancing-drug scandals and public-relations nightmares that have plagued some of his championship-caliber colleagues; and if the B sample in the latest Jon Jones debacle comes back positive, Johnson will reclaim his spot at the top of every reputable pound-for-pound ranking. “Mighty Mouse” has outlasted a number of all-time greats and Next Big Things during his five-year reign. Jones, Silva, Ronda Rousey, Jose Aldo, Cain Velasquez, Anthony Pettis, Dominick Cruz and others have either lost their titles or had their legacies questioned. While the Ultimate Fighting Championship has seen 35 title changes -- this includes interim belts -- Johnson has continued to win and outclass his competition.
When Reebok and the UFC became partners, Johnson was conspicuously absent from the lineup of fighters who were awarded individual deals. Jones, Pettis and even unproven prospects Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt were given separate sponsorships that came with extra money and media attention. While they aligned themselves with hardcore fan favorite Joanna Jedrzejczyk, “Mighty Mouse” was left out on the cold, along with his now-defunct Xbox deal.
Of course, it’s worth noting that Johnson lords over the smallest men’s weight class in the UFC, and the 125-pound division has struggled to gain mainstream popularity. Boxing has had similar trouble getting over great lighter-weight fighters in the past. Despite their historical relevance, Alexis Arguello, Henry Armstrong and Sandy Saddler don’t carry the same cache with the general public as Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson and Mike Tyson. However, lighter-weight fighters in boxing and MMA have in many cases become even more ingrained in popular culture than their heavier counterparts. Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz come to mind.
What “Mighty Mouse” appears to lack is something for which history books and statistical measures cannot account: an iconic, career-defining moment. MMA’s legendary title reigns are littered with them. How about when Aldo knocked out Chad Mendes with a knee to the face and then ran into his hometown crowd to celebrate? Remember when Georges St. Pierre cracked Josh Koscheck’s orbital in the first round of their UFC 124 encounter? What about when Chuck Liddell dominated Tito Ortiz in their UFC 66 rematch? Even Silva wasn’t considered a mainstream star until his dramatic come-from-behind submission win against Chael Sonnen and his subsequent front-kick knockout of Vitor Belfort. While Johnson has produced some exciting finishes during his incredible streak, none of them have had the same impact as Tim Sylvia hitting the deck after an overhand right from Randy Couture.
In the past, the UFC has done its part to manufacture such moments. Despite Johnson’s place as a mainstay in the pound-for-pound rankings and his standing as a reliably active champion, the organization has done next to nothing to maximize his promotional potential. The red carpet has been rolled out for others. McGregor’s bid to become a simultaneous two-division champion was universally lauded and heavily promoted in the buildup to UFC 205. We have seen similar treatment given to fighters who aren’t even on the precipice of history. Pettis was pushed as a major star ahead of his first title defense against Gilbert Melendez at UFC 181. He was not only held up as the future of the UFC but secured a high-profile sponsorship deal with Wheaties. Another example: Heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic in his first title defense was paired with Alistair Overeem in his hometown of Cleveland, allowing him to ride the wave of euphoria that swept over the city following the Cavaliers’ march to an NBA championship a few months earlier.
The possibly was floated that Johnson would have his moment in the sun in nearby Seattle. He turned down an opponent change from Ray Borg to T.J. Dillashaw, spawning a well-documented and publicized feud with UFC President Dana White. Some, White included, have since accused “Mighty Mouse” of ducking Dillashaw. That’s irrelevant to the fact that the promotion should be doing more to elevate the only flyweight champion it has ever known. Dillashaw carries a higher profile, but the moment shouldn’t belong to him; it should belong to Johnson.
Had it been constructed properly, UFC 215 could have served as Johnson’s coming-out party. Imagine one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all-time driving a stake into the ground at KeyArena and flying the UFC flag less than nine miles from where he trains at AMC Pankration. Perhaps that would have been the defining moment “Mighty Mouse” needed. Instead, a 13-hour drive across the Canadian border separates him from the most obvious of promotional alley-oops.
Johnson faces a difficult test in Borg, a tough-as-nails Jackson-Wink MMA product. UFC 215 shouldn’t be just another under-promoted event on the schedule. Was it too much to ask to air a commercial highlighting Johnson’s run at immortality -- instead of the St. Pierre-Michael Bisping showdown at UFC 217 on Nov. 4 -- during the hyper-promoted Mayweather-McGregor bout?
We can hope Matt Hume’s prized pupil gives the kind of performance necessary to solidify his legacy. However, it seems far more likely that he will have to return to the bantamweight division. Until that day comes, let’s appreciate “Mighty Mouse” for what he has accomplished and recognized greatness while it’s still in front of us.