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After an impressive rout of Wilson Reis in the UFC on Fox 24 main event on Saturday, Demetrious Johnson was unusually outspoken in his post-fight interview. The longtime flyweight titleholder proclaimed himself the greatest UFC champion ever and said he wants a seven-figure payday for an eventual fight against the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s bantamweight king. Johnson is wise to recognize that no one else will champion his cause as steadfastly as he can and that he is unlikely to receive gifts for which he does not ask. However, he’s still missing the big picture. Johnson wouldn’t be doing the UFC a favor by taking a fight with the bantamweight champion. The reverse is much closer to the truth. That fight is precisely what he should be lobbying for if he’s serious about making more money and solidifying his legacy (Vegas odds).
Johnson remains a tremendous talent as a fighter, but he’s not exactly in a great position to be making financial demands as literally the worst draw in modern UFC history. Johnson has headlined on pay-per-view four times. Three of those resulted in the worst three UFC buy rates since 2005. The fourth was slightly higher but still holds the distinction of being the only time Conor McGregor has fought on pay-per-view and done less than 800,000 buys; that show did a hair over 200,000 with Johnson as the headliner. It feels safe to say looking back that it would have done significantly better if McGregor- Dustin Poirier had been the advertised main event.
With Johnson proving so unmarketable on pay-per-view, the UFC moved him back to free television. Title fights on television have proven to draw eyeballs pretty well, even with fights that wouldn’t sell on pay-per-view. That certainly wasn’t the case here. Johnson-Reis produced the worst overnights in the history of the UFC on Fox. Dominant fighters often improve as draws over time, but that hasn’t been true with Johnson.
It’s understandable that Johnson wants big-money fights. Every fighter does. However, MMA isn’t a charity. Fighters’ paydays are directly related to the money they bring in. In order to bring in revenue, Johnson needs to be involved in fights the general public is excited to see. There’s no guarantee Johnson against Cody Garbrandt or T.J. Dillashaw would do any better than Garbrandt and Dillashaw would do on their own. What it would do is give Johnson a better chance of generating that interest in the future. It would also go a long way towards advancing Johnson’s goal of being perceived as one of the best champions ever.
Johnson’s refrain in recent years has been that he isn’t as big of a star because he doesn’t talk trash or get into trouble. It’s true that talking trash plays a role in creating stars, but Johnson’s inability to draw goes much deeper than just being a nice guy. After all, that didn’t hurt Georges St. Pierre much. One of the biggest reasons -- if not the biggest reason -- that fans haven’t gravitated towards Johnson is that he hasn’t challenged himself. He suffered the biggest setback of his career against Dominick Cruz. Rather than working his way back to a rematch like St. Pierre did against Matt Hughes, he dropped down to an easier weight class and has been content to dominate one of the weakest talent pools in the sport ever since.
Fans loved that Kazushi Sakuraba kept accepting rematches with Wanderlei Silva, even though he was smaller and always lost by knockout. It was objectionable that Pride Fighting Championships kept trying to make the fight given the concussive impact, but Sakuraba’s determination and willingness to take chances created a permanent bond with his fans. B.J. Penn would likely take another fight with Frankie Edgar tomorrow if it was offered, no matter how settled that issue is at this point. Part of the legend of Penn was that he’d take on any challenge.
McGregor’s trash talking is a big part of his appeal, but so, too, is the fact that he seeks out challenges. Critics said McGregor didn’t want to fight wrestlers, so he took on Chad Mendes on short notice before he had even gotten his big-money fight with Jose Aldo. After beating the legendary Aldo at 145 pounds, McGregor immediately turned his sights to the champion at lightweight. After losing to Nate Diaz, he insisted on taking an immediate rematch at the same weight, even as everyone was saying he would be wiser to take it at 155 pounds instead of 170. Now, he’s aggressively pursuing a boxing match against the greatest boxer of his generation. Those challenges generate excitement.
McGregor has ambition, not only in terms of how he talks but in terms of who he fights. By contrast, Johnson hasn’t fought an opponent he wasn’t favored against by at least a 4-to-1 margin since 2013. It would be one thing if fighting at 135 pounds was some sort of injustice to Johnson, but he was 14-2 at that weight before moving down. The defining factor wasn’t the 10 pound difference; it was that the sharks at the top of the 135-pound weight class hadn’t moved down. Johnson might well be the betting favorite against the bantamweight champion anyway.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with Johnson continuing to fight at 125 pounds. He’s making easy work of the best opponents the UFC can come up with. It’s clearly a more natural weight class than 135 pounds for him, and he’s the cream of the crop there. He deserves plenty of respect for his ability. Still, if he wants big money, as he indicated after trouncing Reis, it’s not going to come by taking on opponents fans don’t perceive to be threats. Anderson Silva first started to become a major drawing card when he took on former light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin at 205 pounds. Moving up to fight St. Pierre for the welterweight title was the biggest fight in elevating Penn’s drawing ability, even though Penn lost. Silva and Penn didn’t beg for more money to deign to take those challenges, and they profited mightily in the long-term because of it.
There’s also the matter of time. Johnson right now is 30 years old and at the top of his game. However, the smaller weight divisions are dominated by speed and athleticism. The best tend to fade quicker at the lighter weights. Miguel Torres was 37-1 and the World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight champion at age 28. It looked like he had years of dominance ahead of him. He lost the title in his next fight and went 7-8 afterwards, never again fighting for a major title. Penn was 30 when he turned in a masterful performance against Diego Sanchez for the UFC lightweight title. That was the last championship fight Penn won.
Urijah Faber at 29 years old was the 21-1 WEC featherweight champion when he lost that title to Mike Thomas Brown. Faber was never champion again. Even Cruz, who was able to continue to compete at a high level even while battling a series of severe injuries, finally looked slower in his last contest. His age at the time: 31. Johnson’s dedication to conditioning will serve him well as he gets older, but there are no guarantees that he can wait a few years for the right offer to come along for a big fight. Like NFL running backs, lighter-weight MMA champions have a tendency to hit a performance wall right around the age Johnson is now. His time to make big money is now, and playing hard-to-get with the UFC isn’t likely to accomplish that goal.
That brings us to the other statement Johnson made post-UFC on Fox 24: He wants to be seen as the best UFC champion ever. In order to be considered in that light, he needs wins against opponents that are champions in their own right. He needs to defeat foes that are considered his equal going in. A long streak as champion is impressive, but the principal problem for Johnson in comparison to Jon Jones or St. Pierre is the level of competition. A win over Ray Borg is unlikely to convert a single individual to go from championing Jones, Silva or GSP as the G.O.A.T. to Johnson.
The challenges left for Johnson that mean the most in terms of money and respect are clearly at 135 pounds. Dillashaw, Garbrandt and Cruz are the three opponents fans would most want to see Johnson fight. It’s hard to decry the outrageousness of the request given Johnson has fought more times at bantamweight than Garbrandt and nearly as many times as Dillashaw anyway. Regardless of whether Johnson is most hungry for respect or most hungry for money, those are the fights that will advance his objective. If he’s serious about those goals, it’s about time for him to quit playing hard-to-get.