Viewpoint: The Merits of Staying Fly

By Tristen Critchfield Jul 29, 2013
Demetrious Johnson has shown a willingness to move up in weight. | Photo: Dave Mandel/

Despite being the smallest champion in the world’s largest mixed martial arts organization, Demetrious Johnson has super-sized plans.

Shortly after securing the first finish of his Ultimate Fighting Championship tenure -- a fifth-round armbar submission of John Moraga in the UFC on Fox 8 main event on Saturday in Seattle -- the reigning flyweight king turned his attention to the rarified air usually reserved for his heavier, more celebrated brethren: the super fight.

“I think everybody was focused on Anderson Silva and [Georges St. Pierre], but I think we can make some fun super fights down in the lighter weight divisions with the flyweights fighting the bantamweights. Let’s see what happens,” Johnson said. “I’m just here to fight and have fun and put on a good performance for the UFC and the fans.”

To borrow a catchphrase from ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso, my initial response is this: not so fast, my friend.

Each division in the UFC is defined by its champion. When compared with some of the promotion’s more established weight classes, the 125-pounders have toiled in relative anonymity, striving for acceptance from those who have not learned to appreciate the smaller man’s unique blend of speed, technique and skill. While some will always seek alternate viewing options when flyweights are on the marquee, Johnson appears to be on the verge of a breakthrough.

His performance against Moraga was simply the latest and perhaps most significant step in the evolution of “Mighty Mouse.” Faced with an opponent who echoed many of the same criticisms Johnson has endured since the flyweights were introduced -- that he was boring, fought for points and did not look to finish -- the Washington native showed Moraga just how far it is from the Facebook prelims to the main stage. Johnson took down the former Arizona State University wrestler 12 times, passed guard repeatedly and used his confounding speed to gain a 112 to 53 advantage in total strikes; and when it might have been easier to shift into cruise control, Johnson put himself at risk to end the bout emphatically.

In the aftermath, Johnson would not acknowledge that he was trying to send a message to his detractors, but he did not have to. His actions in the Octagon said enough.

“I don’t think when I go out there,” Johnson told Fuel TV. “I’m just going out to fight. I’m an artist, and the Octagon is my canvas. I just went for the armbar and was waiting for it to pop. Then the ref said it was over and he had tapped.”

It may have come later than any other stoppage in the promotion’s history, but there is no denying the significance of a submission that could do wonders to alter the public perception of Johnson’s killer instinct -- or lack thereof. Finishes tend to linger in the memory banks longer than decisions, no matter how masterfully crafted the latter might be. Still, this was exactly what Johnson was supposed to do.

Despite all of his pre-fight bravado, it was foolhardy to think Moraga would be able to accomplish what Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson, arguably the world’s best flyweights outside of Johnson, could not.

Johnson’s journey through the division’s ranks at first seemed improbable and then became inspiring, as the AMC Pankration product kept finding ways to win, dispatching Ian McCall, Benavidez and Dodson in succession. Johnson survived adversity, adapted and improved to get where he is today. Good fortune has taken his side, as well. Were it not for a tabulation error at UFC on FX 2, Johnson’s run might have been short-circuited by McCall in a sudden victory round in Australia before it ever began. With that said, MMA is littered with what-if scenarios, so credit Johnson for learning from his near-failure against “Uncle Creepy” and never looking back.

Now Johnson has thrown his hat into the super fight ring. While “Mighty Mouse” is clearly one of the sport’s pound-for-pound best, it is erroneous to think he has cleaned out his division. When similar questions surrounded Silva or St. Pierre, it came after a string of one-sided victories. Johnson, meanwhile, has encountered enough resistance in wins over Benavidez and Dodson that a rematch with either or both would still be compelling.

“Reporters keep asking me, ‘When’s he gonna get the respect he’s due?’ I think he’s earned that respect,” UFC President Dana White said at the UFC on Fox 8 post-fight press conference. “I think he proved he’s one of the best in the world; he’s unbelievable. Tonight he proved it; he looked amazing. We had the same question with Anderson and GSP, but I’m sure there’s going to be someone for him to fight.”

Once upon a time, Johnson was a bantamweight and a damn good one at that, just not the best in the world. That point was driven home in a five-round loss to Dominick Cruz in October 2011. Cruz’s advantages in strength and wrestling, though not normally his best assets, were enough to offset Johnson’s speed and pace. His efforts were game, but Johnson was awarded just one round on one judge’s scorecard that night.

Cruz remains on the mend from multiple knee surgeries, and his timetable for a return is uncertain. However, Renan Barao is a formidable interim champion, albeit one with perhaps less name value than some of the top dogs at flyweight. When Johnson floated the idea of a potential super fight with the bantamweight division, he alluded to the big money that such a bout featuring the likes of Silva, St. Pierre or Jon Jones would command.

It is understandable that Johnson would want to fatten his bank account, but a showdown with Barao is not going to fill a football stadium by itself. Johnson has gradually built his name by fighting on network television and knocking off the best talent in his own weight class. His branding remains a work in progress, but a loss to someone like Barao would impede his ascent more than a win would accelerate it.

Outside of Urijah Faber, bantamweight does not have any obvious box-office draws. Depth in the flyweight division is undeniably thin, but existing challenges for Johnson -- even if they are return dates -- are plenty perilous. Both divisions need more time to grow, more time to embed their champions in the minds of the masses. Johnson, for one, is doing his part.


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