Opinion: The Paradox of Perfection

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White was the first to take the dais after UFC on Fox 24 in Kansas City, Missouri. He announced the usual business -- gate numbers, bonus winners, compliments to the host city -- before telling the press about how he overheard Demetrious Johnson asking coach Matt Hume what he did wrong in his one-sided drubbing of Wilson Reis. White answered on behalf of Hume and really anyone else who witnessed the fight: “Nothing.” When asked about Robert Whittaker’s win, he was just as effusive: “He fought a perfect fight.” As for Rose Namajunas: “[She] fought a flawless fight.”

Perfect, perfect, perfect. It’s typical promoter hyperbole, but in a lot of ways, White wasn’t wrong. None of the winners in the top three fights had to overcome any real adversity. Namajunas utterly dismantled Michelle Waterson; Whittaker completely stifled Ronaldo Souza; and Johnson? He Mighty Mouse’d Reis, landing more significant strikes than his opponent even attempted before adding demoralization to dominance by submitting the jiu-jitsu ace. For Whittaker and Namajunas, it was the best performance of their careers thus far. For Johnson, it was business as usual.

Of course, this wasn’t just any old fight for the flyweight phenom. This was his opportunity to tie Anderson Silva’s title defense record, the most hallowed record in the promotion, if not the sport. However, with Johnson, the results of his work, as impressive as they tend to be, are never as impressive as the work itself. He was overwhelmingly favored to make his 10th title defense, which took some air of that narrative, but the manner in which he did was, well, perfect.

When you rule so effortlessly over a division, there’s no use in looking across the cage or down the roster for motivation to improve. “Mighty Mouse” chases perfection. It’s almost certainly a reflection of his natural character, but it’s also partially a consequence of being that much better than everyone else. The idea of perfection is a carrot on a string, but it’s a necessary one for “Mighty Mouse.” That’s part of Johnson’s greatness; he never fights to the level of his opponent. Instead, he simply outclasses everyone without discrimination. It doesn’t matter if he’s fighting a jiu-jitsu world champion, an Olympic gold medalist or Chris Cariaso -- a Johnson win is as inescapable as gravity, as inevitable as change (online betting).

Whether it’s the overall fight-to-fight evolution across his career or small mid-fight adjustments, Johnson hangs his hat on his ability to change. If you Google “Why do people try to be perfect?” you’ll get a host of links suggesting that the pursuit of perfection is a shortcut to unhappiness, an irresistible human urge, a white whale’s siren song. Then there’s “Mighty Mouse,” inverting established psychological expertise with every incremental improvement he makes in between fights. He has been damn near unbeatable for the last four years, and he has only grown increasingly unbeatable since. He’s as close to perfect as this sport has ever seen.

The original Latin definition of “perficio” literally translates to “finished” or “complete.” Aristotle opined about the different shades of the concept of perfection, saying it means one of three things: (1) something that is absolutely complete, (2) something that is so good that nothing could be better and (3) something that has attained its purpose. From what it sounds like, Aristotle would be a “Mighty Mouse” fan.

Johnson is good at everything, not just in the general sense that he’s good at striking, wrestling and submissions. He’s good at all the small components of those skills. He’s not just good at striking; he’s a master of distance management and diversifying his attacks. He’s not just a good wrestler; he uses impeccable timing to blend multiple techniques and positional advancements into a single motion. He isn’t just a savvy submission artist who has tapped out four championship contenders; he’s lightning-quick and as fluid as they come on the mat. Each of those skill sets is elite, and they compliment each other to make for an even greater whole. Every other UFC champion right now has an area of weakness, or at least some aspect of his or her skill set that is more exploitable than the others. Not Johnson. Better pure wrestlers get knocked out; better pure strikers get chewed up in the clinch; better pure submission grapplers get whatever Johnson feels like giving them. Johnson is too good. It’s almost not fair.

Yet the same criticism of Johnson persists. He’s not a draw. He’s boring. His fights are all foregone conclusions. There’s truth to these claims, but that doesn’t make them right. That’s the paradox of perfection: It’s inherently uninteresting. It is wired into the amygdala to invest our attention and emotion more heavily into things that surprise us. We care more about drama and chaos, much as we may collectively strive for the boring safety of stability. Johnson is consistent to a fault. When he called himself an MMA Terminator before the fight, that was an apt description: When it comes to the outcomes of his fights, he’s machine-wired to do the same thing to every opponent, every time.

The nature of perfection is a challenging one. One of the most legendary tales of perfection echoes to us from the Italian Renaissance. As legend has it, the Pope at the time sent a messenger to find the best artist in Italy in order to commission artwork. Giotto, who would later go down as the first great Renaissance painter, did not submit a painting. Instead, he drew a large red circle, freehand without any tools, and gave it to the messenger, who was under the impression that the submission was a joke. When the messenger delivered the drawing to the Pope, it was discovered that the circle was exactly, precisely, undeniably perfect. As the story goes, the Pope recognized the subtle genius to the drawing and commissioned Giotto. True or not, the story illustrates that perfection itself is a powerful message, but one that is easily misunderstood and overlooked. Perfection demands talent from the artist, but it also demands a keen eye from the viewer.

Even if “Mighty Mouse” never becomes a draw, if his equal in the cage never arrives, if a trash-talking rival never surfaces, who cares? At least we get to appreciate the subtle nuances that make him great. Casual fans won’t enjoy him on as many levels as we do; and if that prevents him from getting the money he wants to go up in weight for a bantamweight super fight, if he instead opts to stack up another dozen title defenses before calling it a career, that’s fine. Perfectly fine.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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