UFC 216, The Morning After: Will we ever be able to call Demetrious Johnson the Best Ever?

 In Sports

It was an iconic moment of martial arts wizardry. Demetrius Johnson, in the fifth round of a fight he was dominating, was locked onto Ray Borg’s back, standing against the cage. He lifted Borg, as if to suplex him. Halfway through, he stepped aside, changing the motion to something akin to spiking a football in the endzone. With Ray in a controlled descent towards the floor, “Mighty Mouse” secured Borg’s left arm, wrapping it up with both of his. By the time Borg hit the canvas, Johnson had already flung his leg over Borg’s head, extending Borg’s arm out for an armbar. Borg didn’t want to go out like this. He bucked and fought and grimaced. But Johnson torqued the armbar, bending the arm deliberately to its breaking point. It was a battle where Johnson had all the leverage. Borg, his face a mask of pain, tapped Johnson’s ankle in submission. Demetrious Johnson crawled away from Borg like a crocodile that has just fed. He had just set a new record for consecutive UFC title defenses, at 11.

The previous holder of that record, Anderson Silva, had widely been considered the Greatest of All Time, the GOAT, at the time he held it. Johnson’s status is far more disputed. He is the first and only king of a division no one much cares about, the flyweights. Men who weigh one hundred and twenty-five pounds don’t seem to matter as much to a wide audience as big men. To make things worse, Johnson, despite his mastery in the cage, utterly fails to draw people in to watch his fights. Perhaps it is the fact he does all things well, but wows us with such moments as a suplex-to-flying-armbar only rarely. More likely than any factors in the cage, though, is that fact that his personality seems… generic. He nonchalantly goes back to playing video games after his fights. The UFC could and should do a better job marketing him, but no one is saying better marketing could turn him into Conor McGregor, Georges St. Pierre, or even Robbie Lawler. For whatever reason, Johnson, despite being an interesting, honest, and funny interview, doesn’t get casuals to tune in.

He has fans. But they aren’t as numerous or as collectively loud as fans of, say, Jon Jones, Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, or Fedor Emelianenko. Demetrious Johnson isn’t a larger than life figure. These considerations can cloud people’s evaluations of his record, and claim to be the best ever in the sport of mixed martial arts.

It is a young sport, less than thirty years old, still evolving and maturing. Can Johnson realistically claim to be the best ever, based on his record? His opponents never had the chance to achieve success in other divisions or accrue titles before he came along, so comparing how many champions he has fought doesn’t make sense. He has come closer than any fighter in history to cleaning out his own division. Ray Borg would never have a title shot at a higher weight class (with the possible exception of heavyweight or women’s bantamweight). Neither are Wilson Reis, Chris Cariaso, or John Moraga the most notable opponents. Those matchups occurred because there was no one else left to fight.

Johnson’s quality wins are numerous as well though. In terms of fighting skill, beating Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson twice each, bettering Ian McCall, overcoming the awkward Tim Elliot and Kyoji Horiguchi, and destroying Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo, all stand with the best wins of champions in other divisions. Flyweights in MMA tend to be much more athletic and technical than higher weight classes. Name a light heavyweight who ran run up the cage into a backflip. You can’t. Neither can you claim that Joe Benavidez- who has only lost to Johnson at flyweight- is less well-rounded than, say, Josh Koscheck, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, or Chael Sonnen.

The record for consecutive title defenses is a remarkable achievement for a reason. Johnson, since moving to flyweight, hasn’t made a fight-critical error once. Georges St. Pierre did. Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko eventually did. Jon Jones made his mistakes outside the cage.

Jon Jones is the most relevant comparison. He is the contemporary fighter who most often gets compared to Mighty Mouse. Before his win over Cormier was overturned to a no-contest, we were widely hailing him as the GOAT. Leaving aside his two failed drug tests and their implications, how do their records compare?

First, a couple caveats. This is one of those theoretical discussions that has no real-world meaning. The rules are made up and the prizes don’t matter. Secondly, it isn’t easy comparing fighters of different weight classes, who were presented with different opportunities based on their weight. Is Ali Bagautinov a better fighter than Rampage Jackson, for instance? That is not a question you can easily appeal to quantitative analysis to answer. Bagautinov never had the opportunity to earn belts in Pride, or the UFC prior to Johnson coming along, but he was a hard-hitting, skilled, and tough opponent on an 11-fight win streak when he met Demetrious.

Jones’ notable wins are over Daniel Cormier, Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Texeira, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Shogun Rua, Ryan Bader, and Rampage Jackson. Those are fighters with a lot of name value. They were former champions and talented athletes. However, where Johnson could be criticized for fighting men before their prime, Jones fought many of them after their prime. Rampage Jackson, Shogun Rua, Lyoto Machida, and Rashad Evans had all peaked athletically before meeting Jones.

Attempting to line up their respective best wins is perhaps not the most sophisticated way to do this, but here goes. Daniel Cormier was certainly a better opponent than Henry Cejudo. Joseph Benavidez is arguably a better, more technical foe than Alexander Gustafsson; if you don’t like that comparison, take Tim Elliot, for his size and awkward approach. Glover Texeira is not nearly the dynamic or athletic threat that is John Dodson. Rashad Evans’ skill set is roughly equivalent to John Moraga’s. Lyoto Machida might be equivalent to Kyoji Horiguchi. Shogun Rua is inconsistent like Ian McCall. Ryan Bader is probably better relative to his weight class than Wilson Reis. Rampage Jackson we have already compared to Ali Baugatinov.

Diving into opponent comparisons too deeply is like zooming in on a fractal; it is an endless discussion. The point is that Johnson’s record, when considering purely the skill of his opponents, does hold up. What about his own skill set? This is where his greatness is clear. He is fundamentally sound everywhere; he has consistently outstruck opponents, rarely being in any danger himself; and he has scored knockouts at range and in the clinch. His speed and his ringcraft make him almost untouchable. His is best weapon, though, is his grappling. Johnson is the definition of the phrase, “there are levels to this shit”. He looks like he is doing basic stuff, and he usually is, but he is so good at executing that no one can match him over five rounds. Just like Jon Jones, he makes good fighters look amateur and great fighters look ordinary. Unlike Jon, he has faced fighters larger than himself. While I would love to see a rematch down the line, watching Johnson get suplexed by Dominick Cruz, a weight class above, does color one’s perceptions. It shouldn’t. Weight classes exist for a reason, and losing to the greatest bantamweight of all time (unless/until Garbrandt catches up) is not a knock on Johnson.

There is no absolute answer in a completely subjective discussion here. But there is a discussion to be had, and it is one in which ‘Mighty Mouse’ has a lot in his favor. Moreover, he isn’t done yet. Unless Garbrandt or Dillashaw make the cut to 125, it is difficult to see anyone taking Johnson’s place on the flyweight throne.

Demetrious Johnson will likely never win the appreciation of a wider audience. He likely is, though, the greatest of all time, and we are lucky to watch him in the cage.

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