Coming off just two wins, it’s understandable why fans are skeptical of declaring Michael Johnson as a fighter of note in the UFC’s lightweight division.
It’s a weight class overflowing with talent. More than a few incredibly gifted fighters have found out that athleticism and power alone don’t carry you to a title shot. If anyone knows this, it should be Johnson given that he is facing one of those fighters: Melvin Guillard.
Guillard is an odd commodity for fans: He’s one of the most explosive and dangerous underachievers in the sport today. He’s great fun to watch when he’s on, but there are enough holes in his game to make him very beatable.
Johnson in many ways was looking like the second coming of Guillard after he dominated Jonathan Brookins in the first round during The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale. During those first five minutes, he was running all over Brookins and looked like he was about to stop him at any moment.
Brookins remained calm, absorbed a great deal of punishment, then came back out and took it all away from Johnson during Rounds 2 and 3, leaving the then-Springfield, Mo., based fighter as the runner-up.
From there on out, his career showed him as a fighter with great potential and great deficiencies. He went 4-1 in his next five fights, losing via inverted heel hook to Paul Sass while defeating the likes of Shane Roller, Tony Ferguson and Danny Castillo.
Out of those four victories, only two came via stoppage.
Then, just as it seemed like he was building momentum, he dropped two fights in a row—a decision to Myles Jury and a submission loss to Reza Madadi. Like Guillard, submissions seemed to be the major chink in Johnson’s armor; of his eight defeats, six had come by submission.
What follows next, on the surface, does not seem all that uncommon for men like Johnson and Guillard. He bounced back, winning his last two bouts in dominant fashion.
But when you look a little deeper, you can see that there is something more going on with Johnson than the simple ebb and flow often associated with talented yet inconsistent fighters.
Where as the earlier versions of Johnson would simply plow forward in a straight line, intent upon forcing his strikes like a man trying to pound a square peg into a round hole, he now circles and moves much more, remaining active while using his weapons intelligently.
In his fights against Joe Lauzon and Gleison Tibau, Johnson was fleet of foot, many times scoring first and last with his strikes while avoiding most of the counters that flew his way. He displayed far more patience than we are used to seeing with him, using his athleticism to maximum effect with minimal effort, conserving his energy while scoring well and often.
Against Lauzon, Johnson looked to be the far superior fighter. He was landing with strong counters, lead left hands, uppercuts—basically with whatever he wanted—and he was doing damage as well.
He had Lauzon hurt for most of the first round, knocking him down with heavy shots and from that point on, Johnson dictated when and where the fight was fought. If he wanted to take Lauzon down, he did. And if he wanted to keep the fight standing, then the fight stayed standing. It was a full 15 minutes of Johnson landing well—be it leading or countering—leaving Lauzon unable to get anything started.
It was much the same story against Tibau, but Johnson ended the fight early in Round 2 via knockout.
They were two very impressive performances that showcased a new and vastly improved Johnson—yet they were not against top-10 competition. As that is where Johnson wants to be, should anyone be surprised that MMA fans are still reluctant to sing his praises?
To be honest, no.
While it seems that Johnson finally has his head in the right place and has dedicated himself to his craft, two good performances does not a top-10 fighter make. He still has some work to do before he proves himself to be on the level of fighters like Anthony Pettis, Benson Henderson, Gilbert Melendez and others.
Now he’s slated to face the up-and-down Melvin Guillard at UFC Fight Night 37 in a fight that is all risk and little reward. Should he lose, any and all momentum is going to amount to a cannonball shot into the ground.
To be blunt, the only real way Johnson raises his stock and earns respect in this fight is if he blows Guillard off the map. We’re not talking about a close victory or a dominant performance like he enjoyed in the Lauzon fight.
What we are talking about is the kind of one-sided destruction that Frank Trigg suffered against Georges St-Pierre, or Pete Sell suffered against Matt Brown. This would speak to just how much better Johnson is and would do so with a conviction that shuts down the idea that he isn’t ready for a top-10 fight.
If he cannot overwhelm Guillard, utterly and totally, then he will have to wait a while to announce his graduation from top 20 prospector to something greater.
In a sport that sees so much change, so quickly, the longer he waits outside of that coveted group, the harder it’s going to be to get through the door.