Best flyweight or not, Johnson isn’t nearly as popular as the remaining crop of heavier UFC champions.
Jon Jones is young, brash and confident. Jose Aldo is a striking savant. Cain Velasquez is a heavyweight. Chris Weidman is the man who dethroned Anderson Silva. Anthony Pettis authored the “Showtime Kick.” Johny Hendricks has one-punch knockout power. Ronda Rousey is the first female UFC champion. T.J. Dillashaw just earned his strap, but will likely follow in training partner Urijah Faber’s footsteps as he climbs the ranks of popularity.
What about Johnson, though? What does he have?
The simple answer: He’s just a great fighter, and great fighters alone just don’t sell anymore.
The complicated answer: Keep reading.
He poses some of the best footwork of any MMA fighter. He’s arguably the fastest man to ever grace the Octagon. He’s been as dominant as any one of his heavier counterparts, but he’s 125 pounds—and casual fans just can’t find the time to tune in for a 125-pound man.
It may not just be his weight, though—he also doesn't finish fights in the UFC.
Currently listed as the UFC’s No. 4 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Johnson is heading into his fourth-straight title defense while seeking his third-straight, and third overall, finish inside the Octagon.
At 19-2, it’s not as if Johnson doesn’t know how to finish fights—four of his victories have come by TKO and seven by submission. Johnson’s, as well as the UFC’s, biggest issue is that Johnson collected most of those inherently dominant victories on his road to the Octagon, not inside of it.
Interestingly enough, Johnson only collected three of his eight decision victories outside of the UFC. Whether it was the boost in competition or the pressure of fighting inside the Octagon, Johnson's hardly considered a finisher inside the UFC's flyweight division.
|UFC on Fox 9||Joseph Benavidez||Win||KO (Round 1)|
|UFC on Fox 8||John Moraga||Win||Submission (Round 5)|
|UFC on Fox 6||John Dodson||Win||Decision (Unanimous)|
|UFC 152||Joseph Benavidez||Win||Decision (Split)|
|UFC on FX 3||Ian McCall||Win||Decision (Unanimous)|
|UFC on FX 2||Ian McCall||Draw||Draw (Majority)|
|UFC on Versus 6||Dominick Cruz||Loss||Decision (Unanimous)|
|UFC 130||Miguel Torres||Win||Decision (Unanimous)|
|UFC 126||Norifumi Yamamoto||Win||Decision (Unanimous)|
It's not as if his decision victories are anywhere near as boring to fans as those by Ben Askren or Jon Fitch. Just check out his performance in the split-decision victory against Joseph Benavidez:
Casual fans are barely getting to know him as the man who submitted John Moraga in the fifth round of an already dominant performance. They’re still trying to realize if it was actually Johnson who knocked Benavidez out in the first round of their highly anticipated rematch.
Before those two flashy victories, Johnson was riding a seven-fight unbeaten streak—all of which kept the scorecards completely filled out.
Very rarely do scorecards serve as a reminder of how exciting a fight was. Fans don’t like them, the UFC doesn’t like them, and Johnson shouldn’t like them.
Would you pay to see Demetrious Johnson fight?
Whether or not Johnson is ready to assume a popular role in the UFC is hardly the issue, they’re pushing him hard. Johnson’s only fought on a UFC pay-per-view card three times in his nine fights with the promotion—he wasn’t even the main event. Now, two years after he started carrying around the strap, Johnson is finally headlining a pay-per-view event of his own.
Widely considered the favorite, Johnson likely keeps his strap on Saturday night. The UFC just has to hope that enough people fork over the money to watch this guy perform in order to sell him as somebody people want to see.