Demetrious Johnson was pretty close to flawless on Saturday in his destruction of Ali Bagautinov.
The champ swept Bagautinov on all three scorecards at UFC 174, looking so dominant in his fourth consecutive flyweight title defense that saying he pitched a shutout doesn’t quite do it justice. It was more like a no-hitter and closer to a perfect game.
So why did it feel like something was missing?
Johnson was partly a victim of circumstance. His unanimous-decision win (50-45 x 3) came at the tail end of an uninspired night of fights in Vancouver, Canada. The last four bouts on the pay-per-view main card went the distance, and despite a split verdict in the evening’s halfhearted heavyweight fight, none was competitive.
By the time we watched Johnson overwhelm Bagautinov in every facet of the main event, we had already watched Rory MacDonald overwhelm Tyron Woodley and Ryan Bader overwhelm Rafael Cavalcante. As for Andrei Arlovski vs. Brendan Schaub? Well, nobody was overwhelmed by that one.
The final fight of the night might have been a good spot for a stoppage, both to break the monotony and to give Johnson his third in a row. It felt as though he had established some momentum during the last year with impressive back-to-back finishes of John Moraga and Joseph Benavidez.
Instead, it appeared that "Mighty Mouse" lapsed back to the form that produced six decision wins and one majority draw during his first seven Octagon appearances.
Again, not entirely his fault. Though Bagautinov was a 5-1 underdog, according to BestFightOdds.com, he came in riding an 11-fight win streak and had never been finished in his professional career. It would be unfair to criticize Johnson for merely blowing his opponent's doors off for 25 straight minutes.
"I'm the king," Johnson said in the cage when it was over. "I'll stay the king as long as I can, man. I'll keep on knocking them down."
The victory appears to have him ticketed for a rematch with John Dodson. That fight stands to be as good an offering as the flyweight division can muster right now while simultaneously underscoring the shallow nature of the 125-pound ranks.
Dodson has all the qualities necessary to be a good foil for Johnson and perhaps the physical skills to match him in the cage as well. But the two just fought 16 months ago, and Johnson won by unanimous decision. An encore performance will be fun but doesn’t figure to be the cure for what ails the flyweight division and its champion.
Part of what’s keeping Johnson from stardom must be stylistic. His fights are pure poetry but typically short on signature moments. Too often, watching him work is like listening to a great album without a hit single. Hardcore fans will love it, but the masses just keep nodding along, waiting for the hook.
The only flyweight champion in UFC history is undoubtedly a master of his craft. He zips around the Octagon at breakneck speed—a study in perpetual motion—hitting his opponents a half-dozen times before they can hit him once. He’s young and impeccably rounded, smart and likable. Aside from not being 6’4”, 245 pounds, he may well be the perfect fighter.
Don’t believe it? Just sit back and let the UFC broadcast team remind you again and again.
Like Renan Barao before him, perhaps one of Johnson’s problems is how devilishly hard the fight company’s hype machine is trying to sell him to us.
Even when Bagautinov managed to make things reasonably competitive in the early going, Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan only had eyes for the champion. It seemed as though the narrative had been decided before the fight started, and the announcers were going to keep repeating it until it stuck in our brains like a lousy advertising jingle.
The commentary wasn’t wrong, per se. Johnson is amazing. He is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. But the more the UFC struggles to remind us that what we’re seeing is miraculous—that our minds should be blown by it—the more it all starts to seem manufactured.
That’s kind of a shame for Johnson, a 27-year-old magician who doesn’t always benefit from people shouting about how awesome his tricks are while he’s performing them.
He is a genius. Like a lot of geniuses, his work isn't easily accessible.
It can’t be properly celebrated in jargon or buzzy catchphrases. It doesn’t lend itself to Linkin Park-infused highlight teasers. It’s remarkable to watch but doesn’t routinely make you jump out of your seat with excitement.
It means he’s an exceptional fighter but not the kind of guy who is going to sell a million PPVs.
He’s not going to save a fight card after it’s already clattered off the rails.