In a sport where danger lurks around every corner, it is difficult to comprehend the dominance of Demetrious Johnson. Perhaps this will put it into some context: It has been years since the fight world looked at a Johnson matchup and could even imagine any significant jeopardy coming his way.
According to BestFightOdds.com, in seven straight pairings, Johnson has been a prohibitive favorite to the tune of -400 odds or better (bet $400 to win $100), a streak that continues to Saturday’s UFC on Fox bout with Wilson Reis, where he remains a staggering -800 favorite.
The great Anderson Silva didn’t command those lopsided spreads from oddsmakers and bettors; neither did Georges St-Pierre.
In the cage, he is as polished and consistent a fighter as our eyes have seen, a true standard-bearer for both his division and the sport.
But the flyweight king and the current No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, at least according to the voters of UFC.com, cannot seem to make any headway when it comes to his overall popularity and paydays. The last pay-per-view event he headlined, UFC 197 against John Dodson, drew just 115,000 buys, according to Dave Meltzer (h/t MMAPayout), a depressingly low number that stands as the poorest of the last decade for the UFC. While some champions make millions, Johnson’s last publicly disclosed payday (last December) was $350,000.
While his brilliance has long toiled in near-anonymity, Johnson is on the verge of an accomplishment that cannot be ignored. If he meets expectations and defeats Reis (22-6) on Saturday, the smallest champion in UFC history (he's just 5'3") will stand aside one of the giants of the game, the legendary Silva, tying the record for the most consecutive UFC title defenses.
St-Pierre didn’t do that. Jon Jones didn’t do that. Jose Aldo didn’t do that.
“Ten is just a stepping stone. The ultimate goal is 11,” Johnson said Monday during a media lunch (h/t MMA Fighting—Warning: contains NSFW language). “It’s like Floyd Mayweather when he got to 49-0. It’s like, why would you stop there? You can easily get to 50-0 and be the only fighter to ever do it. I’m going past it. My goal is to go past 10.”
Johnson (25-2-1) has been so good for so long that the only way he can guarantee increased attention for himself is by either breaking a vaunted record or losing.
Fortunately for him, the former looks like the more likely result in large part due to his 360-degree skill set.
|Most Consecutive UFC Title Defenses|
In the cage, he is perhaps the most perfectly complete fighter the sport has seen, with layers of complexity that make his defenses near-impenetrable.
He fights equally well either southpaw or orthodox. He can pepper you from distance or punish you from the clinch. He has excellent wrestling and is a scrambling wizard. In his nine-fight championship defense run, he has four decisions, three submissions and two knockouts. His stamina is endless.
The irony of these many attributes is that the thoroughness of his game is not his danger; it is his armor. Johnson is not unrivaled at any one thing. Within his division, he’s not the biggest puncher or a suffocating jiu-jitsu black belt. But good luck at overwhelming him in any single area. While his opponent tries and fails to find a hole that does not exist, he counters their search, latches on to his foe’s weakness and chips away at it until they are defeated.
Yet still, he remains far too underappreciated.
Part of that is his own doing. Johnson is generally professional and modest, great qualities for an everyday person but not for a sport that demands loud and fascinating figures.
Asked if he’s ever considered a more brash public personality, he said “it’s just not in my bones” to trash talk.
“People are coming out and being more vocal nowadays, but for me, it’s not in my character,” he said.
Matching or exceeding Silva, however, can’t be ignored. The former UFC middleweight champion is MMA royalty, and anytime your name is mentioned in the same breath as his, more attention should follow.
If it doesn’t, Johnson also has the possibility of his highest-profile fight looming, a prospect that could offer him a major payday and more attention than he’s ever received.
One of the UFC’s brightest young stars, newly crowned bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt, recently said on the Aubrey Marcus podcast that he's interested in dropping down to flyweight to challenge Johnson and make him “earn” the record he’s chasing.
Yet, if you listen to Johnson, you don’t sense any kind of excitement or anticipation.
“I’ve never, never turned anybody down from coming to my weight class and challenging for the belt,” Johnson said. “I’ve never done it, and I’m not going to start now.”
It’s always pragmatism with him, which makes him seem like an ordinary guy and not one of the best fighters in the world.
At 30 years old, he could stay there for a while, although he is coming off a popliteus tear in his right leg, a reminder, he says, that his body does not respond and recover the way it used to for him. Even greatness has an expiration date.
Everyone eventually loses the belt, and one day, that will happen to Johnson, too. For now, though, that seems far off into the future. For now, he’ll focus not just on keeping his place alongside the best who have ever done it in the Octagon, but surpassing them.