The Question: Demetrious Johnson Says He's Best UFC Champ Ever—Is He Right?

Mike Chiappetta@MikeChiappettaMMA Senior ColumnistApril 19, 2017

Demetrious Johnson tied a UFC record with his 10th straight title defense.
Demetrious Johnson tied a UFC record with his 10th straight title defense.Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In a UFC championship reign that is soon to kiss the five-year mark, Demetrious Johnson has never looked so mighty as he did at last Saturday night's UFC on FOX main event. Sure, he has beaten opponents in less time than he needed to stop Wilson Reis, but never before has he matched the totality of his performance.

It was, in a word, brilliant.

In almost 15 minutes of action, Reis was only able to land a total of 18 strikes out of 170 attempts against Johnson, according to FightMetric. 

That kind of defensive shutdown is staggering. MMA is often fought in close quarters, in flurries and barrages, and with small gloves. As a result, offense is not so difficult to come by. But Johnson effectively rendered Reis impotent with his speed, movement and transitions, which had him in and out of striking range to do his thing without ever taking much of any return fire. 

It's not like he was running away from Reis, either. Johnson scored 135 strikes of his own, landing at a 62.5 percent clip. He was both moves and levels ahead.

He also remains rungs ahead of the division; his successful defense was his 10th straight, tying the great Anderson Silva for consecutive UFC title defenses.

Still only 30 years old and likely in the midst of his athletic prime, Johnson is threatening to rewrite the UFC record books.

There's no questioning his flyweight dominance, but what about his historical place among the legendary champions like Silva and Georges St-Pierre? 

In the immediate aftermath of his historic win, the usually modest Mouse offered a rare moment of bravado.

"GSP and Anderson Silva were great champions, but I'm the best champion to ever step foot in the Octagon," Johnson said on the Fox broadcast moments after his win.

That's worth dissecting with MMA Lead Writer Chad Dundas.

Mike Chiappetta: Chad, first off I'm just really happy for Johnson to have that kind of night. Not that he won, but that it was an evening that truly felt as though the fight world was appreciating and saluting him.

I know the ratings numbers were a disappointment—just 1.74 million, according to MMA Fighting—but the Kansas City crowd was fantastic in giving him a star's reception and respect, and it seemed like the post-fight reaction was equally positive.

For too long, he's ruled before an apathetic base. Maybe that starts to change now. And maybe him declaring his greatness helps, too. Even if you disagree with him, it's a grand statement worth taking notice of.

And here's the part where I have to say that, unfortunately, I disagree with him. Johnson is not the greatest ever. At least not yet. He may get there soon enough though. But I don't think we can judge this kind of thing on wins alone. We have to look at the quality of who fought who.

Johnson's greatest opponents during his streak are Joseph Benavidez, John Dodson and Henry Cejudo. Three excellent fighters, yes, but none of them will be looked at as Hall of Fame-level. Part of this is due to the short history of the flyweight division, which is something out of Johnson's control but still must be factored in.

Still, I can't help contrasting his path with that taken by Jon Jones.

Jones defeated Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort. Five former UFC champions, all in a row. He defeated Alexander Gustafsson and Daniel Cormier, too. If you're comparing resumes, it's not close.

I think you could make an argument that Johnson's list of opponents is on par with Silva's or St-Pierre's, but he simply didn't face the opponent level that Jones did.

Chad, where does Johnson fit into history here?

Jon Jones factors into the G.O.A.T. conversation, but has been sidelined for a year due to suspension.
Jon Jones factors into the G.O.A.T. conversation, but has been sidelined for a year due to suspension.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Chad Dundas: He's certainly the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet right now, and considering the staggering turnover among UFC champions during the last couple of years, Johnson's longevity as the only 125-pound titlist the Octagon has ever known is verging on legendary.

But historical significance can be a tricky subject in a sport that's only existed in America for a shade more than 20 years.

On its face, I agree with you, Mike, that Mighty Mouse hasn't yet passed St-Pierre or Jones on the list of all-time greats—at least not yet. I also agree that its not really his fault that the flyweight division hasn't been around long enough to endow his list of opponents with the same mystique as Jones' or to grant Johnson the gravitas of a GSP.

It's interesting to ponder where DJ might end up, though, considering the mind-bending fact he could conceivably fight another six or seven years before his physical skills erode. If the man's 10 consecutive title defenses and wins over five of the UFC's current Top 10 flyweights isn't good enough to boost him to GOAT status, what will do the trick?

History is obviously important to him. Considering his glaring lack of success at the box office, it's basically the only metric we have to chart his stunning success. So, since Johnson clearly intends to go down as the best ever, I wonder what his best course of action may be.

Does Johnson continue to chip away at dominating the flyweight division on and on into eternity? Does he think about going back up to bantamweight—where he put up a 14-2 record between 2007-2011, losing only to Brad Pickett and Dominick Cruz? Does he consider trying to have current 135-pound champion Cody Garbrandt come down to challenge him?

It seems like a quandary.

Mike, I know you already opined a bit on this subject on fight night, but what's the brightest future for Johnson? What can he and UFC matchmakers do to plot the way forward?  

Mike: It truly depends on Johnson's goals, I suppose. As you mentioned, I wrote on fight night that the Garbrandt fight is the right call. And I meant that in the sense of, if it's what Johnson wants, they should give it to him. He deserves a chance for a big fight and a seven-figure payday, and as we've learned so far, it doesn't exist for him in the flyweight division as it currently stands.

At least if the UFC puts together Garbrandt-Johnson at flyweight, as Garbrandt said he's willing to do on the Aubrey Marcus Podcast (h/t MMA Fighting), there are multiple narratives to sell.

There's Johnson going for the record 11th title defense. There's the rare champion vs. champion matchup. There's one of the greatest champions ever competing against one of the youngest ever. 

And yes, this is all incumbent on Garbrandt beating Dillashaw in July, which is no sure thing.

But it's something. Something with some meat on the bone that both hardcores and casuals may bite into.

Aside from that, there is little interesting on the horizon for Johnson. Aside from that, he'll have to keep on doing what he's been doing, which is winning impressively but with little fanfare. Maybe that's enough, but I have to believe he wants better. 

But getting back to the original question at hand, are we examining this wrong? Are we too focused on strength of schedule and not enough on straight skill? If you stacked up Johnson, Jones, St-Pierre and Silva, which do you find to be the most complete mixed martial artist?

There is an argument to be made for Johnson, who so far has submitted a decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt (Reis), outworked an Olympic wrestling gold medalist (Henry Cejudo) and out-hustled a dude who was later busted for EPO (Ali Bagautinov).

The thoroughness of his game is a marvel. He has speed, stamina, technique, defense, fight IQ, the effortless ability to switch stances and surprising pop. If there is anything to exploit—anything at all—it is probably the size of a pinhole, and good luck finding it while in the midst of his unrelenting attack.

Measuring Johnson that way, I would place him above Silva and St-Pierre and right in line with Jones. And within a fight or two—as he shows more facets of his still-evolving game—he may well pass Jones, too.

Is this a fairer way to judge him, and if so, at this point in their careers—Jones, at 29, is one year younger—who has the higher ceiling?

Johnson snatches Reis' arm for the fight-ending submission.
Johnson snatches Reis' arm for the fight-ending submission.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Chad: While we're talking in superlative terms, I'll just go ahead and lay it out there: Johnson is perhaps the most complete fighter in the history of the sport. 

The way he effortlessly nullified Reis' offense and systematically took the challenger apart was one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in a UFC title fight. Even to those of us well-versed in what Mighty Mouse brings to the table, it was a revelation.

You mentioned the lopsided striking statistics at the top. To that, I would add that by the time Johnson took the fight to the mat in the third round and locked in an armbar—thereby handing Reis the first submission loss of his near 10-year, 30-fight career—it appeared Johnson did it just to see if he could.

As if he'd had so much success on the feet he figured he'd get some work in on the ground too. 

Just when we thought we knew what Johnson was capable of, he raised the bar. That's a credit both to him and his team at AMC Martial Arts in Kirkland, Washington, which always seems to provide the exact right support and game-planning to supplement Johnson's incredible skills.

There's only one thing stopping me from declaring that if he keeps going at his current clip, DJ will one day unquestionably establish himself as the greatest UFC champion of all time: All the people involved in this conversation are still fighting.

And thus, we return to the tricky proposition of any historical MMA discussion: The data is constantly changing. 

What if Jones gets his personal life together and owns the light heavyweight division for another five years before moving up and also winning the heavyweight title? 

What if St-Pierre returns from his lengthy hiatus, beats Michael Bisping and captures a UFC title at middleweight?

What if Johnson lives out the rest of his days undefeated, so thoroughly cleaning out the flyweight class that matchmakers have to start going door-to-door looking for 125-pound men for him to fight?

All of those things are possible, and any one of them could completely change the parameters of this discussion.

For now, I'll just say its a three-horse race. 

But after Saturday night, Johnson is neck-and-neck with the best to ever wear the gold. 

And that's no small feat.