How odd it must feel for Demetrious Johnson to be a master of something so many people actively want to ignore.
Johnson presented a clinic on the art of being Demetrious Johnson on Saturday at UFC 186. He efficiently sucked the life out of game challenger Kyoji Horiguchi during five grueling rounds before retaining his flyweight title via armbar with one second left on the clock.
It was another signature performance from the best 125-pound fighter on the planet. Great, because once again, Johnson looked a generation ahead of his next-best competition, winning just about every exchange, every moment of another high-profile bout.
Forgettable, because it felt like a tedious rerun of something we’d all seen before, and fans inside Montreal’s Bell Center reportedly began heading for the exits long before the end:
“I didn’t notice,” UFC President Dana White said at the post-fight press conference when asked about the walkouts by MMAjunkie’s Brent Brookhouse and Matt Erickson. “I don’t give a s--t what people are doing. I’m watching the fight.”
Johnson’s victory set a record for the latest stoppage in UFC history, and the fight company’s commentary team tried to make a big deal out of that fact as the pay-per-view broadcast ended.
In all ways, it was a fitting accolade for the flyweight champion.
The record will effectively be unbreakable—unless somebody can finish his or her opponent with less than one second remaining—but as a landmark achievement it felt unconvincing, with any fanfare over it invented as a way to try to celebrate Johnson’s underappreciated style.
He may well be the best overall fighter on the UFC roster. Watching him systematically torture the 125-pound class one doomed No. 1 contender at a time is as impressive as anything you can see inside the Octagon. He's probably the organization’s most athletic champion and its most complete technician.
Unfortunately, a lot of MMA fans quite literally aren’t buying-in.
It’ll be a while before specific estimates are available, but the UFC 186 PPV is not expected to have sold well. An intended main event—a bantamweight title rematch between T.J. Dillashaw and Renan Barao—had to be postponed after an injury to Dillashaw. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s co-main event bout against Fabio Maldonado was on, off and then on again due the machinations of ongoing legal action against Jackson.
Previous PPVs headlined by Johnson have posted tepid box office results. Last June’s UFC 174 featured his bout against Ali Bagautinov and was thought to have garnered just 115,000 buys. Four months later, a UFC 178 scrap with Chris Cariaso may have amassed 205,000.
As an opponent, Horiguchi was arguably more dangerous than either Bagautinov or Cariaso. As a drawing card, he was likely even lesser known. That does not bode well for UFC 186’s final sales numbers.
Many of the reasons why Johnson hasn’t made an impression on consumers are not his fault. He simply possesses a superfecta of factors that make it hard for UFC fans to invest in him. He's small. He’s relatively soft-spoken. He has had no iconic challengers. He is technically superior but not particularly fearsome.
Put all those things together and you get one of the UFC’s best pound-for-pound fighters and one of its worst draws. At this point, it’s unclear what, if anything, can be done about it.
“It’s kind of sad that Demetrious Johnson has this thing hanging over his head that he’s not this, he’s not that,” White said, per Brookhouse and Erickson. "... He comes in with a game plan and he follows it to the letter. He’s just one of these guys who’s got to put his head down, keep doing his thing and you just have to respect him. Anderson Silva wasn’t the biggest star while he was champion. Chuck Liddell wasn’t a big star for a while. His day will come.”
In order for that to happen, it seems as though Johnson will need a new and fiery 125-pound contender to emerge. He’ll need someone else to stoke the interest of the PPV-buying fight community, someone who is willing to play the Conor McGregor to Johnson’s Jose Aldo. To date, there isn’t really anyone like that on the horizon, though, admittedly, these things can happen quickly.
Personality-wise, the closest thing the flyweight class has to a superstar might be John Dodson. Dodson has already lost once to Johnson in January 2013, but the two are slated for a rematch when Dodson can return from a knee injury.
Competition-wise, the biggest threat in the weight class might eventually come from Olympic gold medal wrestler Henry Cejudo. But Cejudo is just two fights into his UFC career and has had trouble consistently making the 125-pound limit. A fight between the two of them would be stylistically fascinating but could be another PPV dud.
If Johnson’s career-making feud never comes, then fans will have to foster a grudging respect for him through the sheer repetitiveness of his dominance. Saturday night marked his eighth straight win and the sixth successful defense of the flyweight crown. He hasn’t lost since 2011, when Dominick Cruz bested him in a bout for the UFC bantamweight title.
Early on, it appeared Horiguchi might present an interesting riddle for Johnson to try to unravel. The 24-year-old native of Gunma, Japan, packed power in his strikes and possessed an awkward and elusive style.
Soon enough, though, Johnson began forcing Horiguchi to the mat with a relentless string of takedowns. He also outhustled the challenger on his feet, and his transitions between striking exchanges and takedown attempts were moments of great beauty.
As Horiguchi grew exhausted by the pace, the danger he presented leeched away, and eventually it became clear we were dealing with another patented Mighty Mouse shutout. He probably would’ve scored a clean sweep on the judges’ scorecards had the fight made it that far.
The arm bar he locked on Horiguchi just before the final horn was also breathtaking in its speed and almost mechanical perfection. To see him win via stoppage with just one second left, however, only seemed to make the performance more frustrating.
Somewhere before it happened, we’d reached a tipping point. Right now, it feels as though if you’ve seen one of Johnson’s fights (and he’s had an even dozen of them in the UFC), you’ve seen them all. As the seconds ticked away against Horiguchi, even Johnson’s staunchest supporters—like this writer, for example—had to admit things were getting monotonous.
Nobody can keep up with him. Nobody can compete with his comprehensive arsenal of MMA skills. In recent days, UFC matchmakers have been unable to find a flyweight opponent who could even make a fight of it.
Until they do, Johnson will go on being one of our sport’s least prized attractions. He’ll just keep piling up largely unwatched victories, beating opponents and breaking records that both feel dubious at best.