Demetrious Johnson stands on the cusp of an all-time UFC record. One more successful title defense would make for 11 straight, sending him past the great Anderson Silva for the most ever by a UFC champion.
For various reasons, much of this reign has passed by quietly, as Johnson has been overshadowed by bigger-name champions like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. But for his record-breaker, the UFC is interested in giving Johnson a matchup that has the most possibility of moving the needle. The promotion has floated out the possibility of Johnson vs. T.J. Dillashaw, the former UFC bantamweight champ who says he’s capable of making the 125-pound flyweight limit.
The prospect of that match has been the cause of much debate, with supporters stating it’s a more meaningful matchup for Johnson’s legacy and detractors asking how such a pairing makes any logical sense.
Joining me to discuss it is my colleague Steven Rondina. So let’s kick this off with a simple question: Steven, are you for or against it?
Steven: I consider myself pretty darn open-minded when it comes to what goes on in MMA.
Conor McGregor taking his two titles into a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather? I’m in. Georges St-Pierre returning after a four-year layoff to make his middleweight debut in a title match against Michael Bisping? Sounds good to me. CM Punk signing with the UFC? Why not?
But over the last week or so, there’s been a topic swirling on social media that even strikes me as a silly one. I’m talking, of course, about the discussion of Johnson vs. Dillashaw.
For whatever reason, fans and pundits alike have latched onto this as some kind of must-see, once-in-a-lifetime dream match. Heck, I’ve even seen posts labeling this as a “superfight” and, even more hilariously, a “money fight.”
Is this an interesting contest? Sure. Is this the most interesting fight available to Johnson at this particular time? Probably. But is this so compelling that the UFC should disrupt the stability of not one but two of the remaining stable divisions for it? Hell, no.
So I ask you, Mike! Is this fight better than what I’m seeing? Or am I overvaluing the potential costs for this?
Mike: Is this fight better than what you’re seeing? Of course it is! While I’m not going to go out on a limb and suggest that it is a superfight or a money fight, Johnson vs. Dillashaw is the best fight the UFC can make for the longtime reigning flyweight champion. To me, that’s reason enough to make it.
Johnson vs. Ray Borg? Eh. No disrespect to Borg, who at 23 years old is still a developing talent, but a two-fight win streak is not exactly an unassailable championship-level resume. He’s beaten Jussier Formiga and Louis Smolka, and those are good, solid wins, but they’re not jaw-droppers. Joseph Benavidez has a much better case for a title shot after winning six in a row, but having already lost twice to Johnson, he’s in a bad sort of limbo. He’s also out injured after tearing his ACL.
If Benavidez is not getting the shot, I don’t see how a Johnson vs. Dillashaw match would disrupt either division. Since capturing the belt in 2013, Johnson has defended it 10 times in just over four years. He’s very active, so even if there was a rock-solid contender, they’d only have to wait a little while longer than normal. Similarly, at bantamweight, Dillashaw is stuck waiting on injured champion Cody Garbrandt, so why should he sit around and wait if something else is lined up? The Garbrandt-Dillashaw matchup is already delayed, and it will be available down the line as well. And so, what’s the harm?
To me the more interesting thing here is how the UFC handles the situation. Johnson has publicly made it known that he’s resisting the Dillashaw matchup. To me, this is quite obviously a negotiation tactic. He’s voiced his displeasure with his pay in the past, and I’m sure he feels that if he’s going to take a riskier fight against a bigger name—and in theory, one that would draw more eyeballs—he deserves a bigger payday. Is the UFC likely to play ball here? This is where we find out how much they want it, and how much they think it’s worth.
Let me make this clear: Aside from a Johnson vs. Garbrandt matchup, this is the only pairing on the horizon that has even the remote chance of selling on pay-per-view. Dillashaw isn’t some box-office draw, but he’s a known name, a former UFC champion, and he is coming off the exposure of The Ultimate Fighter. If he’s ever going to draw, this is it. If Johnson is ever going to draw, the time is now.
Is this a good enough reason, Steven, or are you going to stick to your guns?
Steven: I completely agree that this is the best, most interesting fight that can be made for DJ from a fan perspective. But I’ll flip the script on you. Is this the best fight for DJ himself? Absolutely not.
While the UFC hasn’t really discussed it or acknowledged it, DJ currently shares the record for most title defenses in UFC history with Anderson Silva. He has a strong chance to break it but, well, he might not get the opportunity if his opponent comes in heavy, which is a lot more likely than people care to admit with a Dillashaw that has never weighed anything close to 125 pounds in his adult life. Frankly, I take a look at the photos of him at weigh-ins and I don’t even know where he could find 10 more pounds to lose!
That might be worth the risk if Dillashaw actually brought something extra to the table, either from a legacy or financial perspective, but he doesn’t. Whether he beats Dillashaw or that 12-year-old girl we’ve all been talking about, we’ll still be labeling DJ as the GOAT on Saturday, lamenting the UFC’s unwillingness to promote him on Sunday, then shaking our heads at his low-six-figure paycheck on Monday.
Oh, and if DJ loses? Are we really not expecting Dillashaw to immediately go back to 135 pounds and cash in his title fight raincheck?
On that note, I’ll flip the script on you again and ask: Is this the best fight that can be made for TJ? Again, absolutely not.
Dillashaw’s fight with Garbrandt was one of the best fights of the summer. It had everything you could want from an X’s and O’s perspective and when you add in the real, true, legitimate, honest-to-goodness hatred between the two of them? It’s everything you could want from a UFC fight.
It got pulled from UFC 213, yes, but unless Dana White was hugely underselling the severity of Garbrandt’s injury when he talked to the LA Times, we can expect that fight this fall. I’m willing to wait for that instead of rolling the dice on Dillashaw making 125 pounds—and then rolling them again to see if he actually looks good at that weight.
Mike: If you flip the script twice, wouldn’t you be exactly where we began? But I digress. Back to the argument at hand, let’s begin with your second argument. Is this the best fight to be made for Dillashaw? I’d argue yes. For proof, you just have to ask him. He wants the fight. If he really felt there was so much more to be made by fighting Garbrandt, he’d probably wait. Is he making more money for fighting Garbrandt? Nope, and unlike Johnson, he doesn’t have the leverage to ask for more. If this is all true, what is the point of waiting? If he feels he can make the flyweight 125-pound limit and he’s still competing for a championship, I don’t see the downside for him.
The UFC? Yes, I don’t get it from their point of view. In fact, after spending several weeks pushing this matchup through The Ultimate Fighter, it’s downright ridiculous that they’re not willing to wait. But maybe Garbrandt’s injury is worse than they’re letting on. Back injuries don’t usually go away quietly. If you want to argue the wiseness of the matchup from the promotion’s side, I think you have a case there. But Dillashaw isn’t losing much by shifting from Garbrandt to Johnson.
And Johnson? While it’s true that Dillashaw represents a riskier matchup than Borg, it is also true that it is the best fight for Johnson in terms of further cementing his legacy. A win over Borg will get him that record 11th title defense, but won’t it mean more to break the record against the first former UFC champion he’s ever faced—and against a bigger opponent to boot?
You mentioned that this might be worth the risk if Dillashaw brought something to the table from a financial perspective, and I agree this should be part of the considerations for Johnson. I believe he’s made his stance clear in recent interviews that he’s looking to increase his compensation. He should play hardball. As Dana White has been fond of saying for years, fighters only have a small window to capitalize upon. Johnson is attempting to make history, and while he’s never been a superstar, he’s earned the right to chart his own path. Whether he wants Borg, Dillashaw or a raise, the least the UFC can do is hear him out.
In the end, I acknowledge that neither fight will set the box office afire. That said, Johnson-Dillashaw is the best fight we can make for either man at the moment. It’s a great matchup of speed and movement that’s sure to result in a blur of action. All we’re missing is a storyline, but not every pairing needs that kind of drama. If they want it, and if the money’s right for both, let’s give them what they want.
Steven: Is Dillashaw the riskier fight for Johnson? Does he fill some void in Johnson’s legacy? A strong “no” case can be made in response to both of those questions.
I’d strongly encourage anyone that hasn’t seen it to take a look at Borg’s last two fights. Formiga is a very, very good fighter and Borg beat him squeaky clean in Brazil. Before that he basically dominated a solid Smolka.
I don’t think this is a Johnson vs. Kyoji Horiguchi situation, in which Horiguchi was an incredibly promising prospect who was obviously not ready for the Mighty Mouse challenge. Borg is good enough, right now, that I’m not sure the dried-up husk of Dillashaw is a greater threat.
And what about after Borg? Sergio Pettis and Brandon Moreno have both made major leaps in their games over recent months and the winner of their fight in August should be an interesting challenger if Johnson gets through Borg. And after that? Joseph Benavidez should be ready to go. Those are all interesting fights.
As for Johnson’s legacy, I think it’s bulletproof as it is right now. Whether it’s Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva or even the assassin of former champions, Jon Jones, we’re yet to have an all-time great not get derided for his strength of competition.
Five years from now, Mighty Mouse will be in the exact same boat whether he faces Dillashaw or not, and just like with all the other greats, those criticisms will be foolish.
Sure, some of Johnson’s wins came over Chris Cariaso and John Moraga. But one of them came when he slept Joseph Benavidez with one punch. One of them came when he iced Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo. Oh, and guess what? Two of them came when he beat John Dodson, that guy who punched Dillashaw into space.
Dillashaw certainly isn’t a bad name to have on his resume, but he also isn’t the Cris Cyborg to Johnson’s Ronda Rousey.
I’m all for Johnson playing his hand to get maximum moolah, and he deserves to hang up his gloves with millions of dollars in the bank. But a fight with Dillashaw isn’t going to do that, and it isn’t compelling enough to make me forget all the great fights that this potentially takes off the table.
Mike: I think your last point should serve as the last word. Johnson does deserve to retire set for life. He's one of the best that's ever done it, and he's earned the right to call his shot as he best sees fit. If Dillashaw nets him more money and he thinks it's worth it, Johnson doesn't owe anyone an apology for moving in that direction. If the UFC doesn't budge on compensation and Johnson doesn't think facing a former champion is worth the risk, he should stand pat.
All things being equal, however, a win over Dillashaw is simply more meaningful, even if it's not make-or-break for his legacy.
However things play out, Johnson already has a share of the record, and that's no small thing. The flyweight division may be the one that receives the least amount of attention, but its champion is about the best thing going in MMA. Whether he ultimately fights Borg, Dillashaw or someone else, we should all be able to agree on that.