For What It's Worth, UFC 215 Finds Demetrious Johnson on Cusp of History

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterSeptember 7, 2017

Demetrious Johnson flips during his main event fight with Chris Cariaso, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Las Vegas. Johnson won via submission. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

Provided he defeats Ray Borg on Saturday in the main event of UFC 215, Demetrious Johnson will finally break Anderson Silva's longstanding record for consecutive UFC title defenses.

This milestone obviously means a lot to Johnson.

The men's flyweight champion has been citing it as a motivating factor since at least before his second win over John Dodson two years and four fights ago. Beating Borg this weekend will give Johnson 11 straight defenses, moving him out of a tie with Silva and into uncharted waters of historic dominance for a UFC titlist.

Considering the turnover at the top in many of the rest of the fight company's weight classes over the last couple of years, it will be a doubly amazing feat—and "Mighty Mouse" says he's still a long way from satisfied.

EDMONTON, AB - SEPTEMBER 06:  UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson speaks to the media during the UFC 215 Ultimate Media Day at Rogers Place on September 6, 2017 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Image
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"I hope I can get to 20," Johnson told ESPN.com's Brett Okamoto recently. "I'm on pace to get two or three fights per year, and I think I've got five or six years left in me. Maybe I'll get to something like 18 and walk away from the sport—retire as champion. I think 15 to 18 title defenses is something that would be in the record books forever."

There's no mystery in this record's appeal to him. As of Saturday, Johnson will have been 125-pound champ for a staggering 1,808 days, and he's set to go off as a 9-1 favorite over Borg, according to OddsShark. Since winning the flyweight belt at UFC 152 in September 2012, he's been so far ahead of his competition there isn't much for him to focus on besides immortality.

But exactly what this record (and Johnson breaking it) means to anyone outside of the fighter and his inner circle is a matter of opinion.

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You might not even know Johnson was on the cusp of history unless you've had your ear pressed firmly to the ground of hardcore MMA circles.

It's not as though the UFC has been shouting Johnson's potential achievement from the rooftops. UFC 215, in fact, will be a fairly low-profile pay-per-view event headlined by a pair of champions who've found themselves in the fight company's doghouse in recent months.

Women's bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes cast herself in hot water after pulling out of a UFC 213 title defense against Valentina Shevchenko the week of the fight in July. A do-over of that bout will now serve as UFC 215's co-main event.

Johnson himself—normally a drama-free workhorse for the UFC during his championship run—publicly clashed with the organization in June over his next opponent. The UFC wanted Johnson to fight former men's bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw, but Johnson insisted on breaking this record against an actual flyweight before entertaining the idea of fighting men from other weight classes.

The public tiff has put the fighter and his bosses uncharacteristically at odds headed into this matchup.

"You want Ray Borg, we'll give you Ray Borg," a sarcastic UFC President Dana White told MMAjunkie's John Morgan and Ken Hathaway recently. "I'm sure the fans will be clamoring, and ticket sales will be through the roof and pay-per-views will be off the charts."

The one on the right there is Ray Borg.
The one on the right there is Ray Borg.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Ticket sales and PPV buys have been the only real problem for Johnson for some time now.

If you've watched him fight anytime during his five-year reign, you already knows he's an incredible champion and perhaps the most complete MMA fighter of all time. Since dropping from bantamweight in the wake of a loss to Dominick Cruz in late 2011, he and head coach Matt Hume have polished his skill set to the point of near flawlessness.

If anything, the 31-year-old is still getting better. Johnson's most recent run of victories against Wilson Reis, Tim Elliott, Henry Cejudo and Dodson has been increasingly stellar—arguably all the more so given that Elliot pushed him in unexpected ways during their fight in December 2016.

Yet, this old refrain is becoming fairly well-worn in fight circles: Johnson has been a revelation in the cage but hasn't done particularly big business at the box office.

This weekend marks the first time he's headlined a pay-per-view since the Dodson fight—when UFC 191 pulled down a meager estimated buyrate of 115,000, via MMA Payout. Roughly half of his title defenses have been relegated to free network TV broadcasts, where he also fetches unremarkable ratings.

Johnson lands a right hand on Wilson Reis.
Johnson lands a right hand on Wilson Reis.Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

For unknown reasons, most fans have decided they're disinterested in Johnson's brand and that makes him breaking Silva's record a somewhat slippery accomplishment.

It's not meaningless by any stretch. Eleven title defenses is still 11 title defenses—a run of sustained success unequaled in the near 25-year history of the UFC. It's a terrific accolade for Johnson, who is the only flyweight champion the Octagon has ever known.

But it's not exactly a hallowed number, either.

This isn't Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak, Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points in a game or even Tom Brady's five Super Bowl rings. MMA is a different sport, with a different business model and different values. Johnson's longevity is a wonder, but it's not as though fans have been on the edge of their seats for years, waiting to see who—if anyone—would ever break Silva's record.

And while discussions over who is the greatest of all time are constantly swirling, MMA is too young for any kind of meaningful historical reverence.

Apr 15, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Demetrious Johnson before the fight against Wilson Reis fight during UFC Fight Night at Sprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The UFC flyweight division, for example, has only existed since early 2012. Johnson has obviously been the very best of the company's top of 125-pound fighters, but his is a comparatively new and comparatively shallow weight class, even by MMA standards.

It's impossible to argue against his skill set, but we likely won't know where he fits in among MMA's all-time greats until the sport itself has enough history for fans to revel in it. Not to mention, enough years removed from which to view his greatness.

For now, it's hard to compare feats in different weight classes and across the sport's many flash-in-the-pan eras. Who's to say that Johnson surpassing Silva—whose run as middleweight champ spanned from 2006-13—makes him any better or worse a champion than Silva, Georges St-Pierre or even Jon Jones?

Who's to say Johnson's current run of 13 straight victories is any more or less impressive than Silva's 17 during his heyday, St-Pierre's 17-1 UFC mark from 2005-13 or the streak in 2011-12 where Jones effortlessly defeated five former light heavyweight champions in a row.

2Apr 15, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Demetrious Johnson (red) celebrates following the win over and Wilson Reis (not pictured) during UFC Fight Night at Sprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

We can't.

Not really.

So, while it will be incredible to see Johnson set a new standard for UFC championship tenure, it's probably not going to change anyone's mind about him.

For Johnson himself, that's beside the point, though the fact he will break the record against a virtual unknown in Borg and on what will no doubt be one of the UFC's lowest-selling PPVs of the year seems like a useful microcosm for the rest of the man's career.

Chances are, if you're a Demetrious Johnson fan, the new record will mean a great deal to you.

If you're not, then maybe not quite so much.

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