Gauging Greatness: Is Demetrious Johnson Really Anderson Silva's Equal?

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterOctober 6, 2017

VANCOUVER, BC - JUNE 11:  Demetrious 'Mighty Mouse' Johnson poses for a portrait during a UFC photo session on June 11, 2014 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

I bought my first Bill James Baseball Abstract in 1986, just another source of information to fuel my nascent fantasy baseball obsession. I mention this seemingly unrelated nugget of personal information to establish, right off the bat, that I'm not some Luddite opposed to modern metrics. I enjoy them all, from WARP to Win Shares, and recognize that more information is often a good thing.

In combat sports, however, statistics are bunk.

Harsh? Maybe. But anyone who has watched a boxing prospect, inflated record built on tomato cans, flail around helplessly the first time he encounters real competition knows all wins aren't created equally.

Neither are punches—but a Mike Tyson uppercut and Nick Diaz slap both count the same according to the folks at CompuBox or Fight Metric.

Our intuition and our eyeballs tell us otherwise.

Just counting strikes can never sufficiently tell the story of a fight. Not when one good one can erase everything that came before it. For all the complexity of modern martial arts, a fight is a simple thing, one often judged from the gut. Did one man hurt his opponent more than he got hurt?

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That's the essence of fighting—and you don't need a spreadsheet to figure it out.

It's worth keeping this in mind as we head into UFC 216, advertised as a historic night for flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. His fight with Ray Borg, assuming he wins, will mark Johnson's 11th defense of his championship. It's the most in the promotion's history, and it will put him ahead of Anderson Silva, the greatest MMA fighter of all time, in the UFC's non-existent record book.

We are told this matters. It does not.

For Johnson, of course, it matters a great deal. In lieu of the accolades, love and money that usually land in the lap of dominant cage fighters, he's seized on "history" as his great prize for a career in the cage. As our own Chad Dundas pointed out, it's a feat he's had his eye on for quite some time:

"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."

"I hope I can get to 20," Johnson told ESPN.com's Brett Okamoto. "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."

Twenty or 200, in many ways it doesn't matter. Fighters, divisions, eras—none are created equal. A winning streak means exactly as much as the names on it. And, unfortunately, most of the names on Johnson's list could sit down next to fans at UFC 216 and go unremarked. His will be a record built on a shaky foundation.

That's not to say Johnson isn't an extraordinary fighter. He's amazing, one of the most complete fighters to ever step in a cage. He's typically better than his foes at every aspect of the fight game, dominating at distance and controlling the clinch. His wrestling is stellar. So are his submissions and his defense.

Despite internet consensus, he also hits hard and makes opponents pay for every mistake. He's aggressive enough that his fights rarely stall out in any one position, forcing scrambles where, as you might imagine at this point, he is always a step ahead of the opposition.

Johnson is a fighter who deserves his reputation. But he's not Anderson Silva.

The great Anderson Silva
The great Anderson SilvaDonald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Silva, still fighting at the age of 42, is more than just a cage fighter. He's an artist, a Bruce Lee movie brought to life.

In his madcap antics we found a collective joy. Yes, there was pain too—the long, seemingly endless moments of inaction when he couldn't make an opponent come to him; the rounds he appeared to be considering the deeper meanings of life and not the business in front of him; the arrogance on display as he dropped his hands and gave lesser men a chance at glory.

But the joy, both his own at his handiwork and ours in watching him, was mesmerizing. MMA isn't a collection of names on a list. It's a series of moments seared into our hearts. And no one gave us more moments than Silva. 

There was the front kick to the face of the fearsome Vitor Belfort, the slow-motion dismantling of former light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin and the last-second submission against Chael Sonnen, who had likely won every second of their first fight until his glorious demise.

These are things that no one who saw them will ever forget, martial mastery on the grandest stage possible, against the best opposition in the world.

Belfort was the face of the company in Brazil. Rich Franklin was trotted out for every mainstream appearance, one of the UFC's handpicked ambassadors to evangelize for an entire sport. Griffin was a beloved everyman. Those wins mean more than beating up 100 Borgs on a pay-per-view undercard.

Sure, on paper, the two mens' title reigns are strikingly similar. Devoid of context, looking only at the numbers, Johnson's competition was even slightly better. Silva mixed in four fights at light heavyweight and finished more of his opponents than Johnson did. Then again, Johnson has never looked as vulnerable as Silva did, never dropped his hands and his focus and been knocked cold by a hungry young foe.

A Tale of Two Title Reigns
ChampionAnderson SilvaDemetrious Johnson
Opponent's Record231-55169-37
Winning percentage80.7%82%
Sherdog.com (includes initial title win)

As you can see, parsing the record is a tricky business. Luckily, none of it matters. The stats can say any number of things depending on how you read them.

Numbers lie. Perhaps memories do too—but they do so in a much more satisfying way.

Silva has transcended the discussion in many ways, his legend so great that questioning his status is like doubting Spiderman or Goku. He exists on a plane beyond mere athletics, a human cartoon who actually once walked the planet, a fighter capable of the impossible.

Johnson is a lot of things—a charming man, a devoted husband, a gamer and a delightful fighter. His streak of success is notable, his position at the top of the MMA pound-for-pound list well-deserved. But he's not Anderson Silva. And no phony history can change that.


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.


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