Welcome back to our regular Friday MMA column. Here, we'll scour the sport's landscape, preview upcoming cards, tell interesting stories and, if at all possible, have fun. Let's get it on.
Demetrious Johnson Finally Gets His Closeup
If your face ever winds up on a Times Square billboard, you've probably done something right.
Demetrious Johnson never received that kind of exposure when he was with the UFC. Not even during the five years when he was its flyweight champion. But in the Singapore-based ONE Championship, where Johnson (30-3-1) landed in October 2018 after prolonged friction with the UFC, Mighty Mouse is the marquee attraction. On April 7, he'll be the face of ONE's highest-profile event to date, challenging Adriano Moraes (18-3) for Moraes' flyweight title at ONE on TNT 1.
"I mean, it's very exciting," Johnson told me in an exclusive interview. "It's a very exciting thing to see the advertisement in Times Square. [The event] is going to be on TNT live, and I'm just excited for the opportunity."
(Note: TNT and Bleacher Report are both owned by Turner Broadcasting System.)
Johnson is a heavy favorite to defeat Moraes and capture the title. Still, in Moraes, Johnson faces a dangerous and capable champion who has held the belt on three separate occasions dating back to 2014. Casual MMA fans may not know much about him, but that doesn't make the threat any less real, especially given that 12 of Moraes' wins have come by stoppage, including nine submissions.
"He has a very interesting style," Johnson said. "He's a longer fighter for the division. He has a nice opening check hook, right hand, likes to get people to the ground and take their back. He's a submission artist. Very good grappler. And a tough guy."
Opponents aside, Johnson is effusive when discussing his promotional home. He publicly clashed with UFC President Dana White, even releasing a lengthy statement calling White a "bully," among other allegations.
But life is different in ONE. Now, Johnson said, he feels empowered to be himself without excessive pressure over what needs to happen outside the cage.
"I'd definitely say it's more peaceful," Johnson said. "In the UFC, there's always a battle going on. The UFC is driven by selling pay-per-views, but with ONE Championship, I'm not worried about that. … [The UFC] can handle their athletes however they want, but I feel the happiest at ONE Championship because I can be myself. I can be a nerd and play video games. I don't have to worry about being someone I'm not."
In particular, Johnson points to a more laidback organizational culture, one where demands on his time are fewer and farther between.
"I traveled a lot more when I was in the UFC, but I'm grateful for less travel, because it means I'm home with the family," he said. "It seemed like with the UFC, every other weekend I was traveling around the world to different shows to promote myself and different things."
Johnson doesn't have much to say about the UFC anymore. The UFC is the bigger stage, he acknowledged, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's better. For anyone questioning the wisdom of Johnson's UFC clashes and the departure that resulted, just remember that his move to ONE was a trade. In return for Johnson, the UFC received Ben Askren. And we all know how that ended up.
If that's not enough, just take a look at Times Square.
"At the end of the day, they're all businesses, right?" he said. "I think however people want to run their own entity is their own thing. Obviously, at ONE Championship, they have their values: passion, humility, courage, heart. They have that, and they want all their athletes to live by that."
Nate Diaz Gets Leon Edwards…
In February, yours truly observed that Nate Diaz (20-12) might be out of options on blockbuster fights and that he might have to take a fight with a lower-wattage but respected opponent to regain relevance.
I was half right. The UFC recently announced that Diaz would face Leon Edwards (18-3, 1 NC) in a welterweight bout in the co-main event of UFC 262 on May 15. It will be the first non-title, five-round bout outside of the main event slot in UFC history. So it has plenty of shine, even if it's not as much as you'd find in a normal Diaz fight, but Edwards is the No. 3 welterweight on the official UFC rankings and a heavy early betting favorite.
Diaz should be commended for taking a tough fight and in the process reaffirming his commitment to winning more than the daily news cycle.
…But What About Belal Muhammad?
Edwards, of course, received lots of scrutiny recently for his March bout with Belal Muhammad (18-3, 1 NC), which ended in a grisly eye poke that left Muhammad writhing on the mat and unable to continue.
Edwards has the tougher strength of schedule between the two men and has gained more prominence for his outspoken style and knockout-centric approach in the cage. So it makes sense that he would receive what is surely a lucrative opportunity with Diaz.
But Muhammad still doesn't have a new opponent. It would be a bummer to see Muhammad, who had won four straight and eight of nine coming into the Edwards fight, largely passed over. As for Muhammad himself, he's taking a sanguine approach to it.
But here's hoping for his sake that fairness has a role in the equation at some point.
Conor's Last Chance?
Word is that the rubber match between Conor McGregor (22-5) and Dustin Poirier (27-6, 1 NC) will go down in July at UFC 264. In January, Poirier evened the ledger with a second-round TKO, more than six years after losing a first-round TKO to McGregor.
McGregor continues to be the biggest star in the sport, but boy could he use a win. He's only had three UFC bouts in the past two-and-a-half years and lost two of them. It's hard to pinpoint any one specific cause, but he does have a lot of other non-fighting things going on, like his lucrative whisky brand. Fighting is hard to do when you're not as hungry as you once were.
Just a theory. A loss may not dim McGregor's shine all the way, but it could be an inflection point in his career, after which we may rightly wonder if he is now more sizzle than steak.
Endeavor Takes Control
For several years now, entertainment giant Endeavor has owned a controlling interest in the UFC. Now, as it prepares to go public, Endeavor has purchased a 100 percent stake in the UFC, giving it full control over the company. The move cost $1.75 billion, according to government documents.
The implications of this are unknown, but it stands to reason Endeavor is doing this to beef up its profile in advance of its initial public offering, a process Endeavor has struggled with before because of excessive debt. As always, stay tuned.