The narrative of Demetrious Johnson not facing top-tier competition in his UFC career has become so prevalent that leading to one of, if not the biggest challenge of Johnson’s career to date at UFC 227, now is a fitting time to dissect this narrative and, in the process, the legacy of the man known as Mighty Mouse. This is an undertaking that requires a thorough look at the validity of the narrative. In part 1 of this five-part series, we defined what exactly it is to be considered a legitimate competitor and a top-level competitor. The three biggest indicators are a fighter’s ability to consistently win at the highest level of the sport, the manner in which the fighter wins (stoppages, number of rounds lost/won, amount of finishes, etc), followed by a fighter’s accolades in a discipline as evidence to support their skill level in at least one area of combat. In part 2, we begin to consider how Demetrious Johnson’s opponents in the flyweight division stack up against these criteria.
Ian McCall unanimous decision (Flyweight Tournament Semi-Final)
Ian McCall was 11-2 in his MMA career coming into this fight. One of these losses was to a man who currently remains the consensus greatest bantamweight of all time, Dominick Cruz. After that loss to Cruz, MCall was on a four-fight win streak prior to a draw with Johnson. His only losses throughout his entire flyweight career came to Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez. Coming into this fight, McCall had seven stoppage victories and four unanimous decision wins with no split decisions. His combat accolades are: a black belt in kung fu, supporting the claim that McCall is a proficient striker; and a purple belt in jiu-jitsu, supporting the claim that McCall is a well-rounded fighter when this skill is partnered with his striking. Also, even though Johnson would undoubtedly improve since their first encounter, the fact that McCall had a draw with him supports the claim that he was obviously a worthy opponent for Johnson, especially at the time.
Joseph Benavidez via split decision
This name may perhaps be the most important name for Demetrious Johnson’s legacy. This victory was great, but with it being a split decision, it was not as much of an exclamation point as the second victory would be. A detailed breakdown of why Benavidez is so crucial to Johnson’s legacy will come in his second appearance on this list.
John Dodson via unanimous decision
John Dodson was 7-1 at this point in the flyweight division, coming off of wins against Jussier Formiga and Tim Elliott and defeating T.J. Dillashaw at bantamweight. Three of the six wins were by KO/TKO, three by unanimous decision. Dodson holds a black belt in Greg Jackson’s Gaidojutsu, which merges many disciplines together, such as Muay Thai, wrestling, and judo. I would also add eye test factors that Dodson is the fastest and arguably the most powerful and dangerous an opponent Johnson has ever faced, but, of course, this is subjective. However, what is not subjective is that Dodson’s résumé was strongest during his run at flyweight. Dodson also found success in dropping Johnson and putting him in arguably the most dangerous situation he’s ever been in during his title reign, further validating the claim that he presented a legitimate threat.
John Moraga via submission
John Moraga had a 13-1 record coming into the fight with Demetrious Johnson with seven straight wins, including back-to back stoppages, in the UFC. He had eight stoppage victories and five unanimous decisions attached to his résumé. Moraga is a NCAA Division I wrestler, which supports the notion that Moraga is a strong grappler, which is further supported by the fact that he came into this fight with six of his 13 wins earned by way of submission. Moraga’s wrestling background helps him in grappling situations that permit him to incorporate submissions into his game. His six submission victories leading into the fight is further proof of this.
Joseph Benavidez via KO
Not counting his loss to the man in question, Demetrious Johnson, Benavidez was 4-0 at flyweight coming into this rematch , with each win coming in the UFC, including two wins over Jussier Formiga and Ian McCall. Now four wins may not sound like much. But first of all, Benavidez would then go on to have a 10-1 non-Demetrious flyweight record after this loss; and second, there is an even bigger reason why Benavidez is so important to Johnson’s legacy.
One of the recent criticisms of Johnson has been that he needs to fight someone from 135. Namely, he needs to fight T.J. Dillashaw, with Dillashaw coming down to 125. So if a 135er comes down to 125, that counts as fighting a legit 135er and showing he can fight diverse opponents. By this definition of “fighting a 135er,” Johnson has already done that. He fought and defeated an elite 135er in Joseph Benavidez.
The reason Johnson’s opponents are not former champions is because of Demetrious Johnson! This is like saying Michael Jordan can never be the greatest of all time because his Chicago Bulls never beat a former champion in the NBA Finals (besides the Los Angeles Lakers in Year 1) and ignoring the fact that Jordan is the reason why they are not former champions!
Joseph Benavidez is 15-2 at bantamweight, with his only bantamweight losses coming to Dominick Cruz. And here’s a scary statistic: 11 of those 15 victories came by stoppage. It is fair to conclude that if Dominick Cruz was not in the WEC, Benavidez would have been a former bantamweight champion, just like it is fair to conclude that if not for Demetrious Johnson, he would have been a flyweight champion in the UFC. Benavidez is also the greatest example of how absurd the argument is that Demetrious Johnson “never beat a former champion.”
The reason Johnson’s opponents are not former champions is because of Demetrious Johnson! This is like saying Michael Jordan can never be the greatest of all time because his Chicago Bulls never beat a former champion in the NBA Finals (besides the Los Angeles Lakers in Year 1) and ignoring the fact that Jordan is the reason why they are not former champions! Yes, these are different sports with different structures, but it is an analogy to demonstrate that you cannot fault someone for never beating champions when the individual, or team in the above analogy, is responsible for that fact.
I would also like to take this opportunity to point out another elite 135er that Johnson has defeated already: Miguel Torres, a man at one time considered to be one of the best pound for pound fighters in the world and who was 39-3 at the time he faced Johnson. 39-3! With one of those three losses coming to guess who? Joseph Benavidez! The point being: Johnson has already proven he can “beat a great 135er”.
As for manner of victories, a staggering of 14 of Benavidez’s 19 victories coming into this fight were by stoppage, and each decision unanimous. Also, it should be noted that one of his three non-Demetrious losses was via split decision to Dominick Cruz.
Ali Bagautinov via unanimous decision
Bagautinov came into fight on an 11-fight win streak including wins over Tim Elliot and John Lineker via unanimous decision right before the fight. Therefore, there is no legitimate argument that he was not deserving of a title shot. Furthermore, his only three losses in the UFC were to Johnson, Benavidez, and Kyoji Horiguchi. After losing one fight in his post-UFC career, he is currently back to being on a three-fight win streak. Nine of 14 wins coming into fight were by stoppage, the other wins by unanimous decision. Since 2011, the man is 15-4. Any other fighter whose losses were to fighters at that level and had the below accolades would not have his skill level questioned: International Master of Sports in Combat Sambo, International Master of Sports in Pankration, International Master of Sports in Hand-to-Hand Combat, International Master of Sports in Grappling.
These accolades mostly support the claim of how much of a grappling threat he posed to Johnson, a threat Johnson nullified.
Chris Cariaso (1) via submission
Chris Cariaso came into this fight with a 17-5 record, so he was far from a bum; but admittedly, Cariaso is highly unlikely to be challenging for a title in another division. The number in the parenthesis is my concession that this is not a meaningful legacy victory for Johnson. Cariaso is the first of such opponents, hence the number 1. It should be noted, though, that at this point, the lack of top-tier challengers is due mostly to Johnson’s dominance. To put this in perspective, if Dominick Cruz was never injured or stripped of his bantamweight championship, he seemingly would have not lost his title until Cody Garbrandt, a new face, came along. And he, too, would have eventually run out of top-tier contenders and waited until new faces emerged in the division. Something Johnson did, as you will soon see in Part 3. Cariaso does have a black belt in jiu-jitsu, though, demonstrating that while not a legacy victory for Johnson, he did pose a legitimate threat in at least one area beyond just a puncher’s chance.
In Part 3, we will look at the second half of Demetrious Johnson’s title reign and evaluate its level of difficulty. Check back tomorrow morning right here at MMA News for the next installment of Dissecting Demetrious Johnson’s Legacy, and feel free to message any thoughts to me at MMA Logic!