When you look at Demetrious Johnson, what do you see? Do you see the most underappreciated fighter of our generation? Do you see an overrated, glorified bully who has run roughshod over a division in which he is peerless? Or do you see what Joe Rogan consistently claims in front of a global audience to be the optimum example of what a mixed martial artist is supposed to look like and the greatest fighter the world has ever seen? But when dissecting the legacy of Demetrious Johnson, the most relevant question is not what do you see; but why do you see it?
Now it’s one thing to say that. It’s one thing to regurgitate the words that so many others say at the utter mention of Johnson as a potential GOAT or #1 P4P, but it’s quite another thing to explain your reasoning and how it is you came to that conclusion.
I, like so many others who spend time conversing with fellow MMA fans throughout social media, am well aware of the narrative propagated by many fans that minimizes Demetrious Johnson’s accomplishments due to a lack of competition. Now it’s one thing to say that. It’s one thing to regurgitate the words that so many others say at the utter mention of Johnson as a potential GOAT or #1 P4P, but it’s quite another thing to explain your reasoning and how it is you came to that conclusion.
Without identifying what a legitimate competitor is, people can just arbitrarily claim a win is or is not legitimate on a whim or as a tool to fit a narrative.
I would like to thoroughly inspect this claim and invite readers to join me on this expedition with an open mind. As such, my mind will remain open as well, and at the end of each part I will leave information on how to contact me with counterpoints or to point out any oversight on my end. With what I personally believe to be Johnson’s biggest challenge right around the corner at UFC 227 in Los Angeles, there is no better time to consider what exactly is on the line Saturday beyond the glitter of a championship belt. Every day, a new part to this series will be released, Monday-Friday, in what will be a five-part series. Welcome to Part 1: Defining High-Level Competition.
If the biggest bone of contention regarding Johnson’s legacy is whether or not he has faced subpar competition throughout his reign as the flyweight king, naturally, the first step is not just to list the names he has defeated, but rather to establish what qualifies as strong competition. Without identifying what a legitimate competitor is, people can just arbitrarily claim a win is or is not legitimate on a whim or as a tool to fit a narrative.
Let’s begin with the obvious: barring anomalies the likes of CM Punk and the late Kimbo Slice, the general perception is that fighters in the UFC are not only considered professional fighters properly and rightfully licensed, but professional fighters at the highest level of the sport. This seems to be universally accepted, especially considering the UFC’s trigger happiness in releasing a fighter if they are not performing at a high or successful level. But of course, it’s one thing to be a recognized professional fighter, and it’s quite another thing to be a top-tier professional fighter worthy of challenging for a championship. Because as they say, there’s levels to this.
There are three main factors that help prove that someone is a top-tier fighter: winning, manner of victories, and accolades in a combat discipline. I would also argue the eye test is arguably as important if not more important than anything else, but due to the subjectivity of what one sees and considers to be talent, I will not consider that in this series, and will only focus on what can be proven.
Granted, unanimous decisions could potentially have three blind mice and even stoppages could be early stoppages, but the more a fighter is known to consistently log in either or both of these manners of victory, the harder it is to diminish the wins.
Holding accolades in a discipline does not necessarily make you a top-tier mixed martial artist, of course, but it helps add credence to the eye test. For example, it’s one thing to say a fighter is a great striker. Some may agree, others may disagree. But if that fighter also has a strong kickboxing record, for instance, with kickboxing championships, that adds credence to the eye test. Also, if I were to say a fighter is a great wrestler, and someone counters by saying that it only seems that way because they never faced a strong grappler, if the fighter has a wrestling background, especially at the collegiate level, that adds credence to the eye test. Needless to say, accolades in a combat discipline alone does not make one a top-tier fighter, otherwise James Toney would have been a top-tier fighter; however, it is a tool of support that a fighter is talented in a specific area at the very least.
Another component that is the mark of a great fighter is what I’ll call “manner of victories.” Because no two wins are identical, the more convincing and dominant than others, the more difficult it is to debate its value. Specifically, unanimous decision victories and stoppages are much more difficult to be debated than a split decision win. Granted, unanimous decisions could potentially have three blind mice and even stoppages could be early stoppages, but the more a fighter is known to consistently log in either or both of these manners of victory, the harder it is to diminish the wins.
What Rogan fails to realize and, to my knowledge, has yet to address on his podcast or on the air, is the counterargument that Johnson only looks so dominant because of the competition he’s faced.
Returning to the eye test for a moment, as I said, I believe the eye test is readily apparent. And frankly, I believe that the only competitors who are neck and neck with Johnson on an eye-test level are Khabib Nurmagomedov and Jon Jones. I think Johnson’s movement, technique, crispness, and overall game are superior not only to his peers who are of the same size, but to anybody in any weight class. So as far as all-around game goes, I believe he is peerless. In fact, when Joe Rogan lauds Johnson as the GOAT, this is the only argument he makes: about how great Demetrious Johnson looks. What Rogan fails to realize and, to my knowledge, has yet to address on his podcast or on the air, is the counterargument that Johnson only looks so dominant because of the competition he’s faced. Rogan probably thinks to himself, “It’s obvious that this guy is amazing. Just watch him fight.” But as obvious as that may be to him (and me), it also can’t be argued that Johnson’s perceived talent level is subjective, and thus the opposing argument of subpar competition should be addressed.
Some will argue that even something as seemingly undeniable as a win-loss record does not necessarily prove anything because it depends on the level of competition the fighter defeated. For instance, if a fighter has a great record and has not defeated what is deemed to be high competition, he or she has a “padded record.” This has a high threshold for potential truth, but that threshold is far, far lower in the UFC. First of all, records are relative. If a fighter is 9-5, that is not a bad MMA record. They have won four more times than they have lost. And in those nine victories, the fighter could have turned in stellar performances. A victory over a 9-5 fighter should not be questioned. It shouldn’t be diminished because it wasn’t an “elite” fighter. He/she is a professional fighter who has proven themselves to be able, so a victory over that fighter should be respected.
So if the only wins valued for a GOAT contender or any fighter for that matter are those over “elite” opponents, the task of determining who all are elite in a conversation with more than one party is not just onerous, but it is actually impossible. It will inevitably result in what I’ll call an unsustainable chain of great fighters.
Now in the UFC, on the other hand, a victory over a 9-5 fighter is usually tantamount to a tune-up fight and it can reasonably be devalued because of the increased level of competition in the promotion. Since the typical fighter in the UFC has proven themselves to be consistent at the professional level, practically every victory means something. Furthermore, if we are only valuing victories over “elite” opponents, which many fans tend to do when discussing a fighter’s skill, we must recognize that there is no universal consensus on what it means to be “elite.” So if the only wins valued for a GOAT contender or any fighter for that matter are those over “elite” opponents, the task of determining who all are elite in a conversation with more than one party is not just onerous, but it is actually impossible. It will inevitably result in what I’ll call an unsustainable chain of great fighters. Here is what the unsustainable chain of great fighters sounds like:
Guy #1: Fighter A is a great fighter, bro. He’s easily the best in his division.
Guy #2: How do you know that? I think he’s overrated, personally.
Guy #1: Nah, man. He beat Great Fighter B and Great Fighter C.
Guy #2: Those fighters aren’t even that good.
Guy #1: What? Great Fighter B beat Great Fighter D and Great Fighter C beat Great Fighter E!
Guy #2: Yeah, but who did Great Fighter D and Great Fighter E beat?
Eventually, the chain will either be broken, at which point there will be a fighter who was just granted the title of being “great” without defeating another supposedly great fighter ( in this example, that would be Fighters D and E), or Guy #1 will simply run out of fighters he is knowledgeable about. Meaning, if Guy #1 claims that even though he doesn’t know if Fighter D beat a great fighter or not, Fighter D still has a great record which proves he’s a great fighter, then we end up where we started and where I am suggesting: valuing a great record at the professional level. So in the above example, Guy #1 is not being consistent because he claims to believe Fighter A is a great fighter because of whom he beat, but also claims Fighters D and E are great fighters without that same knowledge. So either Guy #1 will eventually contradict himself on what makes a great fighter or he will speak from a place of ignorance, without knowing whether a fighter’s opponents were great or not.
In summary, if you follow the unsustainable chain of great fighters long enough, you ultimately arrive at the conclusion that the most important evidence of what makes a great fighter (aside from the subjective eye test) is win-loss record and manner of victories. This is not to say that all wins are of equal value. The more proof it is that a victory came over a top-tier opponent, the more valuable it is. But just because these wins have more value does not mean a “standard” win has little value, which is where many go wrong in their logic. Because the more wins a fighter earns in the UFC in particular, the more likely it is they are facing an opponent who has proven to be skilled, if not dominant, at the professional level. So what makes a high-level competitor that can be objectively demonstrated? Wins (emphasis on manner of victories) and accolades, which lend support to claims of skill in a particular combat discipline. The accolades are by no stretch a requirement to be considered a great fighter, but it works well as supplemental support.
In part two, we will take a look at Demetrious Johnson’s opponents at flyweight to determine whether or not they were top-tier competitors and worthy challengers for Johnson’s championship based on the above criteria. Any thoughts on what you believe proves someone is a great fighter? Feel free to shoot me a message at MMA Logic or discuss with fellow fight fans below!