At UFC 216, flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson did what no other UFC fighter has ever done. He defended his world championship for an 11th straight time. And in doing so, broke the record set by Anderson Silva between 2006 and 2013.
The win was remarkable for a number of reasons. Not the least of which was that it highlighted a consistency rarely seen in professional fighters. Johnson simply doesn’t have off nights at this point in his career. As he lifted challenger Ray Borg into the air and dropped him into a never-before-seen variation of an arm bar, it was made clear more that Johnson was a special fighter.
But, of course, you can’t help but acknowledge the victory was over Ray Borg. Unless Johnson miraculously aged overnight, Borg never had a chance in this fight.
When considering Johnson’s accomplishment as arguably (probably) the greatest champion the UFC has ever seen, it has to be taken into account that this is the same fighter who fans simply don’t want to watch fight. And when given the opportunity to take on the biggest challenge of his career—a showdown with former UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw—Johnson simply wasn’t interested.
“It’s just the principle of a bantamweight coming down and skipping the line,” Johnson told MMAFighting, adding that fans who question him on avoiding a fight with Dillashaw “don’t know sh*t” about mixed martial arts.
If you think it was just the fans who seem uninterested in Johnson’s historical accomplishments, think again.
Johnson’s historical title defense against Borg was booked as the co-main event for UFC 216. In fact, it was headlined by a meaningless interim title fight between Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee. The winner of which is unlikely to challenge actual UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor in their next bout. If that’s not a clear sign the UFC doesn’t have faith in Johnson as a pay-per-view commodity, I don’t know what is.
In hockey, football or baseball, a team or player is remembered for their accomplishments on the field. Whether it’s Derek Jeter, Wayne Gretzky or LeBron James, the focus of their legacy will always be on what they were able to do on the playing platform.
But combat sports are different. On top of being an accomplished figure in the sport, a legacy is also dependent on the ability to garner attention. And that’s something Johnson has always struggled to do.
While Chael Sonnen has never held a UFC title, he’s a much more recognizable face to mainstream sports fans for his headlining bouts against Anderson Silva and Jon Jones than Johnson ever will be.
Is that fair? Maybe not, but it is what it is. Is it a size issue? Perhaps, but a fighter like McGregor is only 20 pounds heavier and is the most popular fighter in the world. Is it a race issue? Again, there’s likely some of that. But millions of people people pay to see Floyd Mayweather fight on a regular basis.
Perhaps he’s just too normal for his own good. When asked about his legacy, he looks to his two young children as the thing he’s most proud of. It’s an admirable trait rarely seen in the barbaric world of combat sports. But, it certainly doesn’t make me want to see him fight.
Dillashaw seems to have settled on staying at bantamweight, opting for a championship fight against Cody Garbrandt. What that means for Johnson is anyone’s guess. There simply aren’t anymore challengers for him to face without recycling through the names he’s already defeated.
And if he’s okay with that, maybe we should be too. If Johnson is content to be the greatest flyweight of all time with no aspirations at bantamweight or beyond, maybe we can’t fault him for that.
However, if he wants to be more than that, Johnson will have to push himself to take on the greatest challenges available.