Demetrious Johnson has won twelve straight fights and cleaned out the flyweight division twice since winning the belt in 2012. He’s defeated the #1 contender, Joseph Benavidez by split decision then followed it up by knocking him out a year and a half later. After knocking out #3 ranked Wilson Reis last night in Kansas City “Mighty Mouse” has now defended the title ten straight times, which ties Anderson Silva’s record for title defenses.
But after being so dominant for so long why is Johnson not headlining pay per views instead of fighting on Fox or FS1? Of his last eleven fights “Mighty Mouse” has fought five times on Fox or FS1. Jon Jones never fights unless it’s on pay per view. Georges St. Pierre, Brock Lesnar and Anderson Silva never fought on Fox. Why? Because they got points on pay per views. Johnson likely has the same incentive in his contract but sometimes doesn’t even fight on pay per view.
Johnson can win 30 fights in a row but unless he’s going against “Name” competition the casual MMA fan doesn’t really care about him. Joseph Benavidez is a great flyweight but he’s not a big name to casual fans either. When Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz came into the UFC from the WEC they had each other to play off and help build the division. If there was another 125er who had a personality and a following for Johnson to fight it would rub off on the champ. Let’s say that Conor McGregor was a flyweight and he talked and talked about how he was going to beat Johnson. Then when they fought Johnson ran right through him. Now Johnson is known as the guy who beat and shut up the flamboyant McGregor. However Johnson has instead fought a list of a who is, instead of a who’s who at 125. John Moraga, Chris Cariaso, Kyoji Horiguchi, Tim Elliott and Wilson Reis aren’t very well known and as a hardcore UFC fans I couldn’t tell you who they were if I saw them at Wal-Mart. It’s not the champ’s fault but Johnson needs competition that fans recognize and are excited about seeing.
Another factor not working in Johnson’s favor is that he has very little personality. Smaller guys like Dominick Cruz, Urijah Faber and Cody Garbrandt have the “It Factor” where you have to pay attention to them. If you take Conor McGregor out of the equation the 145 pound division struggled to draw with Jose Aldo on top for years. Aldo had the same problem as Johnson. He was dominant for years but fans didn’t gravitate to him.
Johnson needs to figure out a way to get fans to like him. Chael Sonnen became a made man when he started ripping off former WWF champ “Superstar” Billy Grahama and began cutting promos on Anderson Silva. Conor McGregor ripped off 1986 Ric Flair and started wearing custom suits and became “A kiss stealing, wheeling dealing, jet flying, limousine riding son of a gun”. Johnson would be smart to study Sonnen and McGregor and find something that works for him and his personality. If the fans don’t have a reason to care whether you win or lose it don’t matter what channel you fight on. The fans won’t tune in.
Being a smaller fighter also doesn’t help his mystique. Naturally fans want to see Godzilla vs King Kong. In boxing heavyweights ruled the sport for the 80s and 90s. In the past decade Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather became big draws but typically fans want to see the bigger fighters.
125 is also the newest weight class in the UFC. That means it’s had less time to build fighters in the division. In ten of fifteen years this may not be a problem. But compared to the heavyweight, light heavyweight and other divisions that have been around for 15 years they are established with known contenders from top to bottom. Even 135 and 145 aren’t as popular with fans as the bigger divisions.
The best option for Johnson is to look for opportunities outside of his weight class and hope a new contender emerges. I’d beg Dana White for a rematch against Dominick Cruz. Cruz defeated Johnson by decision in 2011 at 135 pounds and a rematch has been rumored for years while both men were on top of their divisions. With the bantamweight title being tied up right now with TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt fighting this July the UFC could put together Cruz vs Johnson 2 for April. Win or lose Cruz can go fight the winner of Dillashaw-Garbrandt and Johnson can go back to 125. There’s also been talk that Garbrandt wants to go to 125 to fight Johnson. Either scenario is a win-win for Johnson. However, I think Dana White will make Garbrandt win 3 or 4 fights in the division before he’s allowed to move to 125 to challenge for the belt there.
Demetrious Johnson may be the greatest flyweight of all time. But if the fans don’t care it doesn’t really matter. In the end you have to be an entertainer too and that’s where Johnson comes up short.