Somehow still under the radar, Demetrious Johnson stakes his claim to UFC greatness
'Mighty Mouse' may be the most underappreciated superstar in UFC history
It took Demetrious Johnson, the UFC's first and only flyweight champion, longer than it probably should have to secure status as the sport's top pound-for-pound fighter. But his case for being remembered as the greatest in history only feels like it's getting stronger by the day.
Johnson's stock has never been higher than it was on Saturday when he equaled Anderson Silva's UFC record with his 10th title defense in the main event of UFC Kansas City.
In a career overflowing with high points since his pro debut in 2007,was Johnson (26-2-1) painting his masterpiece, using Reis' blood and his perfectly well-rounded skill set to illustrate his greatness.
There was a time when Johnson's achievements were dismissed by his size, the division's lack of depth or his inability to finish fights. Years later, the only thing that remains true is that, at 5-foot-3, Johnson is still small in stature, even for his division. But his legacy continues to grow large.
At 30, Johnson's exact combination of speed, power, technique and determination just might be unrivaled historically. Asked to compare himself on Saturday among the greatest of all-time, Johnson agreed.
"I think the crowd recognized that. [Georges St-Pierre] and Anderson Silva are great champions but I'm the best champion to ever step into this Octagon," Johnson said. "I finish my opponents. There is not another champion out here who could mix it up, wrestle, strike, clinch."
UFC president Dana White agreed, saying, "This kid could be considered the greatest of all-time right now."
In 2012, after UFC promoted a 125-pound division for the first time, Johnson won a four-man tournament for the inaugural title by split decision over Joseph Benavidez. It was the last time Johnson was truly challenged in a fight.
One year later, Johnson removed any lingering doubt by knocking Benavidez out in the first round of their rematch. In the following years, he has rotated a series of knockouts, submissions and thoroughly dominant five-round decision wins.
In April 2016, Johnson was expected to face his toughest test in years when he took on unbeaten Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo at UFC 197. In the end, Johnson needed just under three minutes to stop him via strikes.
The only thing Johnson has struggled at is becoming a household name or crossover brand. Despite the approachability of his "Mighty Mouse" nickname and his ability to deliver confident and charismatic sound bites, he has never been a consistently strong pay-per-view headliner at the box office.
For years, there was a feeling that Johnson was destined to become the kind of struggling artist who wouldn't be properly appreciated until long after he was gone. Yet his constant evolution helped speed up his case, as did the absence at the top of a trio of former champions -- GSP, Silva and Jon Jones -- who once overshadowed him.
Currently, Johnson has as strong of a case for consideration as the very best of all-time we have ever known. But should he break (and ultimately shatter) Silva's record for title defenses, he'll never garner anything close to universal claim unless he takes some chances late in his career.
And to do that, he will have to go up in weight in search of a superfight.
Moving back to bantamweight, where Johnson competed undersized in the WEC and initially in the UFC, is something he has openly considered, especially after current 135-pound champion Cody Garbrandt has recently professed interest in facing him at either weight class.
From White's perspective, which is jaded in part by the UFC's promotional interests, Johnson shouldn't be in a hurry to make such a bold move.
"Here's the thing, Cody Garbrandt has no title defenses yet and he's coming into a tough fight against TJ Dillashaw," White said. "If I'm 'Mighty Mouse' Johnson, I would just continue to smash the record so bad that it could never be broken and if somebody in the next division puts together some wins under his belt and starts to take out the top competition, then maybe there is some opportunity for some type of superfight."
Johnson, however, seems more eager to consider his options. His last loss came in 2011 by unanimous decision to then-UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. Both Johnson and Cruz talked to each other late Saturday about the prospect of a rematch during the FS1 post-fight show.
"It would be 135 and it would be a very tough fight," Johnson said. "Dominick Cruz has amazing footwork, he's very tall. He's a master of making people miss and taking advantage of them."
Cruz (22-2), who lost three full years of his career due to multiple serious injuries, returned to regain his bantamweight title against Dillashaw in January 2016 before losing it two fights later to Garbrandt in December.
"Let me tell you this, you have got to pay Demetrious Johnson and he deserves the paycheck," Cruz said. "And you have got to pay me too. Pay us because people want to watch. We just want to go in there and beat the crap out of each other and we just want to get paid."
It's hard to argue that Johnson is anywhere but at the peak of his absolute prime, meaning he still presumably has a strong handful of years to decide his final legacy. With the flyweight division completely cleaned out, defeating Cruz at a higher weight would go a long way in continuing to bolster his case.
As White so eloquently put it, we may not yet have seen the best of what Johnson is capable of doing.
"He continues to evolve and get better when he's already the best fighter in the world," White said.
As things stand right now, Johnson is no worse than one of the greatest fighters to ever set foot in a UFC cage. But he has an opportunity in the coming years to control how close the others on that short list will be able to stand next to what he has accomplished.
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