Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson is undoubtedly one of the two or three best fighters in the world at the moment. Since the UFC added a 125-pound division in early 2012, Johnson has been one of the most dominant fighters in the sport, cruising to an 8-0-1 record and ripping off six straight title defenses since winning the inaugural flyweight tournament in the fall of that same year. Over that span, he’s put on some of the most complete performances in UFC championship history, completely overwhelming his opponents with his speed, footwork and uncanny ability to make almost no mistakes as he competes with the best in the world in his weight class. There isn’t a more impressive technical fighter in the sport right now than Johnson, and after finishing four of his last five opponents, Mighty Mouse currently looks to be more dominant than ever. Yet, the fans don’t care. Despite the fact that he’s arguably the best fighter competing in the sport today, the general public refuses to jump on the Mighty Mouse bandwagon. It’s becoming harder and harder to pinpoint exactly why that is, though.
At first, most observers chalked up Johnson’s inability to draw numbers to his size, assuming that many fight fans and American audiences in general just weren’t interested in seeing smaller men in a cage fight, no matter how good the fighter. For a while, that theory held up pretty well. Similar champions like José Aldo, Renan Barão and T.J. Dillashaw haven’t exactly broken the bank when they’ve headlined pay-per-view events, and while Johnson struggled a little more than his contemporaries to move the needle, the difference was so small it didn’t really matter.
Then Conor McGregor appeared on the scene and things became a little harder to explain. While the Irishman is admittedly only 20 pounds heavier than Johnson (on weigh-in day, at least), McGregor doesn’t look like a big guy, and yet he put up one of the better pay-per-view numbers of the last two years while headlining an interim title fight a few months ago at UFC 189. While McGregor did it mostly with his mouth, he has proven over the last year or so that fight fans don’t have any problem laying down the $60 for a show featuring smaller fighters as long as they’re given a reason to watch.
With 10 weight classes on the roster, the UFC would love to have the ability to throw any one of its champions in a pay-per-view main event and be able to reap the rewards. After seeing someone like McGregor breathe some life into a pretty stagnant division over the last year, it’s easy to see why the UFC would think that’s possible. After all, if someone had told fight fans in 2010 that the two biggest stars on the UFC roster in five years would be an Irish featherweight and a 135-pound woman, they would have been looked at as if they had sprouted an extra head.
However, as badly as the UFC wants to create new stars, especially when that possible star is one of their very best like Johnson is, the promotion is eventually going to have to give up on the failed experiment of putting Mighty Mouse in the main event unless something drastic happens soon. When Johnson headlines UFC 191, it will mark his fourth time in the main event of a UFC pay-per-view card. If the numbers for this card are close in comparison to his previous efforts (and due to the lackluster card built around him, that seems to be a given), this will mark the fourth time that Johnson has been unable to even crack the 250,000 mark in pay-per-view buys, an extremely low number when it comes to UFC events. Even the most successful card Johnson has headlined, UFC 178, which featured fan-favorites Donald Cerrone, McGregor and one of the most talent-rich overall fight cards the UFC has put on in years, only ended up scoring an estimated 205,000 buys.
As a combat-sports company, the UFC should know better than anyone that just because a fighter is one of the best in the world, that doesn’t exactly translate to big numbers when it comes to pay-per-view buys. Heavyweight boxer Wladimir Klitschko has been one of the most dominant heavyweights of all time, but you rarely see him on pay-per-view. And even what could possibly be the boxing champ’s biggest fight to date against undefeated Tyson Fury later this year will be airing on HBO, not pay-per-view, in the United States. At some point, a promotion needs to step back and realize that some fighters just don’t have the superstar appeal, no matter how talented they are. If UFC 191 underperforms, that may be the wakeup call the UFC needs to realize that Mighty Mouse falls into this category.
As good as he is, Johnson hasn’t been able to convince fans to pay to see him. Even though it’s tempting to say that fight fans just don’t want to see smaller fighters in the main event, the fact that the UFC’s two biggest stars are both within 20 pounds of Johnson says otherwise. Before McGregor, there was never a featherweight main event that really even came close to the 500,000 buy mark. There hasn’t been a women’s main event on pay-per-view without Ronda Rousey, and there’s a good reason for that — you have to believe that current strawweight champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk would struggle even more than Johnson to draw in buys at the moment. Some fighters just have an “it” factor, and size, sex, race and even talent, to an extent, don’t make a difference. Either you have it or you don’t.
Nearly three years into Johnson’s title reign, it’s become pretty clear that he just doesn’t have it. He lacks whatever that underlying factor is that makes fans willing to fork over their cash. Despite his incredible fighting abilities, Johnson is missing the charisma of McGregor, the uniqueness of Rousey or even the flair of a former champion like Anderson Silva. None of these things are going to change anytime soon. Johnson is an amazing fighter, but he can’t seem to connect with fans the way that the superstars of the sport have done. If that remains the case after this weekend, the UFC would be better off not fighting it any longer and abandon any plans for Mighty Mouse to headline future pay-per-view events.