The distance between flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and his No. 1 contender may be a greater distance than there has ever been between a champion and the main threat to his title. It hasn’t always been that way, though. Johnson made it that way. “Mighty Mouse” has continued to evolve as the division has struggled to even keep pace. This has led us to a rare but not unprecedented position. We have a champion in full bloom and no real challengers to be found. The solution is one we’ve seen before, and the UFC may be hoping it may have a similar result.
The solution, the UFC believes, is awarding a title shot to the winner of a season of The Ultimate Fighter. Sound familiar? It should. Season four of TUF was billed “The Comeback,” and it gave fighters whose careers were on the downturn a chance to rejuvenate themselves by winning TUF and then facing the reigning champions of the time, Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva. Quick history lesson: the winners of TUF 4 were Matt Serra and Travis Lutter, at 170 and 185 pounds, respectively. Serra shocked the world and beat GSP. Meanwhile, Lutter missed weight, making his fight with Silva a non-title affair in which Lutter got submitted.
The difference between then and now is that those fighters were all veterans, many of which had already fought in the UFC. Nowadays, TUF, with the exception of the season that integrated the strawweight division for the females, is a roster of mostly young hopefuls. This makes the likelihood of someone winning and then upsetting Johnson all the more unlikely. So, really, this serves the other purpose of the comeback season: to bide time until the division matures. But what path will Johnson take in the meantime? The St-Pierre path or the Silva path?
There are some extenuating circumstances to both options. First, St-Pierre lost, so the division had time to grow while he was getting back his belt. Second, he had a knee injury which kept him out for almost two years, also giving the division time to mature. While this was happening at welterweight, middleweight champ Silva decided to dabble at 205 pounds and see what he could do. It turned out he could destroy both a journeyman and a former champ.
These are the two paths for Johnson. He can stay in his division, dominate it and break Silva’s title defense record. Or, he can dabble at other weights, let the division catch up and risk losing the belt.
Both approaches have their pluses and minuses.
If he stays in the division, he is clearly ahead of the curve. It would probably stay that way, too. The division is thin. If a viable prospect comes along, that up-and-comer will probably be rushed in there like Cejudo was. So Johnson will meet the prospect before the fighter is ready to truly contend for the belt. The huge minus of staying is the money. Unless the UFC can entice a marquee fighter into the flyweight division, Johnson’s just not going to draw despite being the most dominant champion in the UFC.
What if Johnson leaves the division? Well, there are plenty of fights for him at 135 pounds, including a few that would arguably result in bigger paydays for the champ. There are fights waiting for Johnson against Urijah Faber, Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw. All of these contests would result in plenty of money in Johnson’s bank account.
Fights between Johnson and either Cruz or Dillashaw don’t make sense for the division. However, if Faber loses the fight against Cruz, then he makes a lot of sense for Johnson. The fight would definitely raise Johnson’s profile, too. The minus to leaving the 125-pound weight class is that, honestly, the bantamweight division is a more talented group. Johnson could be beaten and potentially exposed. That’s easier said than done, of course. If Johnson is not the pound-for-pound best in the world, then he’s number two. However, as Conor McGregor has shown, an out-of-division loss can take some of the shine off a fighter. Johnson doesn’t have the juice to withstand such a loss in the same way as McGregor can. A loss, even out of division, could hurt Johnson’s brand, which is already finding difficulty reaching an audience as it is.
Not to beat the “Mouse” analogy to death, but it really is a maze for Johnson to find the best thing moving forward for him. Silva never really found an audience until he went into the Matrix against James Irvin, Forrest Griffin and Vitor Belfort. He crossed GSP on the road going in different directions. Silva was getting more exciting, while GSP was getting less exciting. GSP’s dominance was no match for Silva’s highlight-reel finishes. That’s how the public saw the two, but St-Pierre consistently outdrew Silva’s pay-per-view numbers with the exception of the Chael Sonnen fights. Johnson, meanwhile, is a mix of both fighters.
“Mighty Mouse” has the divisional dominance and technique of St-Pierre and, as of late, the finishing power and highlight moves of Silva. What he decides to do will most certainly decide his legacy. Up next is a title fight with Wilson Reis. All due respect to Reis, but he’s out of his league. This move seems to be clearing the decks to maybe include some current flyweights on the TUF cast, which is rumored to include flyweight champions from regional shows.
So, what’s best for Johnson? Let’s let him take a crack at 135 pounds. Everyone can certainly respect his desire to beat Silva’s title-defense record, but if he knocks out Cruz or Faber the way he knocked out Joseph Benavidez, then he will be impossible for the casual fans to ignore. It could resonate like the Silva front kick of Belfort. Johnson would be viewed through an entirely different lens moving forward. He’s a Hall of Famer at 125 pounds, but what he could potentially do at 135 could make him a legend.