Demetrious Johnson (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

How the First MMA Trade Could Set a Precedent

When the UFC first announced in 2011 the introduction of the flyweight division and subsequent flyweight tournament, fans were excited to see some of the best in the world compete. Familiar faces to UFC fans included former bantamweights Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Joseph Benavidez, and not-so-familiar faces to the casual fans in Yasuhiro Urushitani and Ian McCall. The bracket was set with Benavidez against Urushitani and Johnson versus McCall. Benavidez would go on to stop Urushitani and was eagerly waiting his opponent for the inaugural flyweight title.

McCall and Johnson ended up going all three rounds, and Johnson was given the majority decision win. The crazy part? The commission reviewed the point totals after the fight and realized that it should have been scored a draw, leading to a planned “sudden death” round. But by the time the UFC was informed of this, it was at the post-fight conference. The UFC had only one choice and re-booked McCall and Johnson for a rematch just three months later. Johnson would go on to win a unanimous decision, which set up the first flyweight title fight. If you had asked many fans back then if they had any idea what they were about to witness, no one could have guessed.

Johnson went on to become the first-ever UFC flyweight champion and, eventually, the face of the division. He dispatched 10 challengers, including John Dodson twice, to become the longest-reigning champion in UFC history. He, to this day, holds the latest submission in UFC history from when he submitted Kyoji Horiguchi at 4:59 of the fifth round to retain his title at UFC 186. His submission over Ray Borg where he suplexed Borg and in mid-air grabbed an armbar to finish the fight is easily one of the top five submissions of all time. When Johnson lost a split decision to Henry Cejudo in August, many assumed he would be right back in the title mix. However, there has been a consistent problem for Mighty Mouse all these years: promotion.


As hard as it is to say, Mighty Mouse is a hard sell, but that’s only because he was a humble champion. Whereas trash talk has elevated other titleholders into pay-per-view buys, that just isn’t how Johnson rolls. He is generally soft spoken and lets his actions inside the cage show the world the level of martial artist he is. Hell, the guy even runs a Twitch account due to his passion for playing video games, something most would not associate with an MMA fighter. Even with all of this success, the pay-per-view numbers showed a downward trend. UFC President Dana White once said that Johnson “had some of the lowest selling pay-per-view buys in modern UFC history.”

The relationship between the UFC and Johnson over the years has really come to light. The UFC seems to be more focused on Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones, all of whom are no strangers to trash talk. Meanwhile, Johnson should have been given an immediate rematch when Cejudo took the win by split decision, but it wasn’t the direction UFC brass took. Something had to give. The result was something historic.

The MMA world is in a frenzy after the news of the first-ever MMA trade, which included the UFC releasing Johnson from his contract and ONE Championship releasing former welterweight champion Ben Askren so that both could sign with the opposite promotion. To many, it seems that the UFC gave Johnson a huge slap in the face once again and in return got exactly what it wanted.

Askren is no stranger to the hardcore MMA fan base. He ran though the competition in Bellator MMA, racking up nine wins and becoming welterweight champion. He defended the crown four times before being released from his contract to head over to ONE Championship. Askren steamrolled through his debut against Bakhiyar Abbasov to secure his title shot against then-champion Nobutatsu Suzuki. Askren notched another first-round victory to become champion and again defended his belt another four times, with a no-contest sandwiched in between. His last bout came against former Dream, ONE and Shooto champion Shinya Aoki. It took Askren less than a minute to defeat the legend Aoki. Then, Askren announced his retirement from MMA with a record of 18-0 with one no-contest.

Askren has been criticized for years for never making it to the UFC. The amount of commotion he has been able to stir in just the last few days since this announcement has been monumental. He has either called out or been called out by a plethora of UFC fighters, including Darren Till, Jorge Masvidal, Mike Perry, Alan Jouban, Colby Covington, Nick and Nate Diaz, and, of course, Georges St-Pierre. The buzz has been tremendous.

Honestly, it seems like this deal actually works for all parties involved. Johnson will be a huge star for ONE and has the ability to enjoy working for a promotion that knows how to market its smaller fighters. And if the recent signing of Eddie Alvarez wasn’t a sign of how well fighters can get paid, then who knows what is.

Meanwhile, Askren will finally get to silence the naysayers and compete inside the Octagon. He comes out of retirement and should get a lucrative deal, even though the aforementioned White once referred to him as “an absolute moron.” White is a businessman at heart, though, and he knows that the UFC needs this right now.

The UFC has had it rough the past few years. The company has lost some of the staples in the sport, including Ronda Rousey, Jones and McGregor for two years, plus St-Pierre and Anderson Silva. Jones will return to action later this year, and McGregor, even in defeat, brought a ton of eyes back to the sport when he returned at UFC 229. St-Pierre made a triumphant return of his own in late 2017 and captured the middleweight title from Michael Bisping, only to almost immediately vacate it. GSP hasn’t fought since, but that appears likely to change soon.

The UFC feels that it needs Askren. It almost seems like this may be a jab (no pun intended) at Bellator MMA. Bellator has been scooping up former UFC fighters left and right, and it seems like this is directly correlated.

Halfway around the world, this is chance for Mighty Mouse to shine. He has the opportunity to capture another belt in a major organization and to feel appreciated. The man is arguably one of the greatest mixed martial artists of the modern era, but he is also one of the most underappreciated fighters in the sport. ONE Championship will welcome him with open arms, as will the fans.

Askren in the UFC is a huge opportunity, but possibly a huge catastrophe waiting to happen. He will compete at welterweight, the same division as his Duke Roufus training partner and current UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. The situation where the two of them end up competing is a plausible option and could cause another division in the UFC to be logjammed.

Only time will tell what the impact of this trade will be, but it could open the door for more of these transactions down the road.