Even before Demetrious Johnson awed the MMA world by submitting Ray Borg at UFC 216 with a suplex-into-armbar combination he calls “The Mighty Wizbar,” fans and pundits were pondering what would come next for the only flyweight champion in UFC history.
Beating Borg and establishing a record for the most consecutive successful title defenses were both considered foregone conclusions, leaving the masses to weigh in on how the 31-year-old superstar should follow up his record-setting performance. The consensus opinion has been that Johnson’s next fight should come against the winner of the upcoming bantamweight title fight between champion Cody Garbrandt and challenger T.J. Dillashaw, both of whom have expressed a willingness to move down in weight in an attempt to halt Johnson’s reign.
From name recognition and stylistic perspectives, either of those two options would be more intriguing and exciting than the current in-house options that exist in the flyweight division The only question would be whether Johnson would be moving up to challenge for a second title or if the 135-pound champ would be shedding an additional 10 pounds to face “Mighty Mouse” for the flyweight strap.
The basic idea behind pairing Johnson with another champion rather than having him continue to defend his flyweight title against the next man up is that there needs to be some kind of larger selling point attached to his fights in order to get people to tune in, because watching him ragdoll talented, but lesser-known, talent hasn’t been working.
Additionally, Johnson previously competed at 135 pounds and even challenged Dominick Cruz for the UFC bantamweight title six years ago — and did so before he made the full-time move to mixed martial arts — so it’s not as though he’d be doing something radical by moving up to test himself there again.
In theory, it’s a great idea and could potentially get more people interested in watching the best fighter on the planet do his thing inside the Octagon while simultaneously giving a bump to either Garbrandt or Dillashaw, depending on who wins their impending grudge match at Madison Square Garden.
But how much upside does a fight between Johnson and the bantamweight champion really have? More succinctly: is it really worth it?
Scenario 1: The bantamweight champion moves down to face Johnson
Neither Garbrandt nor Dillashaw has ever competed at 125 pounds, and while both are adamant they can make the weight without a problem — and the UFC would likely afford them whatever assistance they required — there are no guarantees they can hit the flyweight limit.
Provided everything goes well on the scales, a fight like this almost automatically diminishes the drawing power of a UFC titleholder because barring some kind of point deduction or wild fight with 10-8 rounds, someone is going to lose.
If Johnson beats the bantamweight champ, skeptics will point to the weight cut and still lobby for “Mighty Mouse” to move up and test himself against bigger, stronger foes. Meanwhile, the reigning bantamweight titleholder just got beat by an amazing fighter casual fans don’t care about, which makes selling his next title defense even more challenging.
Do you run it back at bantamweight with Johnson moving up? What happens when each champion wins in his respective division? Rubber match at 130 pounds?
If Johnson loses, will the new two-weight world champion stick around to defend the flyweight strap against the host of “nobodies” that few people wanted to see Johnson dominate over the last five years?
Probably not, so the belt would get vacated, Johnson would likely win it back — if he were so inclined — and you’re right back where you started, except Johnson’s historic winning streak has been snapped and the bantamweight champion is maybe a little more popular.
Scenario 2: Johnson moves up to face bantamweight champion
Johnson would face a significant size disadvantage against either Garbrandt or Dillashaw and would need to rely on speed, technique and conditioning in order to contend with the greater power and physicality the two bantamweight standouts would bring to the cage in this hypothetical matchup.
Is it possible that Johnson could overcome the gap in power and size and out-work either man, given that he’s developed into arguably the most complete fighter on the planet and routinely crafts masterful game plans with his coaches, Matt Hume and Brad Kertson? Yes, it’s possible.
It’s also possible — and perhaps more likely — that the bigger, stronger bantamweight champion topples the flyweight kingpin in similar fashion to how Cruz defeated Johnson six years ago.
That means the flyweight champ’s winning streak has now been snapped and the bantamweight titleholder successfully defeated a fighter from a lower weight class, albeit an insanely talented one.
Johnson heads back to his kingdom coming off a loss and probably not that much further ahead in the “can’t wait to see this guy fight again” category and while the bantamweight champ again likely experiences a slight bump in popularity and recognition, is it really going to be that much given that the knock on Johnson has been that no one pays to watch him fight and doesn’t really care how dominant he is?
The lingering questions . . .
There are other elements of this “Johnson vs. Bantamweight Champion” push that have never quite lined up right for me.
When did Cody Garbrandt and/or T.J. Dillashaw become massive stars?
Maybe folks tune in simply because there are two champions facing off, but Garbrandt has yet to establish himself as a draw. Pay-per-view events headlined by Dillashaw delivered paltry numbers, though some of that was as a result of last-minute lineup changes.
Both are terrific fighters and have star potential, but the idea that either one of them is the marquee name to help get Johnson over with casual fans that have been ignoring throughout his championship reign feels like a reach.
Everyone is suddenly cool with the bantamweight champion going right into a superfight?
Is no one the least bit concerned with the winner of the Garbrandt-Dillashaw bout instantly defending the title against someone from outside of the division or putting their belt on the shelf in order to pursue a second title?
It was understandable when Conor McGregor did it in 2016, but neither of these guys hold a candle to “The Notorious” in terms of drawing power and the bantamweight division has contenders lining up waiting for their chance to challenge for gold.
Suddenly they’re supposed to wait their turn while a fairly new champion pursues a bout with Johnson?
Isn’t that the exact situation everyone has lamented throughout McGregor’s reigns at featherweight and lightweight and Michael Bisping’s run atop the middleweight division?
What’s the ultimate goal?
Outside of the obvious desire to sell pay-per-views, what’s the end goal of a “Champion vs. Champion” clash between Johnson and the bantamweight titleholder for the UFC?
If it’s bolstering the popularity of both competitors and increasing their respective profiles, color me skeptical. Folks have shown they’re not all that keen on tuning in to see Johnson or Dillashaw do their thing and the jury is still out on Garbrandt.
As has been said previously, they might get a slight bump, but a fight like this is unlikely to lift any member of this triumvirate to superstar status and turn them into a major pay-per-view draw.
If it’s increasing the profile of the flyweight division, I’m not sure what having the one and only champion the division has known facing a non-flyweight does to help the rest of the 125-pound ranks. No matter how things shake out, fans that have historically shied away from the flyweight division aren’t suddenly going to come rushing back, recognizing the error of their ways, dire to give Ray Borg, Henry Cejudo, Joseph Benavidez and others a second or third look.
If it’s about giving the bantamweight division a bigger push, there are ways to do that internally without putting the title chase on hold for a championship clash that feels destined to fall short of expectations, at least on the business side of things. Regardless of whom Johnson faces, it would be a hell of a fight, but it’s probably not going to be a box office smash.
Yes, a fight like this would generate more interest, more money and more buzz than an individual flyweight or bantamweight title fight, but it also eliminates one title fight from the list of main event options available to the UFC and the short-term gains don’t feel significant enough to merit rolling the dice on a fight that impacts two competitive, but historically underappreciated divisions.
One final thought . . .
You do Georges St-Pierre vs. BJ Penn at UFC 94 because they have a history, they’re huge names and there is very little downside to having Penn come up to challenge St-Pierre for the welterweight title.