Demetrious Johnson’s excellence is bewildering.
He is the recipient of both effusive praise and apathetic dismissal, a rarefied space for an athlete.
Following his victory over #WilsonReis, matching #AndersonSilva’s record for consecutive UFC title defences in the process, the discourse has started to shift further and further towards the singular dominance which he has displayed during his reign atop the flyweight division. The idea of “Mighty Mouse” as the greatest fighter in the sport’s history was adopted even by members of the UFC’s own broadcast team following his sensational submission victory.
There is a reason for this; the facts are on his side. Facts are irresistible and hypnotic, a concrete statement of prowess in a space where greatness is so poorly defined. Title defenses are a simple, numerical data point, easily comparable to those of other champions.
Dominance, especially prolonged dominance, is an important criteria in defining greatness, and the record for most consecutive title defenses would seem to represent the highest accolade under this criteria.
There is room for nuance in a discussion concerning Johnson’s all-time status, but very little manifests itself. He has many fervent supporters and many dismissive naysayers, but few hold the middle ground; the result is praise which feels unconvincing, and criticism which feels forced.
Is Demetrious Johnson the greatest fighter of all time? There are several ways of determining greatness. Long-term dominance, a highlight on “Mighty Mouse’s” resume, is, in itself, not enough; the relative weakness of the flyweight division has left Johnson without an influx of serious contenders, and he has been forced to face rushed, unprepared, or outright undeserving opposition during his title reign.
Quality of opposition is a common talking point in the careers of lengthy champions, but it is not one which Johnson fares poorly in; in an absolute sense, few would argue that the opposition conquered by Anderson Silva was more impressive than that of the flyweight emperor. This is, in part, a natural result of the sport’s evolution and the more generalist-heavy nature of the lighter weight divisions.
This talking point benefits Johnson when compared to Silva, but not necessarily when compared to #GeorgesStPierre, who notched fewer consecutive title defenses but did so against three generations of welterweights, facing elite and established fighters, both specialists and generalists, in a reign which rarely saw a competitive bout.
Even more so, the quality of his opposition suffers in direct comparison to his contemporaries; #JonJones, who boasts perhaps the sport’s best-ever resume, has fallen out of the limelight as a result of actions taken in his personal life, but there’s a clear gulf between the level of talent faced by each man within the Octagon.
Both flyweight and light heavyweight are on the extreme ends of size distribution for athletic males, post-weight cut. Where Johnson struggles and Jones does not is a matter of prestige.
Johnson is the only man ever to hold the UFC flyweight championship, a title he claimed soon after the division’s inception, whereas Jones entered the light heavyweight division at a time where four kings were playing patty cake with the championship belt.
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Rashad Evans, and Lyoto Machida were the division’s elite four, and had all held the title at one point or another over the last few years.
In a thirteen-month span, he defeated Rua, then champion, for the belt, before defending it against Jackson, Machida, and Evans, utterly dominating all four men. He had brought peace to a division which was constantly in flux, and established himself as firmly above the greatest fighters of the prior era.
These victories speak to Jones’ greatness through the credentialed and esteemed careers of the men bested. The greatness of Johnson’s victories, meanwhile, is rooted in his status as a champion, with the opponents often an afterthought.
Skill is a loosely-defined measurement under which Johnson is often rated more highly than any fighter, but this, too, is dubious.
To say that “Mighty Mouse” is unquestionably the finest technician in MMA history would be an affront to the pride of Brazil, the great Jose Aldo. Aldo was most known for his mixture of near-flawless Dutch-style kickboxing and technically dazzling defensive wrestling, but he also possessed a wide and versatile array of takedowns from all positions, along with a #BJJ world championship under his belt. He was, in all phases, a dedicated and masterful technician.
All of this is to say, again, that there is room for nuance. There are criteria under which Johnson performs well, and criteria under which he performs poorly. How one subjectively weighs these criteria is the most important element in naming a single fighter the best ever.
Going forward, Johnson will continue to divide the narrative between those who value his absolute dominance above all else, and those who see the weakness of his competition as a mark against his achievements.
This speaks well to the state in which the sport finds itself; elite technicians offering wildly different shades of greatness may present issues for those who compile pound-for-pound rankings, but for the spectator, there has never been a finer age in mixed martial arts.
Demetrious Johnson's UFC Flyweight Record (12-0-1)
- W - Wilson Reis, submission (armbar), R3 4:49, UFC on FOX 25 (4/15/17)
- W - Tim Elliott, unanimous decision, The Ultimate Fighter 24 Finale (12/3/16)
- W- Henry Cejudo, TKO (knees and punches), R1 2:49, UFC 197 (4/23/16)
- W - John Dodson, unanimous decision, UFC 191 (9/5/15)
- W - Kyoji Horiguchi, submission (armbar), R5 4:59, UFC 186 (4/25/15)
- W- Chris Cariaso, submission (Kimura), R2 2:29, UFC 178 (9/27/14)
- W - Ali Bagautinov, unanimous decision, UFC 174 (6/14/14)
- W - Joseph Benavidez, KO (punch), UFC on FOX 9 (12/14/13)
- W - John Moraga, submission (armbar), R5 3:34, UFC on FOX 8 (7/27/13)
- W - John Dodson, unanimous decision, UFC on FOX 6 (1/26/13)
- W - Joseph Benavidez, unanimous decision, UFC 152 (9/22/12)
- W - Ian McCall, unanimous decision, UFC on FX 3 (6/8/12)
- W - Ian McCall, majority draw, UFC on FX 2 (3/3/12)