UFC 216: ‘Mighty Mouse’ Chases History

Mixed-martial arts is a sport built on the intrigue of unpredictability. When two men step into the Octagon, each has so many tools and paths to victory, so many ways to win and lose and inflict and receive damage. Getting to the top of the game is a difficult task most fighters fail to accomplish. Staying at the top is even harder.

That’s what makes Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson so special. The flyweight champion defends his title against Ray Borg on Saturday, and in doing so he will attempt to make history: a victory represents his eleventh straight title defense, which would break the record set by Anderson Silva.

Look at the other names on the top of the UFC pound-for-pound list and it becomes even more impressive what Johnson has accomplished as champion. Conor McGregor, the sport’s biggest star, tasted defeat in the Octagon as recently as last year. Jon Jones, who took Johnson’s top spot on the list when he regained his light-heavyweight title last month, is once again facing a long suspension for his actions outside of the cage. Even for the most elite of champions, it is only a matter of time before someone or something knocks you off the top spot.

But in a crazy and unpredictable game, “Mighty Mouse” has been a constant. He became the promotion’s first flyweight champion in June of 2012, and hasn’t come close to losing since then. Moreover, his victories have not only been dominant but also often destructive. The most highly-touted of his recent opponents, Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo, was absolutely buzzsawed by Johnson and stopped in the first round. In his last fight, “Mighty Mouse” beat up Wilson Reis for three rounds before becoming the first person to submit the jiu-jitsu black belt. The flyweight division’s clear #2 fighter, Joseph Benavidez, has lost twice to Johnson, the second of which being a brutal first-round knockout in 2013. Breaking the stereotypes that fighters in the smaller weight classes don’t produce enough finishes, Johnson has submitted or knocked out the majority of his challengers.

And yet, he still doesn’t receive the credit he deserves. Hardcore fans recognize him as one of the most skilled fighters of all time, but that recognition has not translated into mainstream success. Johnson’s pay-per-view numbers have been the lowest of any active champion. His last fight, a rare free title fight on Fox, performed poorly. And now that his fight with Borg was pushed back from its initial September booking, Johnson’s historic fight will have to settle for co-main event of UFC 216, underneath an interim title bout.

Given Johnson’s dominance in the cage, his failure to attract larger audiences is one of the sport’s greatest mysteries. A bias against smaller fighters is certainly a factor, as is the lack of a McGregor-esque foil in his division to generate buzz and form a rivalry. Johnson’s outside-the-cage image may also be a hinderance: he is a well-spoken and humble family man, positive traits that don’t exactly translate to pay-per-views buys.

Then there’s the case of Johnson’s brief but public feud with UFC President Dana White over the summer. White claimed Johnson was unwilling to fight former bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, an accusation that caused “Mighty Mouse” to publicize the instances he had been mistreated and disrespected by the organization. In the end, things returned to normal and Johnson will face Ray Borg, another contender he is expected to easily defeat. But White — whose primary job is to promote fighters like Johnson — did lasting damage on the flyweight champion’s image.

But even with his recent disgruntlement, Johnson finds himself in a favorable position heading into UFC 216. With Jon Jones’ recent drug test failure adding yet another black mark on his legacy, “Mighty Mouse” once again has the chance to prove himself as the greatest fighter of all time. If he defeats Borg in typically dominant fashion, he will remind the MMA world that while other champions fall by the wayside for various reasons, he is still there, still winning.

Johnson, however, cares little about possibly regaining his #1 pound-for-pound ranking.

“Do you think I’m excited that I’m back at number one?” he told MMAJunkie when asked about the Jon Jones situation. “That I’m clicking my heels together? Absolutely not. The fans are going to perceive and change their mind on certain different things and try to discredit you whenever they get the chance.

“So, for me, I don’t even worry about that anymore. I just worry about staying healthy, going out and fighting, and that’s it.”

Perhaps that is part of the reason Demetrious Johnson hasn’t latched on to a mainstream audience. In a game where losing is inevitable, “Mighty Mouse” is focused only on winning. Everything else is meaningless.

Decades from now when fans look back on this era of mixed-martial-arts, they won’t be talking about Demetrious Johnson as a superstar that transcended the Octagon. But that’s fine with him. The UFC’s smallest male champion never wanted to be one of its biggest stars. He’ll settle for being its best fighter.

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