There is an Ultimate Fighting Championship card scheduled for this Saturday, like many—probably too many—other recent Saturdays. What makes this one special is that it will be capped off by a main event of the highest caliber, with a dominant champion facing a threatening, wildly athletic challenger in a rematch of a January 2013 meeting that was both competitive and fantastically entertaining. The bout shows every sign of being great sports.
Despite that, few people are aware that flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and challenger John Dodson are fighting this weekend, and many—maybe most—of those who do know don’t care. There are plenty of complicated reasons for all this, but probably the main one is that the UFC isn’t really in the business of selling great sports.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. The UFC has found once-unthinkable success over the last decade with a business plan sometimes only tangentially related to top-tier competitive athletics. This isn’t rare for combat sports, which have long been tied to carnival barking shenanigans and have rarely been a meritocracy. There are also an infinite number of reasons to enjoy any sport, and aspects of the UFC that appeal to plenty of different tastes.
Unless you’re a special kind of asshole, there’s no requirement for you to think that people should undertake zealous Demetrious Johnson fandom to certify themselves as real MMA fans. If you don’t like the lighter weight classes, or athletes who give anodyne interviews, or fighters who operate in such a way that they rarely get hit, that is perfectly okay. There’s no test that involves you proving you liked watching turn-of-the-century atomweights and then positively identifying Ryota Matsune, and then being allowed into an underground club where they only play real hip hop and you sit in on a poker tournament filled with only people who learned the game before Doyle Brunson did.
There is no correct way to sell prizefighting, and there are certainly no rules governing how anyone is obligated to enjoy the proceedings. That said, the product the UFC is most comfortable selling is a specific kind of dim violence wrapped up in a specific kind of garish spectacle, and the demographic they are most comfortable marketing this violence to can generously be described as Loud Bros and less generously be described as The Absolute Worst, and this colors every facet of their identity.
Consider an anecdote that more or less explains everything. For over a decade, the UFC opened their shows with a much-maligned, remarkably abrasive Stemm anthem, subtly titled “Face the Pain.”
When asked by MMAJunkie a few years ago if it might ever be replaced, UFC figurehead Dana White said the following amazing things:
“They can mute their television.”
“You’d have to go out and find another piece that fit and was perfect and license it and go through all this crazy s–t, you know what I mean?”
“What genre do you go with? I see the same things you see on the Internet, this nu-death metal or whatever the hell they call it.”
“And it doesn’t matter what genre of music you’re into or what you like or what you think. … When you’re in that arena and that thing goes off, it’s like, ‘Goddamn, there’s going to be a fight tonight.’”
“It really does get you fired up.”
After years of refusing to budge, they recently reversed this stance, and decided to update their soundtrack to reflect their evolution. They presented their new intro music at UFC 189 and—I shit you not—it is a dubstep remix of “Face the Pain” by Stemm.
This kind of thing is shockingly characteristic of the whole operation. When you’ve actively built a world drenched in hollow machismo and personal fragrances from and inspired by nu-death metal bands and whatever, these things happen. When you’ve constructed the platonic ideal of a fight as two lumbering giants eschewing defense, setting their feet at mid-range, and clubbing each other until one succumbs to the damage and proves less valuable to the brand, there are consequences. One of them is that it tends to make talents like Demetrious Johnson even less appreciated than they might be.
The flyweight champion may be both the smartest and the fastest fighter in the game, but the most incredible thing about him is that he’s actually, actively great at mixed martial arts as such. This is rarer than you might think. Even now, for most fighters in a young sport, techniques are unrefined and largely cobbled together from other disciplines; even most very good fighters are, say, wrestlers who can throw a cross, or jiu-jitsu players who can take a punch. Johnson not only does everything—and does it with perfect technique and searing speed—but everything in between. The subtle ways that a full-contact ruleset changes the restricted techniques from individual disciplines and forces transitions between them are what make MMA more than the sum of its parts, and it’s there that Johnson thrives.
Johnson’s opponents are lucky if they are world-class in their plan A; he has a plan D and he is building a plan E on the fly while you’re getting hit from everywhere and scrambling to land even one clean shot. He once said that as long as he wasn’t getting battered, he didn’t mind losing a round, because he felt like he could use the information he gained in that round to beat you over the long run. His cardio appears boundless and allows him to enforce that ethos, applying nonstop pressure in every possible position, for the entirety of a fight.
In the first fight against Dodson, this manifested in a stirring comeback.
Dodson tested and dropped the champ with sharp punches early, but Johnson cooly adapted in the fourth and fifth rounds, sucking Dodson into close quarters combat and crushing him in the clinch with knees, eventually securing a close decision. It wasn’t just a great fight, it was a supreme display of technique, resilience, and an ability to adjust—all the things that make Johnson great—mounted against an opponent who is, save for that small, indefinable edge that separates the champion from his rivals, the equal of anyone in the world.
Some bad luck and the lack of depth in the flyweight division have led to some less than riveting scenarios for Johnson during his six title defenses, which makes the lack of interest in this weekend’s rematch all the more disheartening. This is a legitimately great matchup, and Dodson remains the perfect foil to Johnson’s deadpan, flawless technician.
Dodson is a prodigious athlete who remakes the world around him as a bouncy castle, possibly through the sheer will of smiling relentlessly. He tears off tumbling runs on a whim; though he’s only 5’3”, he’s competed on American Ninja Warrior and can dunk a basketball; and he hits frighteningly hard for a man of his size, hard enough to have come near to already putting the maddeningly elusive Johnson out in their first bout. In addition, both fighters’ camps are led by some of the best MMA minds ever: Johnson works under Matt Hume and Dodson trains out of Albuquerque’s Jackson-Winkeljohn. They will be impeccably prepared. Johnson is 29 and Dodson is 30, and with them both comfortably settled in to 125 pounds and fighting opponents their own size, they may never be more primed.
You’re under no obligation to be interested in any of this as an MMA fan. If you’re more intrigued by the concussive biological wreckage of Mark Hunt vs. Bigfoot Silva, or you’d rather watch Diego Sanchez wade snarling and windmilling into abuse, or you can’t get up for an event unless a Chael Sonnen impersonator is laying down sick nationalistic burns at the press conference, you’re well within your rights. Those are all products the UFC is more well suited to bring you anyway. But you may have answered your own question if you’re still asking why so many people who like great sports just can’t get into fighting.
Josh Tucker sometimes writes words. He mostly enjoys watching humans fight professionally, but is pretty conflicted about it. He’s on Twitter @HugeMantis.
Photo via AP