The best fighter on Earth is a diminutive video-game enthusiast. He hasn’t lost a fight in six years. Along with Anderson Silva, he currently holds the record for consecutive title defenses in the UFC: 10 consecutive opponents have tried and failed to take his belt. Slick kickboxers, gritty grinders, hyper-athletic prospects, lethal grapplers, big punchers, and Olympic gold-medalist wrestlers have all come up short.
UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson stands alone atop the pound-for-pound rankings. At UFC 216 on Saturday, he has a chance to become the only UFC champion in history to defend his belt 11 times as he faces Ray Borg.
Unlike fellow transcendent talent and (unlike Johnson) perennial fuck-up Jon Jones, who has been one of the UFC’s biggest draws in the right matchups, Johnson has never achieved even minor box-office success. He has drawn essentially nothing as a pay-per-view headliner, and his last appearance on Fox was one of the lowest-rated events in the history of its UFC broadcasts. Drawing power is king in combat sports, and Johnson doesn’t have it. Despite his unreal skills, Johnson is on the outside looking in at Conor McGregor’s world of eight-figure paydays and wide name recognition.
The disconnect between Johnson’s unreal skills and accomplishments and his inability to pull money from the fans is one of the great conundrums in MMA. Johnson himself is sick to death of discussing it. He says it doesn’t bother him, and tends to give one-word answers whenever it comes up. Who can blame him? His box-office shortcomings have become as big a part of his personal narrative as his accomplishments in the cage.
The UFC certainly doesn’t seem to value the best fighter in the world. The lead-up to this fight was an acrimonious one. The nasty back-and-forth between Johnson and UFC president Dana White culminated in Johnson releasing a long statement accusing the UFC of many things, from failing to market him to threatening to shut down the entire flyweight division if Johnson refused to fight former bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw.
It was a perfect summation of the hectoring, schizophrenic way White approaches his job. One day, he’ll declare a fighter the pound-for-pound best; the next, he’ll declare to the world that fighter isn’t worth a dime and can’t draw a thing. When the UFC’s public face can’t be bothered to maintain a productive working relationship with one of its greatest fighters, their struggles to create a wide array of marketable stars suddenly make perfect sense.
There are plenty of possible explanations for why Johnson doesn’t draw. Although he finishes fights (four of his last five), these knockouts and submissions feel more inevitable than highlight-reel. His size is a big factor; it could well be that people simply won’t buy a five-foot-three guy as one of the baddest people on the planet. It might be his personality: He’s engaging and witty, and has a cutting sense of humor, but he’s not especially bombastic or grandiose.
Perhaps most important is that his personality just doesn’t translate to click-worthy headlines. At a recent media event, a reporter asked him whom he’d put on his personal Mount Rushmore of MMA. Johnson demurred at first, but eventually he said, “They shouldn’t let me carve it. It’d just be my face four times.”
That’s a fantastic line that captures something essential about both Johnson’s greatness and his utter nonchalance about it, but it’s not the kind of thing MMA fans will immediately click on. It’s not a Conor McGregor moment. McGregor’s bombast always hides a slight disconnect between his self-presentation and reality; by contrast, when Johnson says he’s the best, that his face should dominate MMA’s Mount Rushmore, it’s less a compelling claim that demands a reaction from fans than a simple statement of fact.
Johnson spends his free time streaming on his popular Twitch channel, playing video games and talking shit, and maybe that too doesn’t appeal to an audience of fight fans.
Somewhere between there and Johnson’s justified, specific complaints about how the UFC has failed to market him lies the truth. The UFC is a surprisingly small organization with limited bandwidth in its PR and marketing departments. For the most part, the promotion stumbles from one of its 40 or more events per year to the next. They pray nothing goes wrong; something inevitably does. They barely have time to pitch fighters on upcoming cards to mainstream outlets and cut together ads.
With limited resources at their disposal, they’re not in a position to develop a creative, coherent long-term strategy to build the star power of a five-foot-three flyweight who’s really into video games. The UFC has a specific template for the kinds of fighters it likes to promote: some combination of loud, brash, quotable, traditionally good-looking, and with a visually impressive highlight reel. That’s an easy sell, and it’s an approach that fits with their limited available resources.
Johnson doesn’t fit that bill. “I can’t think of any other sports organization in the world that has the best player in the sport where the league, or the organization, doesn’t market that player to their loyal fan base to sell more of their product,” Johnson said in his statement last June. It’s hard to argue with him.
A professional publicist, someone really trying to put Johnson out there and build his profile, would take stock of Johnson and see a few things to work with: a passion for gaming, that sly, cutting wit, and, most of all, his stunning accomplishments in the cage. In my experience with him, he enjoys holding court. He’s funny and likable. You’d pitch him to video-game media and set up product integrations around game launches with companies in the industry. A mainstream sports outlet might want to talk to him based solely on the paradox of his wild dominance and lack of major recognition. Eventually, as his profile grew, you’d shoot higher.
Johnson almost certainly isn’t going to be a mainstream star like McGregor or Ronda Rousey, but there’s no reason to think any of that would be ineffective.
For the UFC, it’s easier to just put together a couple of half-assed Facebook posts and a vlog and accept that the event won’t sell, instead of having someone working full-time to make a champion better known. That might seem bizarre, but that’s the way they’ve chosen to do business: The full promotional push goes only to a few select fighters, and the predictable consequence of this is a lack of star power in general. The UFC acts as if it’s an all-or-nothing proposition instead of accepting that there are different kinds and levels of stardom that can get fans to watch or buy a card.
Creating those lesser but still-useful stars would take time and resources that the UFC can’t, or more likely simply won’t, invest in its fighters. Johnson’s limited public profile and gate appeal are the result of this lack of interest in creating secondary stars.
The pity is that Johnson really is the best fighter on the planet, and he has a real claim to being the greatest of all time.
Johnson approaches fighting like a flow chart. Every individual action—a punch, a step, a pivot, a feint, a level change—is just an entry point into an array of possibilities that spiral outward into infinity. He accumulates information at an incredible pace, testing his opponent’s defenses and responses and then building a plan brick by brick on the basis of that data.
That’s pretty vague, so let’s get concrete. Let’s say Johnson changes levels and shoots for a takedown, but his opponent stuffs it. The how and why of his opponent stuffing it is the beginning of a sequence in the flow chart.
- Was Johnson too far away when he changed levels and shot? Did he need a better setup? Next time, he could try covering the entry with a feint or strikes to distract.
- Could he have finished the takedown differently? Next time, he could switch to something else—a double-leg to a single or a trip—if the opponent stuffs the initial shot.
- Is finishing the takedown the best option? Next time, Johnson could let go of the takedown attempt earlier and land a punch or elbow while his opponent is still thinking about defending it.
Every one of those hypothetical options is an entry point into a whole new series of the flow chart, with its own corresponding branches, and so on. At any point in the rest of the fight, that information is available for Johnson to exploit. This is just one example: You could build the same kind of structure out of a right or left straight, a low kick, a pivot, a particular setup in the clinch, or a position on the ground.
Johnson’s ability to cycle through these options and pick the right one at the right time is unmatched by anybody except perhaps Jon Jones. The most stunning thing about all this, though, is that the decisions don’t exist in a vacuum; they always serve a broader strategic purpose. If he’s trying to wear his opponent down, these sequences lead toward a quicker pace, more grinding in the clinch, and working the body. If he’s trying to make his opponent chase him, they lead in the direction of maintaining distance. Each of those individual flow-chart decisions is one piece of a larger puzzle that ends with Johnson getting his hand raised.
More than any other fighter, Johnson has realized that the fundamental truth of MMA is defeating the opponent. Individual techniques, phases of the fight, and strategic approaches are just means to that end. There’s no division between striking, the clinch, wrestling, and grappling; they’re all seamless parts of the same whole. He has no firm preferences. He’s not wedded to anything just because he likes doing it. He combines in-depth game planning with on-the-fly adjustments in a perfect harmony.
Until he gets old or gets caught, Johnson isn’t beatable.
At the elite level of MMA, fighters usually win by taking away what their opponents do well. If they’re lethal grapplers, stuff their takedowns and maintain the distance. If they’re great strikers, tie them up in the clinch or take them down. At a more advanced level, you’re trying to take away specific ranges (the pocket, kicking distance), space (the center of the cage or the fence), angles, or a preferred pace. Phases like wrestling, striking, or grappling are secondary to considerations like distance, where in the cage the fight is taking place, and how fast things are happening.
None of that works against Johnson. He does everything well, so there’s no strong point or points to take away. Even if you find initial success, he’ll eventually adapt. It’s an icy, methodical, and effectively flawless approach to fighting. All he does is win, and usually in emphatic fashion.
Maybe the UFC is right, and there’s just no market for the best fighter in the world. More likely, Mighty Mouse just doesn’t fit the mold they’re used to selling.
It’s a tragedy. Demetrious Johnson is the best I’ve ever seen, the perfect expression of what hand-to-hand combat can be. Everyone should appreciate that greatness.