Four months after becoming the inaugural UFC flyweight champion, Demetrious Johnson sets about the goal of defending the title. But there is also another consideration, one that forces upon him the responsibility of a building block. For the long-term health of the flyweights, he must be one of those that helps establish the momentum of the division. At UFC 152, in their biggest showcase to date, Johnson and Joseph Benavidez went five hard rounds, but could not win over the 16,800 in attendance who liberally serenaded them with boos through the duration of the 25-minute bout. As fan unrest goes, it was a curious choice. Johnson landed 96 strikes, scored five takedowns and marked up his opponent's face with bruises and swelling. Benavidez tried to mount a late comeback. It still wasn't enough.
The backlash enraged UFC president Dana White, who said he was "horrified" by the reaction and advised fans who jeered them to never buy another UFC pay-per-view.
This time though, the fans that watch on television won't have to spend a dime to watch the 125-pounders. The fight takes place at UFC on FOX 6, and as the main event, no less. That's a promotion for Johnson, but it's also a lot of other things. It's added attention. It's extra scrutiny. It's the eyeballs of mainstream sports fans channel surfing on a Saturday night.
Despite it all, Johnson (16-2-1) is considered just over a 2-to-1 favorite to retain the belt.
The 5-foot-3 dynamo reached his division's apex with a diverse set of skills and an innate ability to adapt. A true mixed martial artist, he does everything fairly well. He strikes at a 49 percent accuracy clip. He doesn't leave himself open to counters. He has managed to take down nearly every opponent he's faced.
The base for Johnson's success stems from his speed and stamina. The two attributes work in concert, allowing him to be always at least a half-step ahead of everyone else, and that means he can get inside to punch or kick or initiate a clinch or a takedown with a split-second of impunity.
In fact, in Johnson's nine UFC fights, he's only been out-landed a single time, and that was when he was fighting as a blown-up bantamweight, and against UFC champion Dominick Cruz. And despite that, Cruz managed to out-land him by only a single strike, 146-145.
At his new home, he can play the matador, or he can play the bull. Never was that better exhibited than in his fight with Benavidez, who most had penciled in as the likely flyweight tournament winner from the start. Johnson confounded Benavidez with his constant movement, feints and level changes. When Benavidez hung back, Johnson could get inside to land a combo and then get out before the counter-bomb came his way. When Benavidez tried to initiate, Johnson could duck low for the takedown. It was ultimately ruled a split-decision, though most of the media saw it much more conclusively in Johnson's favor.
So Johnson can approach this fight in the same freestyle fashion he usually does. His game features everything but power. As fate has it, that's one thing that his opponent John Dodson (14-5) can boast.
How the challenger approaches the fight is much more important than how Johnson does. That's because Dodson, as a power puncher, is prone to fighting with a more defined strategy. Dodson likes to stand at distance and wait for his opponents come to him. The southpaw may be Johnson's equal in speed -- there's no way to know for sure until Saturday -- and he trusts in his ability to reach his opponent's chin before the inverse happens. So far, that's held true as Dodson's won two of his three UFC bouts by knockout, including his most recent against Jussier Formiga.
But it was his other fight, a decision victory over Tim Elliott that left the most questions about his ability to win a five-round bout. Dodson's game didn't hold up over the course of the 15 minutes, and Elliott made it close late. Any such fade against Johnson is likely to swing the fight's momentum.
Dodson mostly performs to let his opponent set the pace, and to time their forward advance with counters. His explosive offense features a crushing straight left, a power right hook, and a plethora of flying knees.
While the aforementioned speed differential will be a factor worth watching, it may not prove to be any more important than whoever can establish the wrestling edge. More specifically, a key battleground will be Johnson's offensive takedown game against Dodson's defense.
Officially, Dodson has not yet been taken down to the mat in his three UFC bouts, although he was taken down during his TUF stint. How he defends in this bout is key as Johnson is able to open up and diversify his offense based on low-level feints.
Ultimately, if you're picking this fight, you have to measure Dodson's ability to land a fight-changing blow against Johnson's unwavering pace. I have my doubts Dodson can land it. His coach Matt Hume once told me that Johnson frequently spars with studs like Rich Franklin and Tim Boetsch, and he's never seen him hurt. If that is the case, Dodson has his work cut out for him. Dodson does have other weapons, of course. He does good work in targeting the body, he'll take aim at the legs with kicks, and with his low center of gravity, he's strong in the clinch.
You may have noticed I didn't address submissions. Frankly speaking, neither of these men have ever been held down for any long period of time, and neither of them have ever tapped out, so I frankly don't expect to see that element decide or even define the fight. Instead, the winner will be made in open space, and with the addition of occasional takedowns that show ownership of the round. To me, that's a formula that screams Demetrious Johnson. Particularly given the fact that Johnson has always been an offensive aggressor, he is more likely to land punches in bunches, and that's a judge-friendly formula. Johnson via unanimous decision.