The on-going debate about whether current UFC Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson is a draw is currently being waged somewhere in an article or MMA podcast near you. Let's settle this quickly where in this space---he's not.
At least not on his own.
Very few fighters in the world can carry an entire $60 price tag on their own and the simple math based on the evidence we have is that Johnson is not that guy and likely never will be. That isn't too say he's not an entertaining fighter or one that can't draw an audience. But drawing a crowd and drawing a market are two different things.
Whether it's his sheer dominance over his competition, his inability to get people going on the mic or the unfortunate stigma that is commonly associated with lighter weight fighters, there are any number of factors working against Johnson ever being one of the UFC's cash cows. We don't live in a fair world and the MMA space isn't immune to this either.
Johnson let people know this week in interviews that he doesn't quite understand how it's his fault that he's not as popular as fans might hope him to be and rather points, somewhat justifiably, a finger at his promoter as the culprit.
While it can't be expected that the UFC will turn every gold belt wearing athlete on their roster into a megastar, it can notice the trends surrounding their fighters and put them in spots where they are most likely to succeed. That doesn't always begin and end with the champion themselves.
Here are some ways that Johnson's upcoming fights could be shaped by a better overall promoting of his fights:
1) Put him back on free television
Maybe this is a backhanded compliment, but if you told me or anyone else that Johnson-Horiguchi was taking place on big Fox, I don't believe anyone would complain.
Johnson has fought on free television a number of times and has had success in getting people to watch. His fight with John Dodson in January 2013 was one of the better watched fights that have been put on Fox. Granted, that fight had a strong undercard, but that brings us to point No. 2.
2) Stop putting him in impossible situations
Maybe Johnson can't bring in the dollars all by himself, but as mentioned before, few can. In fairness, only a handful of people could be placed into UFC 186's main event and automatically get people to stop complaining about the price tag associated with it. Coincidentally, a lot of those other guys are already booked with shows that are being met with better approval. Those guys can't headline every week, so eventually the UFC is going to need guys like Johnson to headline events.
Here's where it gets tricky.
UFC 187 features Jon Jones, Chris Weidman, Vitor Belfort, Anthony Johnson, Donald Cerrone, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Travis Brown, Andrei Arlovski, John Dodson, Zach Makovsky, Joseph Benavidez, John Moraga, Uriah Hall, Rose Namajunas.
I would consider all of those names to have the ability to bring in a certain amount of audience and could significantly upgrade UFC 186. So why is one event stacked while another is famished of draws?
This is where there are two schools of thought. On the one hand, you can always just skip UFC 186 and save the money for UFC 187, a far superior product. Or you could take some of the talent off UFC 187 and shift it back a month to UFC 186, but that creates a lesser product at UFC 187 and not much of an advancement at UFC 186.
I prefer that the UFC stack some cards instead of creating a more mediocre product across the board. Some events should feel more special than others.
But why can't the UFC give Johnson a break and design a card around his talents and needs instead of using him as filler to events where he feels more like an afterthought? How is it that Johnson always ends up on these lame duck cards? Why is it that his last two fights have been fights that were put together as last ditch efforts to bolster cards?
Remember, he fought Chris Cariaso at UFC 178 as a replacement main event after Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier were removed from that card due to injury, and even then his booking with Cariaso was meant to give UFC 177, it's original home, a second title fight and little else.
Which brings us to a third point.
3) For the love of God, build up his opponents/division
I mean seriously.
Kyoji Horiguchi isn't ready for this fight anymore than Chris Cariaso was and of course this probably wasn't the UFC's initial plan for Johnson's next title defense---they likely wanted John Lineker in this spot except Lineker can't make 125 pounds anymore.
But still, if a title fight can't be made with a little more merit than "Well, I guess it's time to give Demetrious another fight," then can we simply do something else? Anything?
John Dodson is fighting at UFC 187, a little less than a month after this weekend's card. He is a legit challenger to Johnson's belt and almost took it from him in their first meeting. Was 30 days going to make or break being able to make this fight?
Let's look at the last few opponents handed to Johnson:
Horiguchi (4-0 UFC record, but only one fight on a UFC PPV. The other three were a combination of two internet exclusive fights and a fight on Fox Sports 2, a channel with limited visibility. So when people see his name they think, "Who is this guy?")
Chris Cariaso (a slightly more well known fighter, but while riding a three-fight winning streak before getting his shot, had only barely cracked the flyweight top 10 rankings. Fight was originally booked for UFC 177 to simply give it two title fights, then shifted into main event at UFC 178 when mega-fight between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier fell out.)
Ali Bagautinov (a 3-0 UFC record when he got his shot and to the UFC's credit, two fights on UFC PPV's before fighting Johnson. But the rest of this card featured Rory MacDonald-Tyron Woodley, Ryan Bader-Rafael Cavalacante, Andrei Arlovski-Brendan Schaub and Ovince St. Preux-Ryan Jimmo. Not exactly a star-studded affair considering the lopsided odds given to the main eventers.)
Johnson's last marketable opponent came against Joseph Benavidez and that fight was on free TV, as were his fights against John Moraga and John Dodson, all more pay-per-view worthy fights than the ones that were on pay-per-view.
Is it any wonder that fans feel like Johnson, now that he's on pay-per-view fighting Bagautinov, Cariaso and now Horiguchi, isn't worth the $60 price tag? They gave away the good fights (I probably shouldn't complain about that, but, whatever) and stuck us with the bill for the side salads.
4) If ever there was someone ready for a super-fight, it's Demetrious Johnson
I've listened to some of the interviews Johnson's done this week and it sounds like he's non-committal about moving up for a big fight or two, and if he's serious, that's entirely his fault for this last point.
I believe a T.J. Dillashaw-Demetrious Johnson, bantamweight champ vs. flyweight champ super-fight is every bit as pay-per-view worthy as anything the UFC is likely to put out this year.
Throw that at the top of a poster and give us one or two more quality fights in the middle of the event and call it a day. I'd be all in and I don't know many fight fans that wouldn't be. As a back-up plan, Renan Barao-Johnson isn't bad either.
Once Dillashaw and Barao settled their business in July, I believe a super-fight between the divisions is the move to make. It gives Dominick Cruz a chance to prove he's healthy before trusting him with a headlining role, and let's face it, with another long layoff, it still might not be a good idea to give him an immediate title shot.
It also allows the flyweight division and it's fighters a little time to gain some traction. Henry Cejudo is the guy I'm thinking of specifically here. He's an American Olympic gold medal wrestler with Mexican roots that's bi-lingual who needs just a little more seasoning to be the perfect foil to get people excited about a title fight with Johnson. Giving "Mighty Mouse" a one-off at bantamweight, or something more if he wins, is perfect for flyweight.
If Johnson were to win the bantamweight strap, that leaves a host of guys at flyweight that have already lost to Johnson with a chance to get back in the game. It would feel a lot like when Georges St-Pierre retired and Anderson Silva lost. It felt like the welterweight and middleweight divisions had new life.
If Johnson loses, he comes back to flyweight as more human champion. He will seem vulnerable and the public won't immediately assume he'll demolish any flyweight he faces and hopefully that contender will have been given a chance to build up their own name to get fans more excited for the fight.