There will come a time when Demetrious Johnson is thought of as an all-time great in MMA, and a likely Hall of Famer.
At 28, he's already got a few things accomplished that can never be taken away. He will always be the first UFC flyweight champion. Saturday's sixth successful title defense against Kyoji Horiguchi in Montreal puts him in the record books with the latest finish in UFC history --at 4:59 of the fifth round. That's a record that is unlikely to be equaled, but can never be broken. His sixth consecutive successful title defense puts him in fifth place all-time in UFC history, behind only Anderson Silva (10), Georges St-Pierre (9), Jon Jones (8) and Jose Aldo (7).
Yet, for his third successful title defense, fans were headed to the exits while his fight was going on.
At the Bell Centre in Montreal, live reports were that people started leaving in significant amounts during the second round, and when he locked in that armbar just a tick before time expired, somewhere between one-third and one-half of the audience was gone. It wasn't quite that bad, but plenty of people were leaving during the main event of UFC 174 in Vancouver, B.C., last year, when he defeated Ali Bagautinov. There were also people leaving in Las Vegas, virtually unheard of in that city for a UFC championship fight, at UFC 178 when he defeated Chris Cariaso.
It's one thing to be a champion who isn't a big drawing card. There will always be great fighters who don't sell tickets. And sometimes there will be fights that don't interest the public, or that the public finds boring. But hoards of people leaving the building during the main event of three straight title defenses -- given how few people ever reach that level, is a combination of a great fighter and not connecting with the public, that is unprecedented.
There are a number of reasons for this. One is the size, as one of the key components of drawing in MMA is the idea that these guys are "badass" fighters. But as technically proficient as Johnson is, and in terms of just pure speed and skill he may be the best fighter in the sport, but the idea of 125-pound males doesn't conjure up the "badass" term. Still, other smaller champions and women fighters haven't had this issue. He also doesn't talk in a way that garners attention, but there have been champions that don't even speak English that have defended in main events in North America without people leaving. Another issue, perhaps the key one, is his challengers.
Bagautinov, Cariaso and Horiguchi were not contenders that anyone seriously thought had a shot at beating him. Nor did any of them bring anything to the table to garner interest. None were top contenders on a hot streak to where the public was waiting for the title match. In all cases, Johnson was booked to defend the title and they came across as a guy available on that date who is a contender, maybe the best available on that date, but hardly the real top contender. And for Saturday's show, there was a double whammy involved.
Because of a weak advance, getting free tickets wasn't that difficult in Montreal. According to people there live, the main explanation for the people leaving is that so many got in free, so didn't have the financial investment in having paid to see the main event. And of those who did pay, they paid to see other fights, whether it be the Quebec fighters, Rampage Jackson or Michael Bisping.
The biggest stars on the show in the spectators' eyes, Jackson, Bisping and local favorite Patrick Cote had already fought. UFC's policy of putting the championship match on last, and always promoting the championship match as the main event is done for mostly good reasons. But on the occasional shows, such as this, where the title match is far from the most looked forward to match by the fan base, they'll check out after what they consider the real main event.
Perhaps if Horiguchi gave the impression early that he stood a good chance of scoring the upset, people wouldn't have been as quick to leave. If the order of the fights were different, where Rampage was on last, none of this would have happened.
Still, there have been dreadfully dull title fights in the past where the audience stayed put, even if they may boo the fight.
As far as why this is, people may over think it. It's not the lack of finishing, as Johnson has now finished four of his last five fights. Granted, he had seven straight decisions before that. It's simply the division the public cares about the least. Until there is a challenger people are intrigued by, and as long as Johnson's fights are last on the show, if there is no explosiveness in the first two rounds, the situation is likely to remain the same.
Of the challengers, perhaps the only one on the horizon who has a shot at bringing a little interest into the title picture is Henry Cejudo (8-0), who missed making flyweight three times in a row, before making weight at bantamweight once, and then, with his back against the wall, finally making it on March 14 in his win over Cariaso. Cejudo is an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler who has taken quickly to stand up fighting. As hard as this is to fathom when you watch Johnson completely dominate his challengers, but Cejudo is the better athlete of the two. But he's far behind Johnson when it comes to experience, and Johnson figures to have a stamina edge as well, as he doesn't seem to ever get tired.
The question becomes if the company rushes Cejudo into a title match simply because he's the most interesting contender, or waits until Cejudo gets a little more cage experience.
Let's look at how fortunes changed for five of Saturday's stars:
DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON - As far as where Johnson (22-2-1) goes next, there are four fights in the next seven weeks that will make this a little clearer. UFC 187 on May 23 in Las Vegas has Joseph Benavidez (21-4) vs. John Moraga (16-3) and John Dodson (16-6) vs. Zach Makovsky (19-5). A week later, in Brazil, has Jussier Formiga da Silva (17-3) vs. Wilson Reis (19-5). And on June 13 in Mexico City, Cejudo faces Chico Camus (15-5).
Of the four winners, a lot will depend on who looks the best and what match seems to have the most interest. On the pay-per-view, it felt like they were pushing Dodson as the next opponent, given that he did knock Johnson down twice when they fought two years ago.
Most consider Benavidez the No. 2 man in the division, but Johnson beat him clearly via decision in 2012 and knocked him out in the first round a year later, so he'll need an impressive win to get the next shot. Benavidez's four losses were two each to Dominick Cruz, arguably the top bantamweight in the sport, and two to Johnson. One loss to each was via split decision. Against almost everyone else, Benavidez has dominated. Cejudo has never whiffed a moment of serious trouble in the Octagon. The others, to the public, likely fall into the Horiguchi category where they've made no strong impression on the public going into the fight.
QUINTON JACKSON - Jackson's fortunes changed just days before the show when the appellate court overruled the injunction that prevented him from fighting in UFC. What happens next for Jackson depends largely on the legal system. He made it clear after the fight that he wants revenge on everyone who beat him, a list that would be comprised of Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Rashad Evans, Glover Teixeira, Ryan Bader and Jon Jones. Of those who have wins over Jackson, aside from Jones, who he's unlikely to get another shot at, Bader, who fights next on June 6, and Teixeira, who fights June 20, make the most sense from a timing perspective.
But overall, based on who is available now, the fight that makes the most sense would be Ovince St. Preux (18-6). That would be an expected win for St. Preux, and a win that could boost him strongly to the public. The question is if UFC wants to book Jackson in fights that interest Jackson, or use Jackson in fights to build stars on the way up.
MICHAEL BISPING - At the age of 36, Bisping had one of his most impressive career wins in outworking C.B. Dollaway on Saturday. The key to Bisping is his conditioning, which was clearly still there at his age, as it was the difference in the fight.
Bisping's long UFC career have seen him get to a near the top level, but always fall short in the bout that will get him a title match. From a rankings perspective, the next steps could be either Lyoto Machida (22-6) or Thales Leites (25-4). Machida is the more dangerous of the two, but if Bisping has any hopes of a title shot, which he fervently talked about as being his goal, he's going to need a win over either Machida, or someone on that level.
THOMAS ALMEIDA - At 23, and with a 19-0 record, Almeida put every bantamweight on notice with his win over Yves Jabouin on Saturday. Almeida showed great hands and an ability to finish impressively, as shown by 18 finishes thus far in his career. An obvious match-up next would be Aljamain Sterling (11-0), who looked impressive in finishing Takeya Mizugaki the week before. Both seem to have the tools to be near the top in the division.
ALEXIS DAVIS - Davis (17-6) avenged two prior losses to Sarah Kaufman, one in 2007 and the second in 2012. Kaufman was winning most of the fight until being caught on the ground. It's going to be tough for Davis to get a title shot after losing to Ronda Rousey in 16 seconds last year. Two fights that can at least get her into the top tier with wins would be against either Cat Zingano (9-1), who is in the same boat as her coming off a quick loss to Rousey, or Julianna Pena (6-2).