Excellence is Demetrious Johnson's trade, and the only flyweight champion the UFC has ever known proved that once again this past Saturday, defending his belt with a brilliant rout over Japanese challenger Kyoji Horiguchi at UFC 186. The fight ended with Johnson seizing an unbreakable record -- his armbar at 4:59 of the fifth round can only be matched, not bested, when it comes to the latest finishes in UFC history -- and the win put Johnson at six straight title defenses, just four away from Anderson Silva's hallowed all-time mark.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite Johnson's technical virtuosity, the boo-birds reared their ugly heads at times during the fight, and UFC President Dana White afterward was left grudgingly fielding questions about Johnson's lack of star power and the slow trickle of fans exiting Montreal's Bell Centre before Horiguchi ever called it quits.
For fellow flyweight stud John Dodson, the entire scene was frustrating to watch from the sidelines, but also indicative of how the 125-pound division has been relegated to the background under the leadership of Johnson.
"He does enough in the fight, but he doesn't do enough for the fans to actually care about him," Dodson said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "I know that's sad to say, that people don't care for a great fighter. They care for a great athlete that can fit their perception of themselves, to be on a Wheaties box, to be someone that they will look up to and talk to and feel like they're comfortable to be around and have that information that every person would want to aspire to be.
"Like, man, he's one of the pound-for-pound bests in the world, but it just sucks to know that he's still not, he can't draw that type of crowd that people want to see."
The criticism surrounding Johnson's drawing power, or lack thereof, is by now a familiar refrain, though in many cases, such as UFC 186, it's unfair to place the failings of a card strictly upon Johnson's shoulders. Injuries, poor planning, and circumstance crippled UFC 186 well before Johnson entered the cage on Saturday night, and it didn't help that once again Johnson's dance partner was a complete non-entity when it came to promotion.
While Johnson put himself out there more than we've ever seen him before during fight week, Horiguchi, like Chris Cariaso and Ali Bagautinov before him, did very little on the media side of the game. The radio silence from the other side meant that Johnson was destined to fight an uphill battle from stage one.
"It does take two to tango," Dodson acknowledged. "It's not just Demetrious having to do all the work. He doesn't have the right opponent. If people want to care about the flyweights, they need to care, they need to be invested into it. If we want to sell pay-per-views, both of us have to sell it, not just one of us.
"[But] look at (Floyd) Mayweather," Dodson added. "The man can sell a fight no matter who the opponent is. Even the opponent that he knows that he's going to sit there and just crush him, cream him, that nobody's going to care about, he will sell the fight at the weigh-ins, at the press conference, at every single media event that he does. He will sell the fight so that people will watch him go out there and perform the way that he does. ... So yeah, the champion does need to go ahead and put on that extra little mile to make people want to watch it."
Dodson is, of course, the one viable opponent who may very well be able to move the needle when it comes to Johnson. In a division devoid of worthwhile challengers, Dodson brings the personality and pedigree to compete tit-for-tat with the champion, plus it doesn't hurt that a rivalry continues to smolder from the pair's Jan. 2013 meeting.
That night in Chicago still stands as the toughest test of Johnson's three-year title reign. Dodson's knockout power was on full display in early going, as he dropped the champion twice with wicked left hooks. Johnson survived and thrived to ultimately claim a hard-fought unanimous decision, but even two years after the fact, Dodson laments what could have been had he capitalized on his opportunities.
"I watched [that fight] last night, I ain't going to lie," Dodson said. "I watch it every single day. It's not because of the fact that I want to sit there and dwell and hate the guy. It's like, he's my motivation right now. It's not me motivating myself to hate the guy. I'm motivating myself to be something better than him. I want to make sure I go ahead and [understand what people were] saying about me, that I was too slow, that I got tired. I want to be able to go back and correct the mistakes that I had before."
A second shot a Johnson has eluded Dodson ever since, but after overcoming a nasty ACL injury, Dodson is now primed to reclaim what should have been his. He'll return to action on May 23 at UFC 187, taking on friend and occasional training partner Zach Makovsky. While the situation isn't ideal, Dodson intends to remind everyone exactly why a Johnson-Dodson rematch is the fight they need to see.
"I look at it this way," Dodson said. "When me and Demetrious fought for the title in Chicago on FOX, we brought in the best and the most views ever. 7.7 million viewers watching our fight. So people want to sit there and say they don't watch flyweights, well, I had 7.7 million people watching that fight on FOX for free, and I can guarantee you that we can do it again.
"People love the fact that I'm so sporadic and they would want to see him lose, so I'd [be doing a favor] for everybody that gets to hate on him. As far as smiling and this Chuckie Cheese attitude of mine, everybody wants to sit there and downplay, ‘Oh, he's just too hyper, he's like a kid, he's like a cartoon. He shouldn't be in the UFC.' Well, I'm knocking people out with a little as a Chuckie Cheese smile of mine, and with Demetrious Johnson being so flat, I'll be the most vocal person in the UFC."