John Dodson nearly had it. When the whirling dervish of the flyweight division met UFC champion Demetrious Johnson back in Jan. 2013, it quickly became apparent that the fight was his to lose. Dodson captured the opening 10 minutes on two of the judges' scorecards, punctuated by a second round that still stands as the best five-minute frame anybody has pasted on the champion throughout Johnson's reign.
But it wasn't enough. Johnson swept the final three rounds of the fight to narrowly escape with his title intact, leaving Dodson to ponder about what could've been as he worked towards the rematch he is finally set to receive on Sept. 5 at UFC 191.
"(What stands out to me is) me not punching him in the face when he hits the ground," Dodson said.
"Everyone saw me with a vicious intent, my killer instinct, when I knocked down T.J. Dillashaw, Darrell Montague, and everyone else who I put down. I didn't show that same type of intensity or that level of killer instinct against Demetrious Johnson. I showed way too much respect in that fight, and now in this one coming up, I'm going to make sure that, well, I see Demetrious just as another fighter and not a champion."
Dodson has had plenty of time to reflect on what went wrong that fateful night in Chicago. Neither injuries nor close calls could stop his 33-month road to redemption, and along the way the sequences of that second round stuck with him like a dull buzzing in his brain. Twice, Dodson knocked down Johnson with the thunder in his hands, and twice, Dodson allowed Johnson to pop back to his feet rather than swarming.
"I had the missed opportunity of knocking his head off," Dodson admitted. "I messed up, and with a few shots that I missed on when I dropped him, I should've capitalized on it. I knew Demetrious was a tougher opponent. He has that conditioning and that championship level where he wants to get back up and stands to his feet every single time, every chance he gets."
Much has happened since the two best flyweights in the world met for the first time. In many ways, the Dodson fight served as the turning point for "Mighty Mouse," a trial by fire that catapulted Johnson to a run of four finishes over five increasingly dominant title defenses. The champion that endures today does so as a legend-in-the-making, a widely recognized top pound-for-pound fighter who threatens the record books with every outing.
Dodson, meanwhile, struggled to find solid footing once back on the hunt, tearing his ACL before the UFC could book his chance at vengeance. A listless comeback fight against old training partner Zach Makovsky did little to help matters, and now both men agree, there's worlds of difference between the feel in this fight and the meeting that preceded it.
"I just think of it as different. I'm a different fighter every single time I come into the ring, so he should be a brand new person every single time. So like I said, it's a new opponent. He has new skills and new assets. He's more dangerous," Dodson said.
"This time I'm not going to let it go to the judges. I'm going to go balls to the wall and I hope DJ is willing to go do the same thing."
Dodson, along with several other flyweights, have made no secret about their distaste for Johnson's flavorless but domineering reign. Where Johnson is nonchalant, Dodson is boisterous. Where Johnson is disarmingly agreeable, Dodson is open with his aversion to the champion's makeup, which he and others at 125 see as hamstringing the division's potential.
So is he, as he's called himself in the past, the savior flyweight so allegedly needs?
"Of course," Dodson said. "Everyone likes my face anyway.
"They already forgot about DJ."