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When Demetrious Johnson fights, it's always beauty (or guilt for not appreciating it)

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

You know a Demetrious Johnson fight is about to happen when people are talking about Conor McGregor getting additional ink across his zoo-themed torso, and of him hijacking hashtags (Check out his latest work at the #GoBig). It’s a funny thing. With Johnson, it’s always sort of a potboiler between events, whether he’s headlining on FOX or a pay-per-view. For whatever reason, when "Mighty Mouse" has a fight on the immediate horizon — when people really are forced to focus on it — they talk less about his fight than they do preference.

Is DJ the greatest fighter going? You could make that argument. Do people care? Eh. Should they? Probably. Then why don’t we?

Indeed. Then why don’t we.

And this is where things get snagged, and one man’s sense of beauty gets streaked with another man’s mud.

For whatever reason, Johnson kicks up a conversation about the very tenants of apathy in the fight game  — both voluntary and involuntary — each time his number comes up. He is the pound-for-pound greatest at doing this, even if he is sort of a symbolic bystander in the ordeal. When he fights the argument becomes something like recognizing what is great in the cage versus what is desirable. Somehow, technical mastery by itself isn’t enough to captivate an audience. Johnson is a dynamo who adapts on the fly and executes ridiculously smart game plans. He is versatile and good-to-great everywhere. He is the embodiment of everything pure in martial arts, and his pace is that of a fast-acting stimulant.

And as he heads into tonight's title defense against John Dodson at UFC 191 he’s pretty damn fed up. Not because people don’t care, because that’s a generalization that’s (probably) mostly false, but because people keep talking about people not caring, and people keep talking about people talking about people not caring. It’s a dizzying position to be in. Yet that’s where he forever is.

Not that the UFC has done DJ any favors over the last couple of years by constantly sticking him in headlining spots rather than coupling him with bigger-named champions. He could have benefited from being booked as support here and there. We could have eased into the idea of him being an event. But that hasn’t been the case. It’s been sink or swim for his last six defenses. And for that reason, to be Demetrious Johnson is to be a conversational piece as to what in the hell it is we’re looking at, and indeed, if we can be guilted into appreciating it.

And make no mistake: Demetrious Johnson fights contain extraordinarily high levels of guilt. 

The thing is, Johnson’s starting to get damn mad about all of it. He’s developing an attitude. His tapioca-ness is becoming somewhat bitter. Charisma? No, no, no, but there’s a chip forming on his shoulder, and by god it’s fun to look at. Johnson hears the criticisms about not being able to sell a card, as well as the patronizing retorts from his defenders, saying that you’re not a fan of MMA if you’re not a fan of "Mighty Mouse."

It’s all a little much. But Johnson’s burgeoning surly side might be his way out of this anti-attraction quagmire. Maybe not…but maybe. You can see a little bit of everything in this interview with Ariel Helwani.

During the UFC 191 conference call last week, Johnson said he was done listening to "uneducated fools" who think he’s boring. The truth is, even the doofiest duncecaps can see he’s not boring — at least not in the way we define it in fighting. He has finished four of the last guys he’s faced, including Kyoji Horiguchi in his last title defense with a single second to spare. His fighting style is not one-dimensional, nor aesthetically displeasing. He is opportunistic, and he’s looking to end the fight. But he’s not careless. He doesn’t chin-check with guys just to get a rise out of a crowd. It’s hard to fault him for that.

Like half the criticisms leveled against Johnson, even the one claiming that he faces weak competition has very little to do with him. He just goes out there and smokes whomever the UFC puts in front of him. The 125-pound division isn’t stacked, so you get the odd Chris Cariaso or Ali Baugatinov through the turnstile, so what? Ronda Rousey is facing competition that stands no chance, and yet she’s the definition of draw power.

Johnson? Not so much. In fact, people keep talking about people not caring. Why that is continues to be up for debate. Is it because he’s 5-foot-3, and a flyweight? That can’t be helped. Is it because he lacks personality? He’s too friendly? Not enough of a trash talker? Too methodical? Too great? Because he has no rival?

And see, that’s where it gets despairing heading into tonight's main event.

John Dodson is supposed to be the guy to do away with the lack of compelling story lines. Dodson lost to Johnson via decision back in early-2013, which was DJ’s first title defense. Since then, Dodson has plowed through Darrell Montague and John Moraga, and scored a good-looking decision over Zach Makovsky. His hands are heavy, and he can match Johnson’s hummingbird pace. He has a knockout of current bantamweight champion, TJ Dillashaw. This rematch has legs. If ever there was a fight that people should want to see, it’s Johnson against Dodson.

Yet, this one feels slightly like any other Demetrious Johnson fight. Like you should feel more about it than you do, even if you don’t know exactly why that is.

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