A little over four years ago, when Dominick Cruz handily defeated Demetrious Johnson to retain the UFC bantamweight title, few could have predicted the historic run that would soon follow. In his next fight, Johnson debuted the UFC's new flyweight class, and on Saturday, the man they call "Mighty Mouse" defended his UFC flyweight title for the eight consecutive time, blowing the doors off Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo with a masterful performance at UFC 197.
As Johnson now inches closer to the record for UFC title defenses, which is owned by the legendary Anderson Silva, the gap appears to be widening between his talents and those of the division's next closest contender. Cejudo represented the last viable question mark at 125 pounds -- with him vanquished, Johnson has effectively cleaned out the weight class. The only contenders who remain are either retreads or prospects still too green to pose a challenge.
But, there is one option that exists. Johnson has long coveted a rematch against Cruz, the UFC's reigning bantamweight king. Johnson reiterated on Saturday that the champion vs. champion superfight is one that would interest him -- for the right price -- and while it wouldn't be Cruz's first preference, he certainly wouldn't shy away from the challenge either.
"You look at DJ and you can't deny that he is the best flyweight ever," Cruz said Monday on The MMA Hour. "He's done great things. He's defended the title. He's going after a record of Anderson Silva's right now. He's said himself, he's pretty focused on that more than anything, and I kind of understand that. But at the same time, I don't pick my fights and I never really have. I'm not opposed to a fight. If that guy wants to come up to 135 and try to challenge me, I don't run from anybody, so I'm there.
"But right now, you look at who I'm facing, the landscape of the 135-pound division is probably looking the best that it's looked in the past four years, in my opinion. It's looking really good and I've got plenty of guys in this division who are my size, my weight, who want to scrap and are in line and knocking at the door and saying they want to beat me up already. So, if you really look at things, I've got a long list of guys who want to fight."
Cruz isn't wrong. Between the division's swarm of hungry young contenders like Aljamain Sterling and Thomas Almeida, returning veterans like Raphael Assuncao and Michael McDonald, and exiles from 125 pounds like John Dodson and John Lineker, bantamweight has never been stronger than it is now.
However as Johnson pushes his run of greatness to new heights, many have begun to wonder if the smallest male UFC champion may very well be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, and Cruz would serve as the perfect litmus test to study the theory.
"I think people want to see Demetrious move up because he's just smashing these guys at 125," Cruz said. "Everybody wants to see that untouchable guy beaten. It's just the way the world works. So, they want to see him move up and see how great he can do also. Like, if he's that good against bigger guys too, that's what the people are curious of.
"It's not just about technique anymore. You've got to deal with three other things. You've got to deal with size, length, reach. All these other things just add so much to the equation. Plus, these guys who we're fighting are the best in the world. It changes the fight so much, you have to respect body mechanics. And when size, length, reach, all that stuff is adding into the fight, it changes the fight's dynamics completely. It doesn't matter how good you are, because body mechanics can change everything."
It is a cliché to say, but weight classes exist within the sport for a reason. One needs to look no further than the two recent cases of Benson Henderson and Conor McGregor. Both men are among the most talented fighters in their respective divisions, but suffered bad losses to larger opponents from the heavier ranks.
Cruz speculates the same may happen to Johnson, who stands five inches shorter than Cruz and would carry a four-inch reach disadvantage into the hypothetical match-up. Still, Johnson's greatest strengths -- his speed and technical brilliance -- would translate in a major to the upper weight classes, and if a superfight is what fans want to see after Cruz meets Urijah Faber at UFC 199, then Cruz would be more than willing to oblige.
"Superfights are at their highest demand right now," Cruz said. "People want to see them. People like them. And if that's what the fans want to see, and that's what the people are going to buy, throw us on a pay-per-view. If a million people want to see that fight, and we sell it, maybe that can be the first time DJ has some of the best sales he's ever had in his career because people want to see him fight me. I'm not opposed to it.
"If you look at him at 135 pounds, he was beating a lot of people, but there was always a size advantage that gave him trouble that he had to work around. At 125, he has nothing to work around. These guys are his size, they're his height, and he can use his fundamentals, his technique, and his speed at their fullest potential because of that. When he comes up to 135, things are different. I mean, he lost to me. He lost to Brad Pickett. That's because of size advantages, and then technique on top of that. So he is good. He's the best flyweight ever. I agree with that. But, when you're coming up to 135 pounds, that's my division. Period."