Somewhere out there, there must be an equation that explains the increasing weight of the UFC belt with the passage of time. Most of the organization’s champions that have managed to hold on to the gold for lengthy stretches have remarked on the phenomenon. Before losing the title, Anderson Silva admitted to getting straight-up tired of it all. Before he took a break, George St-Pierre told us he needed to clear his head of this obsession. Jon Jones acknowledged (through both words and actions) that the expectations placed on him as a champion got heavy.
Demetrious Johnson? For him, being a target seems to bring the pressure of a brisk morning walk along the shore. He shows up relaxed and loose, and he leaves just the same way after a few minutes of making someone else’s life a living hell. At UFC 216, it was Ray Borg who walked in full of confidence and left crushed and perplexed after another Saturday night demolition from the Mighty one.
Even after a staggering series of dominating performances, Johnson might have outdone himself. On a night when he should have been feeling more pressure than ever - the possibility of breaking Silva’s record for the most UFC championship title defenses hung in the balance - he had arguably the best outing of his UFC career.
In over 23 minutes of action, his opponent Borg managed to land only 22 strikes - less than one per minute. Johnson? He landed 172. “One-sided” is accurate, yet somehow not quite precise enough as a description. In baseball, a pitcher can throw a “perfect game,” where no one touches him. MMA does not have equivalent terminology, but this was as close as anyone could get, and it was capped off by one of the most incredible submissions high-level MMA has seen.
Johnson hoisted Borg in the air from the back suplex-style, and just as they prepared to crash to the mat, Johnson transitioned to an arm-bar—in mid-air! And it worked! A few seconds, a few readjustments and a Borg tap later, and the fight world freaked out over Johnson’s record 11th successful UFC title defense, and rightly so. As standalone moves go, it was the jiu-jitsu version of Anthony Pettis’ “Showtime Kick,” a move that fighters might experiment with in the gym while goofing around but would never try in a real fight. While most fighters are risk-takers, there are usually limits, whether affected by physical capabilities or implied odds.
Johnson prescribes to neither, not even in the biggest moment of his career. To add degree of difficulty, he did it despite competing with an injured right knee that he termed “excruciating.”
“I hit that suplex to armbar so many times in the gym,” he said after moving to 27-2-1. “I knew I was going to get it.”
Really? A move that heretofore had a success ratio of approximately 0 percent was a sure thing? Maybe that’s the difference between greatness and everyone else. Or between the greatest ever and all the other greats.
There is still some room for debate over who MMA’s best fighter of all-time actually is, but it’s getting more difficult to push the 31-year-old flyweight off the short list. Aside from his record 11 straight defenses, he’s beaten an Olympic gold medalist (Henry Cejudo), a knockout artist (John Dodson) and submitted a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt (Wilson Reis). He’s finished five of his last seven opponents. And overall, during this 11-fight stretch, he’s out-landed his foes 1,253 to 534. That is ludicrous. Champions are supposed to draw the best out of people, but the best his foes have been able to do is to mildly irritate him.
“I’ve had my moments with him. You know that. We all know that. Greatest fighter ever,” UFC president Dana White said on the FS2 post-fight show. “Greatest fighter ever.”
A lot of Johnson’s brilliance is subtle. A lot of his innovation is sublime. On Saturday, he did things like throwing knees to the body from half-guard and finding a way to kick his opponent to the head while behind him. These are not standard techniques but they serve as evidence that Johnson refuses to rest on his laurels. Many winning fighters continue to stress whatever they’re best at, and eventually lose because some other part of their game goes ignored and underdeveloped. If and when Johnson eventually loses, that won’t be the reason. Complacency is not in his DNA.
If his technical acumen isn’t enough, his decision-making and reaction time are almost universally perfect. He knows just what to do in any given situation, and just when to do it. Sometimes the dynamic is eerie, as if he knows what’s coming. Sometimes, he does. Like a chess master, Johnson can plot a step or three ahead of his opponent and force him into a mistake. In the fight-finishing sequence for example, he said he knew if he could get Borg to throw an elbow, that he’d be able to lift him for the suplex. So when he took Borg’s back, he rag-dolled Borg laterally into a position where an elbow would be the go-to move. Borg followed Johnson’s script, but instead of landing the elbow, he got a free sky-ride and dumped into the armbar.
That’s next-level stuff. It’s pantheon-level stuff, really, because even if MMA doesn’t offer style points for victories, hitting such a flashy and fantastic finish on a record-breaker deserves every tribute and plaudit coming his way.
Whatever is next for him will have to wait. He’ll have to take some time to check his knee, and perhaps the UFC (and some cash) will convince him to move up a weight class, or take on some new kind of challenge. But maybe they won’t. Maybe he’ll stay at 125 and find a new way to wow us. Maybe we’ll all stop complaining about what he isn’t and appreciate what he is. Wherever you stand on his place in the sport, know that we’ve never seen a fighter quite like this, so calm and confident, so innovative and technical, so untouched by tension. After all this time, after all this winning, Johnson isn’t just holding gold; he’s the gold standard.