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With Demetrious Johnson, objects in the rear view mirror begin to feel larger

UFC 197 Weigh-ins Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Demetrious Johnson is a fireball of a human being spit from the very maw of hell, a toy locomotive doused in piss and vinegar, a champion so in tune to the rhythm of the fight game that his body reacts in full orchestration with his brain, like a school of fish shifting into silver knives all at once. It’s as easy for me to say something like that as it is for him to do.

See, that’s the dumb thing. Johnson makes it look easy.

During the high-water mark of his career, Benson Henderson wanted to not only break all of Anderson Silva’s records, but to pry open our minds in the process and rearrange the order of GOATs. Henderson got down that block a good little ways, too. He defended the lightweight belt three times before losing it to Anthony Pettis at UFC 164. Pettis, who found himself on a Wheaties box holding that belt, defended it once before losing it to Rafael dos Anjos. Dos Anjos defended it once against Donald Cerrone before relinquishing it to Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez was no match for Conor McGregor, who turned Eddie into puff of magician smoke at Madison Square Garden.

All of this happened since Johnson last lost a bout. McGregor was getting set to fight Steve O’Keefe in Kentish Town and Ronda Rousey was still a year-and-a-half from debuting in the UFC when Johnson lost to Dominick Cruz as a bantamweight. That’s a long freaking time. Yet Johnson just keeps waxing fools, one after the next, cleaning out the cupboards like a man on a six-year binge.

Now it’s him on the verge of breaking Silva’s records — the guy everybody thought Miguel Torres beat back in the day. “Mighty Mouse” heads to Kansas City for his title defense with Wilson Reis with ninja stealth. Should he beat Reis at UFC on FOX 24 on Saturday night — and it’s tempting to think it a foregone conclusion that he will — he will tie Silva’s mark of 10 straight title defenses.

Johnson has made his run at history look incredibly easy. It would feel like sleight of hand if we didn’t have first person accounts from his various victims that it’s all very real.

The bigger difference is of course that Silva was a larger bodied man who carried an entourage of more than a dozen to his title defenses. Through the recent emergence of McGregor and Rousey, it’s easy to forget that Silva was the magnetic pulse of The Big Fight there for a while. Whereas the UFC never seems to know how to slot Johnson, Silva was always pay-per-view (except when the UFC was countering Affliction with that James Irvin affair; the less said about that, the better). When Chael Sonnen came along, they were talking about soccer stadiums in Brazil and installing additional security so that Sonnen could make it out alive. Those were days of wild imagination. But the connection to a Silva fight was communal: People either rallied around the tower of Silva’s win streak, and were thrilled each time it teetered…or they wanted to see it toppled.

In Silva’s case, history played out under that kind of microscope.

Johnson just shows up and does his job, and he does it so effectively — and with such relative ease — that you barely know a streak is on the line. The flyweight division, when it started in 2012, was supposed to be about Joseph Benavidez and Ian McCall, the guys who were running around in oversized clothes as bantamweights. Yet it’s turned into Demetrious Johnson’s Haunted Dimension. Johnson can’t find his Sonnen, because he’s too far in front of the field. Benavidez has had two cracks, McCall stood opposite him twice, and even John Dodson — a pugilistic dynamo with zap power — couldn’t vanquish Johnson in two tries.

It’s to the point that we’re now into flyweight B-sides, the likes of Tim Elliott (who emerged from a crop of TUF tournament flies), and Reis, who has gone 10-2 in the years since Johnson last tasted defeat. It’s to the point that once the record falls for good, it’s inevitably onto superfights for Johnson — the rematch with Cruz, a bout with current bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt, perhaps a showdown with T.J. Dillashaw.

Where else can Johnson go? And how else to reinvigorate the rest of the flyweight division, who either have already lost to Johnson, or can’t get to him because they lose to the monsters in limbo that lost to Johnson?

The thing is, “Mighty Mouse” Johnson is an extraordinary fight game secret. He won’t grace the cover of ESPN’s body issue, nor find himself shadow boxing on GMA any time soon, but he’s very quietly — along with his longtime coach Matt Hume — rewriting the record books. He can fight in any style, exploit (and even assign) weaknesses, outthink every firing piston, and tell whole stories within a blur. Hyperbole? Not in the case of Johnson.

He’s that good. Maybe a 5-foot-3 video game addict isn’t going to call attention to himself in the traditional way the fight game is used to, but Johnson is that rare fighter who shows you the gap between where he is and where the rest are. It’s a gap of time and numbers, that makes his height secondary.

The gap is over five years wide, and nearly 10 title defenses tall. The flyweight Demetrious Johnson is a titan among men.

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