EDMONTON, Alberta -- The first -- and to date only -- interaction between the two fighters who presently share the record for most UFC title defenses was not a meeting of equals.
The date was Feb. 6, 2011. The setting was the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Silva, then reigning UFC middleweight champion, was reaching the height of his powers. He’d go out that night and add an iconic face-kick knockout of Vitor Belfort to his resume.
Johnson? He was just another guy on the card. Johnson was making his UFC debut that night after a WEC stint, as he went out and scored a decision over Kid Yamamoto on the Facebook prelims.
Silva by this time was already being name-checked on the short list of greatest UFC champions, but there was little indication Johnson’s win that evening would be the start of a 14-1-1 sprint through the UFC that would bring him into the conversation.
And as Johnson gets ready to make what would be his record-breaking 11th title defense against Ray Borg on Saturday night in the main event of UFC 215 at Rogers Place, he recalls that his meeting with Silva was brief.
“I went into his room and said ‘big fan,’ and he said ‘what’s up?’” Johnson told MMA Fighting on Wednesday. “And then he kicked me out of the room. That’s it. I’ve never talked to him since.”
While Silva might not have treated Johnson as a peer back in the day, it’s clear today, the UFC roster holds the longest-reigning current champion in the highest of esteem. Should Johnson retain his belt, he’ll join just Silva, Georges St-Pierre, and Jose Aldo in the five-year UFC champions club.
Someone like Rafael dos Anjos, who held the UFC lightweight title for more than a year, can appreciate Johnson’s accomplishments more than most.
“It’s hard to be a champion, but its harder to defend the belt, you know?” said dos Anjos, who meets Neil Magny in a welterweight bout Saturday. “We see fighters and they win belts and they run away, change divisions, like Conor [McGregor]. Those guys are not true champions in my opinion. To see a guy like Demetrious to be under the pressure, it’s a lot of pressure to defend the belt, the target’s on your back. It’s amazing, congratulations to him.”
Johnson’s standard also gives current champions something to shoot for. UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes is looking to make the second defense of her title on Saturday night when she squares off against Valentina Shevchenko in the co-main event. The American Top Team Fighter says someday the record will be hers, but she recognizes what Johnson has done.
“I think he’s amazing,” Nunes said. “I think this is going to be a dream come true for him. I will follow him as well, sometime it will be my day too.”
GIlbert Melendez, as a two-time Strikeforce lightweight champion, also understands what it takes to stay on top.
“As a fan and as a fighter I want to shake his hand and say that is impressive, keep it up,” said Melendez, who faces Jeremy Stephens on Saturday’s main card. “He defends it, and he does it with such class and style, he’s a true mixed martial artist. Not only his skills, but his tactics, his intelligence, his athleticism, everything. He’s the full package.”
Melendez also dismissed the critics who have nitpicked Johnson on the way on everything from his drawing power to his caliber of competition.
“People always want to say, he’s the lighter guy, he doesn’t have as many challengers,” Melendez said. “I don’t care, I think he’s put some guys away. I think Mighty Mouse is something special and his No. 1 pound-for-pound.”
Ilir Latifi, too, believes that criticisms of the champ have been off the mark. The Swedish light heavyweight, who meets unbeaten Tyson Pedro on Saturday, says that even if some fans don’t give Johnson his due, those who actually step in the cage get it.
“It’s too bad he doesn’t have the response you should, you know?” Latifi said. “To defend the title 10 times, that’s crazy. I think the fan appreciate it, but it’s a lot of factors. You can talk about all day long this and that, but, I just think that, you know, people that are fighting, they know DJ is a great fighter, an awesome fighter to see.”
Even the guy who will face Johnson in the cage on Saturday, Borg, isn’t about to front like he hates the longtime champ. Borg, of course, believes he’ll be the one who keeps Johnson stuck in a tie with Silva. But he also believes that defeating Johnson would make a title win all the more meaningful.
“It’s going to make it absolutely more special,” Borg said. “The goal has always been the belt in general, whether it is DJ or not, it would have still been what I’m working for for so long, but the fact that it’s DJ, the fact that it’s going to be history, it’s just going to be that extra little bit of validation.”
As for Johnson, he’s not holding that early meeting with Silva against him. If anything, matching Silva’s record means he’s the only person alive who understands what Silva himself accomplished.
“I respect any champion who gets the belt and defends it multiple times,” Johnson said. “It’s not easy, and it’s hard. Jon Jones, I respect him, he defended the belt so many times, it’s hard. It’s hard to keep on doing it because people are always watching. People always think that they can defeat you. You know what I mean? Coaches around the world are always dissecting your game. So it’s always important to keep evolving and getting better and adding new pieces to your game.”