Demetrious Johnson is so good at anticipating moments in the Octagon that he seemed to know the final result of his UFC 227 co-main event fight before anyone else did. The victor remained in doubt as the sold-out Staples Center buzzed, anxiously awaiting longtime UFC cage announcer Bruce Buffer’s declaration of the results. It should have been an unfamiliar situation for Johnson, a feeling of uncertainty. After all, he hadn’t had a particularly close fight in five years. Yet when the first scorecard was read in favor of Johnson’s opponent Henry Cejudo, Johnson stared up toward the arena lights and clapped his hands, almost signaling that he knew it was over.
A few moments later, it was official, the most extraordinary reign in UFC history was history itself. Until that moment, Johnson had been the only flyweight champion the organization had ever known. His rule had been so long, it had spanned the entirety of Cejudo’s professional career, with room to spare; Johnson won the belt in Sept. 2012, a full six months before Cejudo made his cage debut. That is just one of many incredible statistics that put Johnson’s dominance into perspective.
Unfortunately, such context is necessary, because despite his record breaking run, he has remained woefully underappreciated. His pleasantly polite personality never quite clicked with fans, and he never found a rivalry acrimonious enough to entice a mass audience. In a counterculture sport, “nice” rarely sells. And Johnson was nice, almost to a fault. He was businesslike in his single-minded pursuit; he avoided the unseemly; he was a consummate professional.
Johnson never had to apologize for his conduct in or out of the cage. He treated opponents, fans and media with respect, and got the most out of his physical gifts. This was a man who never went out of his way to seek the spotlight, but also one who appreciated the improbability of his journey. When he started his UFC career, he was still making $10.76/per hour driving a forklift. In a sport that demands Superman, maybe he was a little too real.
Perhaps in defeat, the man that fans far too often disregarded will earn new consideration for what he’s done. It was all too easy to take him for granted when he showed up on fight night with such consistency, combining speed and power and creativity with a heaping scoop of style. Even the extraordinary becomes the ordinary after a while.
He knocked out his top rival (Joseph Benavidez) and it wasn’t enough. He stopped an Olympic gold medalist (Cejudo) and it wasn’t enough. He pulled off a damn video game arm bar (against Ray Borg) and it wasn’t enough. It was never enough, and all because what? Because so many couldn’t look past his size? As if brilliance has a height requirement.
Johnson’s most notable record is his 11 consecutive title defenses, an achievement that places him ahead of the legendary Anderson Silva, and oh, anyone else ever to hold a UFC belt. His overall 13-fight win streak has him only behind Silva and Jon Jones, and tied with Georges St-Pierre all-time. Any time you’re part of a conversation with those names, you are a legend yourself.
On Saturday night, Johnson competed valiantly to the bitter end. Cejudo caught some momentum late in the fight, and scored an inside trip takedown. To give himself a chance to win what at that moment was a tossup round, Johnson needed to find a way back to his feet against a genius wrestler, yet he still scrambled upright in a flash. While the judges ended up scoring the fifth and deciding round for Cejudo anyway, Johnson gave himself every chance to win the decision. The result was mildly controversial, but Johnson never raised even a peep of objection. He accepted the result with class and dignity, perfectly in line with the rest of his career. His exemplary behavior fed perfectly into an answer he later gave about what he wanted fans to remember about his reign.
“The consistency I had, how I was able to adapt to different fighting styles, and how each time I won and defended my belt, how humble I was,” he said. “And even in defeat, I’m very humble.”
With that, Johnson grimaced, gritted his teeth and shuffled away with injuries he suspected to be a torn knee ligament and a broken foot. Hopefully that image of him isn’t the last we see of him involved in a championship match. In fact, it would be a travesty if Johnson did not receive an immediate rematch. On the heels of 11 straight title defenses and a slim, split decision loss, there has never been anyone in UFC history more deserving of one.
Johnson finally has a true peer. It’d be a shame to ignore that. It’d be a shame to bypass a trilogy fight. The streak is over. Long live the streak. And long live the Johnson-Cejudo rivalry.