It took Demetrious Johnson nearly five years to break one of the most important records in the UFC.
Johnson and the UFC flyweight title have been thought of as one, because until Saturday, they were.
Johnson won the 2012 tournament the UFC put together to crown its first champion at 125 pounds. Since then, he’s been the only one to ever hold the championship. In doing so, he’s made a reputation for being the most complete fighter in the sport and was so far ahead of the pack that his title matches seemed almost like formalities. There was little excitement in the buildups because the conclusions seemed foregone.
That included a bout with Cejudo, who Johnson finished in less than three minutes in 2016.
At Saturday’s rematch, of the first four rounds, Johnson clearly won rounds one and three. Rounds two and four were close. Johnson got the better of the standup in both rounds, but Cejudo took him down in both rounds and was on top for significant time in each round. Still, there was no lock Cejudo won those rounds, as he didn’t do significant damage from the top.
In the fifth round, Johnson, who said he believed by that point he was fighting with a torn LCL and broken foot, was fighting evenly with Cejudo. Johnson usually owns round fives due to his superior conditioning, but that wasn’t happening. Then, in the last 30 seconds, Cejudo scored more and that seemed to be the deciding factor in a close round. The question was how rounds two and four were scored. And with judges Ron McCarthy and Sal D’Amato giving both the close ones to Cejudo, he won what was among the closest decisions in the history of UFC title changes.
Johnson easily could have protested the decision and insisted he won and was robbed. He could have protested on the idea that Cejudo didn’t do significant damage when he was on top. While there could be no such thing as a robbery in a fight that close, Johnson could have very easily won that decision. He instead chose to accept the loss in classy fashion.
A new champion makes the division a lot more interesting. Johnson had beaten almost everyone, and the few he hadn’t beaten didn’t come across as threats. There was no indication he’d slowed down, and in his previous title defense — his armbar out of nowhere finish against Borg — seemed to indicate he was better than ever.
The person that finally did him in was the first Olympic gold medalist to win a UFC title, someone who couldn’t beat him in the all-around game, but whose wrestling was strong enough that he could win rounds.
Cejudo immediately called out the winner of the bantamweight title match that came up next. Cejudo vs. T.J. Dillashaw is certainly a viable match, but it’s not the biggest match for right now for either man, and it would hold up contenders in both weight classes.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Stars of UFC 227.
T.J. DILLASHAW — Dillashaw (18-3) has two contenders that stand out right now. Dominick Cruz (22-2) won the title from Dillashaw the first time he was champion, but Cruz hasn’t fought in 19 months. Marlon Moraes (21-5-1) clearly earned himself a title shot with wins over John Dodson, Aljamain Sterling, and Jimmie Rivera.
Cruz, if he’s healthy, which is always the big if for him, has the prior win over the current champion, and he’s far stronger at building up fights.
Moraes, in finishing Rivera’s 20-fight winning streak with a 33-second win, established himself as someone who deserves a title fight right now.
In a perfect world, you book Cruz for the fight and put Moraes on the same show. That way, if there is an injury, Moraes is there to step in.
CODY GARBRANDT — Garbrandt’s second straight loss to Dillashaw puts him in that death position, where he’s clearly one of the best in the division, but it’s going to be very difficult for him, as long as Dillashaw is champion, to get another shot.
Garbrandt should next face either John Lineker (31-8) or Rafael Assuncao (27-5). If he can handle the cut, a move to 125 would also open up more possibilities.
HENRY CEJUDO — Cejudo (13-2) became the first person to win an Olympic gold medal and a UFC championship.
Johnson (27-3-1) very clearly deserves a rematch. The question is the recovery time from his injuries.
The other two top contenders would be Sergio Pettis (17-3) and Joseph Benavidez (25-5). Benavidez beat Cejudo via close split decision on Dec. 3, 2016, in Las Vegas. Cejudo beat Pettis via a much clearer decision one year later. But in between, Pettis beat Benavidez on June 9 in Chicago via a very close split decision.
Pettis is booked for an Oct. 6 fight with Jussier Formiga (21-5) while Benavidez has been linked to a fight with Borg (11-3) on Nov. 10 in Denver. Given that the UFC would probably want Cejudo fighting again before the end of the year, if Johnson’s injuries keep him out longer than that, the Pettis and Benavidez fights make things problematic for any kind of a stop-gap replacement without disrupting things.
DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON — Johnson’s next fight should be for the championship. A rematch with Cejudo would be the biggest fight of Johnson’s career and biggest in the division’s history.
RENATO MOICANO — By stopping Cub Swanson in the first round, Moicano (13-1-1) should face Chad Mendes (18-4) next. It’s unclear what the next move by featherweight champion Max Holloway would be, but Brian Ortega should get the next title shot.
If Holloway stays in the division, Moicano should face anyone but Jose Aldo, since if Holloway is champion, it would be potentially beating a top contender by a guy who isn’t getting a title shot any time soon. If Holloway moves up, Ortega vs. Aldo should create the next champion and Moicano vs. Mendes would create the next viable challenger.