Demetrious Johnson, the UFC's 125-pound champion, is already the most accomplished flyweight of all time. But his greatness is as tenuous as it is undeniable. He's nearly been stopped in three of his four fights at flyweight, yet he's still undefeated in the class.
This isn't the kind of greatness MMA is accustomed to. Modern elites such as Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez rhapsodize the value of tactics and strategy, but they also happen to be freak athletes, among the strongest and fastest ever to fight for money, and brilliantly skilled as well. What they call "game planning" is no more than baseline risk management, designed to mitigate the minimal threat their rivals pose. How much strategy do you really need when your opponent is completely overmatched?
That's not a question Johnson can afford to entertain. His greatness is not rooted in physical dominance or transcendent skill, but in his unmatched ability to plan for and adapt to the endless variables that make up every moment of a fight. And in proving himself, he's redefined what it means to be a great fighter.
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Ian "Uncle Creepy" McCall had already proven he could beat Johnson soundly last March, in the second flyweight bout in UFC history. A genuine eccentric with a relentlessly physical style, he dominated the final round with Johnson -- nearly finishing a fight that, in the end, went to a draw on the judges' cards after some controversy. McCall, the top-ranked flyweight in the world at the time, entered the June rematch with every reason to believe he'd advance in the UFC's inaugural flyweight title tournament. All he had to was use his size and ceaselessly grinding style to once again wear down the smaller Johnson. What McCall didn't realize is that Johnson is the Deep Blue of MMA. Over time, he will figure you out, and you will lose.
The sequence below illustrates how Johnson, armed with 15 minutes worth of data from their previous bout, walked into the rematch having already figured out McCall. In the first animation, you'll see McCall try to nullify Johnson's footwork and speed by crowding him against the cage, then closing the pocket with a jab-right cross combination. Johnson knows this is coming, however, and he cuts across McCall's angle of attack laterally. This is where Johnson lays his trap, putting his hands out in a defensive stance while subtly planting his rear leg.
McCall is now faced with a choice: move left to open his stance and square up on Johnson, or back away and reset. He chooses the former, and gets dropped with a right cross before he ever gets a chance to set his lead foot. By recognizing that McCall must close the pocket to win, Johnson is able to manipulate his movement, force a split-second decision and lead him right into his best punch.
A sequence late in the fight shows how Johnson builds on the data gained from this exchange -- namely McCall's tendency to leave his hands low.
Once again, Johnson gives ground as McCall predictably seeks to get inside. But it's Johnson who gets inside first, with an uppercut to the body that McCall answers with a glancing left hook. The left hook Johnson throws behind the uppercut whiffs, but it forces McCall to tilt back and leave his hands low. Johnson, who stayed planted on his rear leg, is able to fire an unexpected right cross that catches McCall defenseless. This time it was Johnson who had the split-second decision to make: back off after missing the left hook, or stay in the pocket. Recognizing McCall's poor defensive posture after the initial exchange, Johnson stays in range and is rewarded with a gimme shot when McCall leaves his hands low.
Evaluating patterns, measuring angles, accounting for variables ... this is Johnson at his best. And at his best, a fight becomes an equation to which only he has the solution.
In his fight with Joseph Benavidez for the UFC flyweight title at UFC 152 last September, Johnson again came in as the underdog to the tune of a +225 line. Benavidez is the division's best wrestler, one of its hardest punchers and a nasty choke-smith, too; for Johnson, the margin for error was slim.
In the final and deciding round of the fight, Benavidez attempts to use his best weapon, the right cross, twice, and Johnson manages to dodge it both times. First, Benavidez tries it as a counter to a rear leg kick, but Johnson has already accounted for the maneuver. Notice how Johnson lands his kick with the bottom of the shin, which keeps him from having to come too far inside. The kick also forces Benavidez's right hip to flare out, which both shortens the punch's range and widens its trajectory. The punch was doomed before Benavidez had even thought to throw it.
Johnson follows up with a sweeping hook and later a jab, both half-hearted by design. They're only there to keep Benavidez from getting close enough to throw his right, a fact Benavidez ignores when he lunges for a blow to the body that comes up way short. He tries to come over the top with a follow-up right, but Johnson catches the arm in an overhook and uses it to pull him into a can't-miss right hook.
In any exchange, Benavidez will eventually look to that right cross. Knowing this, Johnson steps outside Benavidez's left and then shifts to the opposite side in anticipation of a jab-cross combination. The jab whiffs, and Benavidez, recognizing it won't land, pulls back on the right. Johnson is there with a forearm to the face and another sweeping hook that forces Benavidez to wait a half-second longer than he wanted to on the follow-up right. It'll be the fifth right that he's missed in the last 10 seconds. Not coincidentally, a lost Benavidez gets caught staring at Johnson, who uses the opening to shoot a perfect double-leg straight into side control. Once again, Johnson puts collected data to good use. The judges' cards agreed.
Of course, Johnson's algorithms aren't always perfect. But even when he miscalculates, he still manages to make adjustments and survive. For an example, let's look at Johnson's fight with number-one contender John Dodson this past January, at UFC on Fox 6. Almost certainly the division's fastest fighter and best striker, Dodson's physical dominance alone would pose significant issues for any flyweight, and that was only amplified when he started using Johnson's own strategies against him.
In one exchange with Dodson, Johnson wanders into his opponent's range and lazily grabs for a clinch with no setup. Dodson responds with a blistering fast right-left to the body that he then repeats upstairs.
By giving ground with intelligent lateral movement, Dodson drew Johnson into the pocket, where his hand-speed and power were too difficult to match. Reversing course was not an option for Johnson, since Dodson's advantages would only be more apparent on the defensive. Worse yet, Dodson proved more than up to the task of shutting down Johnson's wrestling. Trailing on the cards heading into the championship rounds, Johnson was faced with a physically superior fighter, executing a game plan that laid bare his weaknesses. The solution Johnson cooked up went against his usually impeccable logic; if Dodson wanted him to come forward, he was going to do just that.
This sequence decided the fight, but not for the reasons you'd expect. Johnson opens up with an outside leg kick and smothers Dodson's counter by grabbing the Thai clinch. The setup makes all the difference, as a pair of stiff knees land while Dodson struggles to break the clinch. By the time Dodson gets his arms inside Johnson's, he's left himself open for a clean double leg. The takedown seems important by itself, but Dodson got back to his feet in short order. It didn't matter; Johnson had just figured out how to give Dodson too much of what he wanted.
By collapsing the pocket, Johnson neutralized Dodson's power and discovered that he had no idea how to defend the Thai clinch. From the moment he feels the clinch, Dodson's body seizes up, as he struggles to keep his head up and get his arms inside Johnson's -- both dead giveaways that he is out of his element. Johnson took notes.
This is what it looks like when Johnson ditches the MMA nerd routine and just goes in. The level of execution remains as high as ever, but the visual is unusually visceral. Knowing that a visibly exhausted Dodson has nothing for him in the clinch, Johnson lets himself get pressed into the cage and grabs a collar tie across the back of Dodson's neck. Another pair of knees land, and Dodson tries to back out with his head low, which leads to Johnson securing a full Thai clinch. A third knee leaves Dodson in shambles, and Johnson swarms by brilliantly switching between punches from the collar tie and more knees in the Thai clinch. Even at his most desperately violent, Johnson is still bending the data to his will.
And so a cruel sport serves Dodson an even crueler irony; after spending most of the fight drawing Johnson in, Dodson appeared to want nothing more than for Johnson to go away. He'd have to settle for surviving long enough to hear Johnson's name announced as the unanimous winner.
As different as each of these fights were, with all the calculations and adaptations that went into each of Johnson's wins, they all hinged on the champ walking a tightrope, one that he encounters every time he steps into the cage. Johnson embraces that reality, and he's a better fighter for it. In his mind, defeat is not some abstract impossibility, but an ever-present foe waiting to knock him to the mat.
John Moraga will get his chance to do just that on Saturday night, when he meets Johnson in the main event of UFC on Fox 8. Unexpectedly launched into title contention after mauling his two prior UFC opponents, Moraga is as versatile as he is violent. A gifted athlete with an obvious aptitude for hurting people, this fight is a free roll for Moraga, who comes in a heavy underdog but has the same excess of raw physical talent that Johnson has struggled to overcome before.
Meanwhile, Johnson will be fighting in his home state of Washington, in front of plenty of friends, family and fans. He is the champion, the favorite and the headliner, and all eyes will be on him. However, his eyes will be on nothing but his opponent. Studying. Calculating. Ready to strike.
Tomas Rios is a freelance NYC-based writer who has covered MMA for The Classical, Deadspin, The Pacific Standard and Slate. You can find him @TheTomasRios.