Demetrious Johnson Looks Unbeatable, but Challenges Still Abound for UFC Champ
Demetrious Johnson did it again on Saturday at UFC 174, leaving yet another highly ranked challenger choking on his exhaust fumes with astonishing ease.
This time it was Ali Bagautinov starting out game but ending the fight down 50-45 on all three scorecards. The 29-year-old Dagestani fighter came in undefeated in the Octagon and riding an 11-fight overall win streak, but by the end of 25 minutes with Johnson, he looked as helpless as the rest.
Dominance is becoming a habit for the UFC’s 27-year-old flyweight champion. Johnson's unique brand of excellence hasn't yielded monster ratings, but so far opponents have been powerless to reckon with his blend of mobility, versatility and quickness.
Johnson has been the 125-pound titlist for less than two years, and he's already cleaned out the rest of the division’s Top Five. His ability to chew up and spit out top contenders only feeds our view of the flyweight class as a work still in progress.
Depth may be an issue for the UFC’s newest men’s division, but a surprising number of viable contenders still lurk. Here’s a look at several who could still give Johnson a run for his money in 2014.
After dispatching Bagautinov, conventional wisdom says a rematch with human spring John Dodson is on tap for Johnson.
By his usual irrepressible standards, Dodson played it pretty cool after his victory over John Moraga back on June 7. There were no backflips to be seen, no victory dances, just a handshake and a hug for another vanquished foe.
In Dodson’s defense, the end was pretty anticlimactic. The ringside doctor halted their bout at UFC Fight Night 42 prior to the third round after Dodson closed the second by gashing (and possibly breaking) Moraga’s nose with a knee. Still, after taking a few minutes to collect himself, he had a message for the champion.
“Demetrious, you know I’m coming for you,” Dodson told play-by-play announcer Jon Anik inside the cage. “I got that heater coming for you for five rounds.”
The pros and cons of booking a Johnson-Dodson redux should be obvious. Both guys are likable, charismatic figures whose skills inside the cage border on transcendent. The lead-up will be fun (see above quote) and the bout figures to be a blur.
Yet it’s been just 16 months since Johnson bested Dodson via unanimous decision in his first title defense after winning the 125-pound championship tournament. Dodson is fully capable of giving Johnson all he can handle—perhaps even of beating him—but putting them together again so soon only underscores the shallow nature of the flyweight class.
If the fight company wants fresh challengers for the champ, they’re out there.
Perhaps the biggest thing standing between Zach Makovsky and a shot at the 125-pound title is his past.
There would be next to no way for the UFC to prop Makovsky up as a future challenger for Johnson without acknowledging that he was Bellator bantamweight champion from October 2010-April 2012. Considering the current cold war going on between the two organizations, the UFC would likely be loath to do that.
Still, you can’t really argue with the results. Makovsky was released from Bellator after back-to-back losses at 135 pounds in 2012. He dropped to flyweight where he remains undefeated, becoming the inaugural RFA 125-pound champion in November 2012 and using it to springboard his way into the Octagon.
If he manages to get past Jussier Formiga at UFC 176 in August, he’ll have won three in a row on MMA’s biggest stage. That includes a short-notice unanimous decision over perennial contender Scott Jorgensen and would give him as good a resume as most if he can do the same to Formiga.
Brad Pickett has at least one thing going for him that nobody else on this list can boast: A victory over Demetrious Johnson.
Johnson was just 23 years old and making his WEC debut when Pickett defeated him via unanimous decision in April 2010. The British brawler would likely find the flyweight champion has improved just a bit since then. Still, notching that "W" puts Pickett in fairly good company—the only other man ever to defeat Johnson in an MMA fight is former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
Throughout his 11-fight run in WEC/UFC, Pickett proved unable to get over the hump against top 135-pound opponents. Still, he’s pocketed one of the UFC’s performance-based, end-of-the-night bonuses in six of his last eight fights. That could potentially make him an exciting and dangerous foe for Johnson, which could trump a relatively pedestrian 7-4 record during his career with Zuffa-owned companies.
Pickett dropped to flyweight this year in the wake of a second-round submission loss to Michael McDonald. He’s 1-0 at 125 pounds so far and has a good litmus test bout scheduled against Ian McCall for next month.
The 35-year-old veteran could ultimately prove unable to keep up with Johnson’s pace and all-around excellence, but don’t be surprised to find him on the short list of championship suitors if he gets past McCall. Especially if he does it in impressive fashion.
Jussier Formiga was one of the high-profile international acquisitions made by the UFC when it announced the addition of the flyweight class back in 2012.
He came in with sky-high expectations after establishing a 14-1 pro record fighting in his native Brazil and the well-regarded Tachi Palace Fights organization in California. UFC matchmakers did him no favors, however, handing him bouts against Dodson and Joseph Benavidez in two of his first four appearances.
Hence, Formiga’s sort of underwhelming 2-2 UFC record.
A first-round stoppage victory over Jorgensen in March showed he’s still got some tricks up his gi and—on the right side of 30—time to find his stride in the UFC. He’s likely being cast as the measuring stick in his matchup against Makovsky in August, but that doesn’t mean he can’t steal “Fun Size’s” momentum if he beats the former Bellator champ.
Another win or two against viable contenders, and Formiga might start looking like a fresh and appealing foe for Johnson.
With two previous bouts against Johnson, Ian McCall is at risk of being filed alongside Benavidez as guys who likely won’t get another title shot as long as Mighty Mouse holds onto the championship.
The thing still keeping McCall in the game is that he came pretty close to actually defeating Johnson at 125 pounds the first time they fought in June 2012. Their ensuing draw caused a delay in the UFC’s flyweight championship tournament but could serve to keep McCall in the hunt for a bit longer.
Johnson defeated him in the rematch, and McCall lost to Benavidez in Feb. 2013. But McCall has since bounced back with a victory over Iliarde Santos at UFC 163. Slowed recently by injury, his bout with Pickett next month shapes up as a must-win.
McCall is the sort of spirited personality the flyweight division needs right now, and if he manages to hand Pickett his first defeat at 125 pounds, he’ll remain viable
Considering all the talk about flyweight’s shallow talent pool, it’s a wonder Chris Cariaso doesn’t get more attention. After all, he’s riding a three-fight win streak dating back to October 2013.
Credit Cariaso’s seeming inability to find success against top-level competition for undermining that run. He’s been fighting for the WEC/UFC for four years and has always let down against big name opponents—see: losses to Formiga, Moraga, Barao and McDonald.
He still needs to prove he can run with the best and, at 33 years old, doesn’t have an unlimited window to make the point. That said, Cariaso is 4-2 overall at flyweight, and if he can add to his streak with a win or two against Top 10 competition, he’ll be right there with the rest of the guys on this list.