Twelve consecutive victories. Ten title defenses. Six years without a defeat.
UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, who will attempt a record-setting eleventh defense of his belt at UFC 216 on Saturday in Las Vegas against Ray Borg, is the best fighter on the planet.
Since his last loss, a decision to longtime bantamweight champion and all-time great Dominick Cruz in October 2011, Johnson has cut a swathe through the 125-pound division. He’s the first and only flyweight champion. He’s beaten kickboxers, hyper-athletic punchers, Brazilian jujitsu black belts, durable grinders and an Olympic gold medalist wrestler. No stylistic or physical challenge has slowed Johnson’s momentum.
It’s hard to imagine Borg, Johnson’s gifted but raw opponent, being the one to end his iron-fisted reign atop the division: The champion is a 12-1 favorite, and that sounds about right.
What makes Johnson so seemingly unbeatable? It’s not his physical gifts, though he’s exceptionally quick. He’s not a big puncher, nor does he have the kind of raw-edged killer instinct that produces tons of highlight-reel knockouts and submissions.
Johnson, more than any other fighter, represents MMA as a sport in its own right and not just a collection of component parts.
What makes that work is intelligence. Johnson combines exceptional preparation with an unparalleled ability to absorb information and respond in an instant. Everything his opponent does, every response to a strike, feint, pivot or takedown, represents a point of entry into a flow chart of responses from Johnson.
That flow chart makes no distinction between striking, wrestling, the clinch and grappling. They all blend together into a seamless whole: He counters strikes with takedowns, takedowns with strikes, and comes out of grappling exchanges ready to strike as the opponent stands up. Johnson’s transitions are perfect, the Platonic ideal of what MMA can be.
Normally, however, reliance on transitions can be a weakness in itself: If the opponent can force a transitional fighter to stay in one phase — striking, wrestling or grappling, instead of moving between them — what makes their game special can fall apart. Being that good at transitions generally means each individual skill set lacks depth. That’s not the case with Johnson. He can strike with elite kickboxers, wrestle with Olympians and grapple with jujitsu champions.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of Johnson’s brilliance. Here’s a sequence from Johnson’s last fight, a drubbing of Wilson Reis:
Johnson begins in striking distance. Reis flicks out a right jab, which Johnson slips to avoid while throwing a right hand of his own. As he throws the right hand, Johnson steps forward; the right hand doesn’t connect, but Johnson uses the opportunity to wrap up Reis and drag him to the ground.
It’s a perfect sequence. Johnson uses a counter to a strike to distract Reis from his step-in, level change and the takedown that follows. Moreover, it’s incredibly fast: Reis never has time to react to anything but the initial right hand. He’s never in position to defend the takedown.
That’s the beauty of Johnson’s transitional game.
Let’s check out another from that fight with Reis:
Reis is pursuing Johnson through the cage, desperately trying to close the distance. As Reis steps forward, Johnson stops, plants and slams a right hand into Reis’s face. Reis tries to counter with a kick, but he’s too close to generate any power, so Johnson simply replies with two short right hands. While he’s throwing the second right hand, Johnson grabs hold of Reis’s left arm with his left and steps around to create an angle while throwing two more right hands, pulling Reis off balance as he does. When they break, Johnson throws a short left hook that doesn’t connect.
Again, this is brilliant. Johnson transitions from long range into the clinch, lands a series of shots, and dictates when and how the two fighters will tie up. Reis is two steps behind Johnson the whole time; even if he knew how to counter what Johnson was doing, either by tying up or trying to break, he couldn’t have implemented it before Johnson was already on to the next thing.
Let’s look at one more, from Johnson’s 2015 rematch with John Dodson:
Johnson pursues Dodson through the cage. He counters a Dodson low kick with a straight left hand and immediately ducks under, looking for a double-leg takedown. Dodson, a fantastic defensive wrestler, stuffs the shot and frees one leg. Johnson doesn’t give up, though; he hangs onto one leg and turns it into a single-leg takedown attempt, using it to force Dodson into the fence. While he pushes Dodson into the cage, Johnson lands a short right hand. The sequence ends with Johnson controlling Dodson in the clinch.
Again, we see Johnson flowing smoothly from phase to phase. The punch leads into the first takedown attempt, which leads into another, which leads into a strike, and finally the clinch against the fence.
Dodson is a top-notch athlete with blazing speed and huge power in his hands. Fighting him in open space, in the middle of the cage, is a recipe for disaster. Johnson’s whole game plan in this fight was based less around striking, wrestling, or grappling than taking away the space that makes Dodson so dangerous. Sequences like this one, combining strikes with takedowns and the clinch to force Dodson to the cage, were what made that game plan successful.
This is the true brilliance of Johnson’s game. Not only does he put together all of his various techniques into a seamless sequence like the ones we’ve seen here; every one of those sequences serves the broader strategic goal. Against Reis, that meant maintaining distance and dictating how the two men tied up. Against Dodson, that meant taking away space and forcing him to the fence.
Unlike most fighters, Johnson has no preference for what specific tools — punches, kicks, knees, elbows, takedowns, clinches, ground control, submissions — he uses to accomplish that larger goal. They’re all just entries in the flow chart, each one branching off into more possibilities and sequences. Each one of them serves the larger purpose of winning the fight.
Johnson combines mastery of the individual moments with a keen sense for how each of those moments plays into a larger picture. Nobody in MMA has ever been better at combining the big and small pictures into a coherent whole.
The flyweight champion isn’t a superstar, and he isn’t a big-money draw, but he’s the best fighter in the world. He should be appreciated for that.