It was almost 10 years ago when the mixed martial arts world was shaken by a thunderbolt. The moment featured a UFC retread who won a reality show to jump the line of merit-based contenders, a seemingly dominant champion and a sudden, shocking finish.
The scene at Saturday night’s UFC: Tournament of Champions Finale was primed for a remake of the original. Every great story gets one these days, right?
The timing was right, so was the setting. All this time later, the moment hasn’t been forgotten, even though the lesson has.
Demetrious Johnson almost learned it the hard way, but he’s too smart and too good to get caught slipping. Instead, it was just a scare for him, a first-round hiccup on a run toward history. A few minutes of trouble and made-for-TV drama and then a return to excellence.
His unanimous decision win over Tim Elliott was his 11th straight overall, and his ninth flyweight title defense, putting him just one behind Anderson Silva’s UFC record.
The win was impressive, but on a resume like his rings a bit hollow, through no fault of his own. It’s a win that does little for his legacy, and it was always destined to be that way after the UFC picked this path for him.
Of the 16 competitors that filled the season’s Ultimate Fighter’s tournament bracket, 14 had never before fought in the UFC, while two had short runs. One of those, Elliott, turned out to be the winner. Yet, his undistinguished 2-4 mark in his first UFC stint had already proved him to be a step below the division’s best.
It wasn’t exactly an indignity for Johnson to face a reality show winner, but it wasn’t exactly right, either.
The problem with greatness is that it is often unapproachable, difficult to measure with any real precision until nights like last night. In the fight game, that leads to careers that are both brilliant and underappreciated.
That’s how we end up with Saturday night, with Johnson against…some guy.
Any connoisseur of fisticuffs tuning into the broadcast last night probably couldn’t help but shake their head in reluctant acceptance of the surreal scene unfolding before them. Johnson, the No. 1 ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC, was facing…Tim Elliott? The UFC washout?
Yes, that is where we were.
That is also where Johnson is, in such rarefied air that in attempting to match him up in some meaningful way, the UFC did something that has no parallel in any other sport. They rounded up a group of 16 high-level UFC wannabes, put them in a blender and whipped up a ready-made “contender.”
They got a season of entertainment out of it and a reasonably competitive challenger for Johnson. Still, it’s impossible to leave the scene without thinking Johnson deserves more.
Part of his relatively low profile is his own doing. When asked who he wants to face, he never has a preference and true to form, after winning Saturday, that trend continued.
“I’m sure [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby has something up his sleeve,” he said during the post-fight press conference.
It’s always mystifying when someone so assertive in the cage can be so passive outside of it but if Johnson’s not going to ask for something more, it’s time for some of us to do it for him.
So how about a matchup with the winner of UFC 207’s Dominick Cruz vs. Cody Garbrandt bantamweight title bout? How about T.J. Dillashaw in a catchweight fight? One of those two should be Johnson’s next option in order to raise his profile before time starts catching up with him.
The options in his natural home are limited. During his 11-fight win streak, Johnson has already defeated six of the division’s current top 10 (including Joseph Benavidez twice), and another man who is now ranked in the bantamweight top 10 (John Dodson) twice.
There aren’t many fresh divisional contenders waiting for him, other than No. 4 Jussier Formiga and No. 5 Wilson Reis, and neither is what you might call popular.
For now, Johnson hasn’t shown much interest in moving up for a champion vs. champion fight without some financial incentive, but that seems like a reasonable request. Otherwise it’s back to risking it all without the same upside, and that seems something close to cruel.
With the knowledge of Johnson’s result, imagine what could have happened in that troublesome first round, when guillotine and D’arce chokes put him in mild danger, and an Elliott left hook wobbled him in the round’s final minute.
It was only his poise that turned things around, Johnson doing as he does, making adjustments in step with his unrelenting speed as if he’s powered by Silicon Valley’s latest processor chip. Within minutes, Elliott was robbed of his space and then sapped of energy, and before he knew it he was spending huge chunks of time on his back, existing in bursts of resistance.
In the pantheon of reality show winners vs. UFC champions, Elliott finished somewhere between Travis Lutter and Matt Serra. That’s no knock. Lutter, it’s mostly forgotten, had full mount on Anderson Silva before he eventually ran out of gas and submitted to a triangle choke.
A couple of months later, Serra knocked out Georges St-Pierre. Elliott didn’t win, but for 25 minutes he fought like a man who realized he was in the midst of the opportunity of a lifetime and couldn’t stomach the thought of regrets.
“Tim’s a hell of a fighter,” Johnson said on the UFC broadcast shortly after winning. “It’s like wrestling a damn muskrat. I just had to neutralize him, man.”
Opportunity granted and danger averted, it would be nice to see Johnson get some of his just desserts. When the pound-for-pound king is fighting a reality show winner, there’s a problem. As the champion, the risk is always bigger than the reward, but the gap shouldn’t be this wide. On Saturday night, it worked as good theater.
But for the UFC, it’s time to pay the man back for the show with one that’s truly worthy of his spotlight talent.
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