LAS VEGAS – Demetrious Johnson never intended for you to know his name. He never dreamed of becoming a professional fighter. He wasn’t all that into the burgeoning sport of mixed martial arts as he was becoming an adult.
The man who now ranks among the greatest fighters in the sport’s history was, as he freely admits, just another guy looking to learn how to defend himself.
He’s only days away from breaking one of the sport’s most hallowed records, ex-UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva’s record of 10 consecutive successful title defenses. Johnson has made 10 consecutive successful defenses of the flyweight belt, and will go for No. 11 on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena when he meets Ray Borg.
That this decidedly average guy – there are athletes you see in the grocery store or in the airport or at the gas station that you just know are athletes, though Johnson surely isn’t one of them – has turned himself into a juggernaut is remarkable.
Even he admits that in private moments, when he considers the unlikely road he’s traveled, he marvels at what he has accomplished.
“It means a lot because obviously, in my mixed martial arts career, just the fact that I’ve gotten to this point is … ” Johnson said.
His voice trailed off, unable to find the exact word.
“You know, I was just a guy with a job, working 9 to 5,” said Johnson, who spent the first half of his fight career paying the bills while working as a forklift operator. “I had no interest in being a world champion. I had no interest in even pursuing mixed martial arts as a career. I got into this sport because I wanted to learn how to fight and protect myself, so for me to be where I’m at, with no extensive karate background, without being a jiu-jitsu black belt, wow, man. I was just a kid who wrestled in high school and tried hard to be good.
“The next thing you know, I went to a gym and started punching a bag and a guy saw me and asked if I wanted to fight. He said, ‘Do you know how to kick?’ I was learning it all, but Jean-Claude Van Damme has taught me very well.”
From those humble beginnings, Johnson has risen to be arguably the greatest in the sport’s history. He’s 26-2-1 overall and has won 12 in a row. He’s 16-1-1 in his last 18 and, with former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones out-of-action because of an anti-doping violation, Johnson is considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
He’s gotten some criticism, notably from UFC president Dana White but also from many in the fan base, for insisting on going for the record-breaking defense against Borg rather than taking on ex-bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, as White proposed.
Many have dismissed Johnson’s streak – incorrectly and unfairly – as a fluke because of a lack of talent in the division. But while the flyweights aren’t big names, Joseph Benavidez, whom Johnson has defeated twice, is an elite fighter among the greatest active fighters.
John Dodson, whom Johnson has also beaten twice, is 8-1 in fights against opponents other than Johnson.
But it seems hard to defend his choice of Borg over Dillashaw, particularly given that Dillashaw is ranked 15th pound-for-pound and No. 2 at bantamweight while Borg is just 5-2 in the UFC.
Johnson, though, wasn’t backing down from his stance.
When I asked him about the choice and said Dillashaw would probably have made a more attractive opponent, Johnson turned the tables. He asked me what constituted a “super fight” and why I thought Dillashaw was better.
I explained that, in my opinion, a superfight was a pairing of two guys regarded head and shoulders above the rest in their division or of two champions from different divisions. I mentioned that Dillashaw lost his championship to Dominick Cruz via a hotly disputed decision. And that’s where Johnson pounced.
“I don’t see how you guys consider T.J. the highest-ranked guy,” Johnson said. “Both are on two-fight win streaks. That’s how I go about looking at it. It was plain Jane in regard to how I went about doing it. We have rankings and we have weight classes for a reason.
“And in my mind, [a bout with Dillashaw] would not be a superfight. In my opinion, a superfight is two champions on top of the game fighting for a big-ass purse. Ray Borg is ranked No. 3 in the world and is on a two-fight winning streak. T.J., yeah, he was a world champion and a lot of people thought he won that fight against Dominick Cruz, but he didn’t.”
Johnson said he’s open to a fight with Dillashaw down the road if there’s enough interest.
Regardless, Johnson’s decision to fight Borg instead shouldn’t detract from the amazing career he’s had or what he is trying to achieve. Ten doesn’t seem like that big of a number, but it’s reflective of the difficulty in winning at the highest level of MMA. There are so many ways to win or lose a bout that there are rarely long winning streaks, particularly when the fights are evenly matched.
Johnson has gone out night after night in condition and prepared for the best flyweights in the world, and he’s systematically broken them down and defeated every last one of them.
That more than anything is what pleases him most.
“Consistency,” Johnson said when asked about his greatest career achievement. “I believe consistency is so important and that’s always a monumental thing in anybody’s career. You look at athletes, NFL players, basketball players, hockey players, tennis, soccer, any type of sport, to be on top for so long, it takes a lot of effort, a lot of mental capacity and a lot of focus. To be able to maintain that night after night for so long, I think you have to say that’s the biggest or most significant thing I’ve done.”