For a long time, Demetrious Johnson has been the UFC’s most anonymous champion. Every few months, it dusts him off, winds him up and lets him do his thing—which is something close to perfection—and everyone claps politely and then proceeds to forget about him within a few minutes of his departure.
At least for one night, we may have hope that is about to change. In Kansas City, Missouri, Johnson was greeted like a star, performed like a star and walked off basking in the brightest spotlight his amazing reign has yet seen.
Perhaps this is all it took: a near flawless, jaw-dropping kind of mastery that left him alongside one of the most legendary names in the sport and threatening to rise above him. Johnson’s third-round submission win over Wilson Reis on Saturday marked his 10th straight UFC flyweight title defense, tying Anderson Silva for the most successful defenses in UFC history.
“[Georges St-Pierre] and Anderson Silva were great champions, but I’m the best champion to ever step foot in the Octagon,” Johnson said in the cage moments after his win, per the UFC.
That claim is still debatable, but his case has plenty of evidence that is irrefutable, and more than that, it continues to build.
With one more win, Johnson will have done something that no one in the UFC has ever done. That is an argument with no counter.
Johnson snatches Reis’ arm for the fight-ending armbar.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
The question between now and then will be which man gets the chance to end his streak. Will it be Joseph Benavidez, in a trilogy bout? Will Ray Borg get a shot? Or will the UFC try to set up Johnson’s most high-profile match to date and grant bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt’s wish to face him?
The last of the three is the one Johnson is most deserving of, but it’s also the matchup with the most hurdles. Johnson would have to be willing to wait until July just to set it up, all the while hoping that Garbrandt defeats T.J. Dillashaw in his first title defense.
And oh, yeah: He’d require a seven-figure payday, something that has thus far eluded him in his career.
“The whole thing with Cody; I’m not worried about it,” Johnson said in the post-fight press conference. “I’ve never turned anybody down. I have nothing but love for the guy. He just won a belt. I’ve defended mine 10 times. If he comes down at 125, we welcome it. He doesn’t dictate terms. Well maybe he does? I don’t know, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. If Cody wants to come to 125, and UFC deems him ready for a title shot, perfect.”
DJ = ??
What do you think? #UFCKansasCity
— Cub Swanson (@CubSwanson) April 16, 2017
My man @MightyMouseUFC is incredible. Congrats brother.
— Stipe Miocic (@stipemiocicufc) April 16, 2017
If Johnson comes off as indifferent to the prospective champion vs. champion fight, it’s only because humility and modesty is a staple of his personality, as is his continued drive.
As Johnson’s reign has unfolded, there has been a striking difference in his championship comportment as compared to either Silva or St-Pierre.
Late in their reigns, both of those men openly discussed the crushing strain of wearing a target. Johnson has never shown any signs of being stressed by the many would-be usurpers circling him.
Stardom also has little meaning to him, which is why he has never altered his personality to fit the MMA superstar archetype.
“I’m not searching for that. That’s not why I do this sport,” he said. “I’m not here to be prom king. I want to be the best fighter in the UFC. I think I proved that tonight, dominating a world-class grappler. I don’t think I was touched on the feet.”
Yes, Saturday’s win was even more stunningly perfect than those that have come before it. According to FightMetric, Johnson limited Reis to landing just 10.6 percent of his strikes (18 of 170), a dismal ratio that amounted to quicksand for the challenger. It’s already nearly impossible to beat Johnson, but when you are consistently swinging at air, it is hopeless. By the middle of the second round, Reis must have felt like a dog chasing his tail.
And like all great champions, once Johnson had his opponent deflated, the fight’s ending was a mere formality. Johnson nearly finished Reis in the second, dropping him with a knee to the body and then pouncing on his grounded opponent with a series of hammerfists, but Reis was able to survive the few seconds to the horn.
Reis wasn’t so lucky in the third. Worn down and damaged, he was put down after Johnson pummeled him from the top and pivoted to an arm bar, making the first submission loss in Reis’s 29-fight, decadelong career.
When it was over, Reis just shrugged and hugged Johnson. There was nothing else to do. There was no way to spin things for a positive outlook.
There was just the stark bluntness of both the process and the result.