Demetrious Johnson pitched a shut-out over Kyoji Horiguchi at UFC 186 in Montreal on Saturday, as many predicted he might. It was a beautifully measured and technical performance, where Johnson used round kicks to pen in the younger fighter, narrowing the line that he’d blitz down into a tightrope, then knocking him off it with an array of takedowns.
This what DJ does. He blends together long-term technical improvement, strategic gameplanning and tactical in-fight adjustments as seamlessly as he brings together striking, clinch-work, takedowns and submissions. It’s tempting to find something almost mechanical in the way he selects the best tool and builds the best situation, but the adaptation he shows is anything but robotic. The ability to adjust and respond is a profoundly human trait. Still, The Mouse’s capacity to improve and overcome in any phase is so stainlessly pure that it’s a struggle to describe it without resorting to lazy engineering or computing metaphors.
The man simply goes beyond. He’s developed more between late to mid-career fights than most fighters do in their first few years. On Saturday, as the clock ticked down and he battered away at Horiguchi, both could have signed that invisible contract that two fighters almost inevitably draw up in these situations, where they accept who is the winner and who is the loser, and DJ refused to. He pounced on a submission, wrenched it, picked up the stoppage in the last second.
Hardly anyone actually watched it, though. Why?
Sliding scales and middle options
Partially it’s because the lighter weight classes just aren’t that popular, and never have been. With the debatable exceptions of Urijah Faber and now (most probably) Conor McGregor, the fighters under 155 pounds have always struggled to sell pay-per-views.
This isn’t just because of the long-touted idea that people don’t like watching smaller fighters. It’s true to an extent, but like almost everything else this percept functions on a sliding scale. The main issue is that of context. In a very simple way, big guys are easy to instinctively contextualize as being threatening, and small guys aren’t. This concept of what constitutes “small” is in itself mutable: when the UFC’s lightweight division was first introduced, it faltered and died, and many pointed to how the 155ers were just too little to effectively draw. This seems laughable in today’s UFC (even accounting for the way that the weight-cutting environ has made lots of yesteryear’s lightweights into today’s bantamweights), but again: sliding scales and subjectivity are the name of the game.
Consider the way that individuals tend to gravitate towards middle options, and you can see why pre-wired ideas towards disliking the smallest fighters might lead to issues with the tail end of the UFC’s weight classes, no matter how big they might actually be. “I’m OK with whatever isn’t the smallest” would be something like the rationale here.
There are still fans out there who say that they only enjoy 170 and above, and most people would probably admit that they have some kind of lower weight boundary at which they’d no longer enjoy the fights (115? 105? Below 100 pounds?). So, size is going to be a factor, but it’s not the only factor.
Mayweather sells, so why can’t DJ?
Let’s look outside MMA, because Mayweather-Pacquiao is coming up, and they’re not big fighters, yet this is going to be the biggest-selling combat sports event of all time. Why can’t DJ just build a personality like Mayweather?
The obvious but rarely-used rebuttal here is that Floyd Mayweather doesn’t have a personality. He really doesn’t. Think of memorable quotes he’s come out with, or things you associate with him aside from boxing. You’re probably not coming up with much apart from maybe that one gif of throwing money at the screen. He’s a businessmen and a negotiator, but there’s no real charisma. In many ways the close-up fascination with Mayweather conversely comes from his deliberate abrogation of personality. He’s a specialized creature designed for making money and boxing, where human elements have been deliberately snapped, trussed and folded away, like the arch of the foot in Chinese binding, or a Bonsai tree. He hangs around with celebrities like Justin Bieber not just because of the fame benefits, but because he recognizes a kindred spirit stunted and pruned by years of psychological topiary.
Whether it’s right to ask of DJ to be anything like the thing that is Floyd Mayweather Jr is one question, but Mayweather does not sell because he is inherently interesting. He sells because he has fought long enough and beaten enough interesting boxers that he’s picked up contextual interest from many of them. He stands as a living collection of boxing history, connected through to de la Hoya and Whitaker and Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr, and illuminated by Pacquiao, and he represents the popular answer to the question which the public always asks itself: who’s the best fighter in the world?
Mayweather has a lot of context behind him.
Time and the Zuffa dilemma
The lightest divisions in the UFC don’t just have the problem of being small, they have the problem of lagging behind in terms of context. The UFC’s featherweight and bantamweight divisions were only established with the WEC merger. No coincidence, then, that Johnson’s flyweight, which was established after that and with no WEC predecessor at all, is the division which struggles most to make an impression. 145 is starting to pull away from the other lighter weights not only because it’s the biggest, and because it’s had a once-off firebrand in McGregor being dropped into it, but because it has had several established UFC fighters from 155 (Kenny Florian, Frank Edgar, Clay Guida) making the drop to compete there.
Here comes Zuffa’s problem: context is built up over time. Each fighter takes just a bit of shine from the man they fought, and the long, slow building process of relevance is constructed in layers upon layers: good fights, bad fights, upsets, dominance. Rory MacDonald is not just more interesting than John Dodson because he is bigger, he is more interesting in part because of GSP, and GSP is interesting because of Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg and Carlos Newton; and BJ Penn and Jens Pulver and Sean Sherk; and Nick Diaz and Strikeforce and Frank Shamrock, and so on and so forth. There’s a complex web of relationships behind every well-known fighter, but those webs are difficult to construct. They need time, and time increases the likelihood that fighters like McGregor, Sonnen and Tito will turn up to engage fan interest in a given division.
Time is a luxury which Zuffa does not have in great supply. 2014 was their worst year on recent records, and the major complaints have been rooted in injuries, and over-saturation. Even the most hardcore fans can find themselves bloated from the product, yet compelled to sit down and consume and consume MMA like a broke college student at an all-you-can-eat buffet. This is not the best environment to slowly build up a division, but there’s little else for it. Lots of fights are required in order to establish who is good and who is not so good. Concessions to this necessity aren’t going to stop significant chunks of the demographic from complaining when relatively-unknown little guys turn up on screen.
No easy solutions
So what solutions are there for Demetrious Johnson’s marketability? Unfortunately, there aren’t many. It’s easy to complain that he hasn’t been given the push of a Conor McGregor, or a Paige VanZant… but if Zuffa are sometimes clumsy, they’re not stupid. These fighters light up social media and sentiment analytics in a way which Johnson doesn’t. To attempt to promote him in the same way would not generate the same rewards, would likely just be comparatively sunk costs. Johnson himself is making more of an effort to become a bit more charismatic: bragging about his wrestling, dropping a few F-bombs, but these will likely just bounce straight off the glossy, unbroken surface of fan indifference.
None of this makes DJ boring. It just makes him like the vast majority of other champions, and reliant on the division around him and the history behind him to give him a sense of context. There are little adjustments that Zuffa could try, like attempting to be a bit more flexible in their approach. They could look into his interests like gaming, maybe promote a Mighty Mouse twitch stream, and try and focus on the badass nerd angle rather than “the greatest fighter of all time ever, until Jon Jones fights again, anyway.”
These are only small things, though. In all honesty, Mighty Mouse will just keep on keeping on. Hopefully as he does, the division will develop organically, and will throw up someone interesting who can contrast and illuminate his virtues as Sonnen did for Anderson Silva, and McGregor has for Aldo. Until then, I guess we can expect more of these articles where we laud his technical virtues, and complain about how no-one cares.
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