At One Fight Night 10 on Friday night, Demetrious Johnson put an end to one of the biggest rivalries in ONE Championship’s history.
After swapping knee knockouts (and the ONE Flyweight Championship) in two previous outings with Adriano Moraes, Demetrious put a cherry on top of the sundae that has been his stint in the Singapore-based promotion by winning a unanimous decision to retain his title and remain one of the best lighter weight fighters in the world.
That is, of course, no surprise to any long-term fan of MMA, considering the historic run he had as the inaugural UFC Flyweight Champion. You don’t need to prove much of anything to anyone after defending a championship 11 consecutive times over a period of 6 years.
At this point, it seems like the only person Demetrious Johnson is still trying to prove anything to is himself.
And, at 36 years old, it’s more pertinent than ever to understand what, if anything, he feels he has left to prove as an MMA fighter. It’s a question he needs to find an answer to because, if he doesn’t, the MMA media will surely keep asking about it.
The question of retirement looms now more than ever for Demetrious. It’s something he is well aware of. He even suggested in the lead-up to the Moraes rubber-match that the fight could very well be his last.
And yet, after the fight was over and he was confronted with the comments he had made previously (told you the MMA media would be on it), he still seemed unsure of what he was going to do.
However, he did propose a plan for making the decision. He would discuss it with his wife, obviously, but after that, Demetrious said he plans to consult with former MMA greats to get their take on the issue, to understand why they retired. The greats mentioned include Georges St-Pierre, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Urijah Faber.
It’s an interesting idea considering that, in MMA, it’s still a rare thing to see a fighter choose to retire (even if it’s been happening a lot lately). Usually the choice is made for them, either from being bested by better competition or being bested by the promotion itself.
Demetrious Johnson to consult with fellow legends
MMA as a sport is generally not kind to its elders. That’s why the idea of Demetrious wanting to talk to fighters who were given the luxury of making that choice to walk away seems so fascinating, as if they may have the hindsight to predict Demetrious’ future in a way he himself is currently unable to.
So is there anything that can be learned by applying the Delphi Method to MMA? Anything that can be gleaned from the used tea leaves of those who have already walked this path?
Or is Demetrious just stalling on a question that he already knows the answer to?
St-Pierre, the longest reigning UFC Welterweight Champion in history, had a bit of a complicated break from MMA, initially walking away from the UFC in December 2013, citing personal reasons as well as a lack of adequate drug testing as being the main drivers behind his decision.
He did leave the door open for a return, which he made in 2017, defeating Michael Bisping to become the UFC Middleweight Champion, a distinction that was short lived after GSP expressed little desire to compete at middleweight again due to the health problems he experienced in preparing for the fight.
After a couple of fight rumors fizzled and died (most compelling was a potential lightweight showdown with Khabib), St-Pierre officially retired in 2019. The main reason he gave for doing so was that he wanted to leave when he was still “at the top and in good health.”
Georges said it “takes a lot of discipline to retire on top,” which is why it’s so hard for so many fighters to walk away. It’s tough watching a fighter like Anderson Silva spend years losing after having been the best for so long, or seeing Chuck Liddell struggle to stay away.
I mean, nobody wants to see Mark Coleman vs. Tim Slyvia in a slap fight. It makes us all sad knowing we live in a world where that’s even a possibility.
Demetrious Johnson is, of course, years away from even considering slapping to put food on the table. He’s still a world champion. He’s still one of the pound for pound best at what he does. He still likely has years of competitiveness left in him.
He doesn’t need to walk away yet, but neither did GSP at the time he did. GSP chose to walk away while still in peak form. Demetrious could choose to do the same, or he could, like many greats before him, choose to continue to ride the bus until the wheels fall off. Because it will happen sooner or later.
Khabib, the former UFC Lightweight Champion, has retired twice, first as a fighter in 2020 and then as a coach three years later. His reasons for retiring were much more personal, as his fighting career ended following the death of his father, and Khabib promised his mother he wouldn’t continue without him. After that, the focus became more and more about his family to where MMA no longer factored into the equation.
Priorities for many fighters change as they grow older. Most start off young and hungry, seeking professional glory and everything that comes with it. Then, once they get everything, they realize it’s the little things that matter the most.
They start families. They start businesses. They see there’s so much more to life than the daily grind in the gym and, once that window to the world gets thrown open, it becomes impossible to close. You stop being the center of the universe and, when that happens, things change.
Things had certainly changed for Faber at the point he retired in 2016. After a successful career in the UFC following a pioneering run as WEC Featherweight Champion, he felt he was losing passion for competing as life was starting to take him in other directions.
Faber is a unique case in that, while Khabib has (so far) stayed retired and GSP never officially retired prior to making his return in 2017, Faber did retire before deciding to come back, which he did in 2019. He competed twice, winning one and losing the other. He hasn’t fought since but there was talk last year about one more fight so, whether it happens or it doesn’t, it shows how hard it is to contain a truly competitive spirit.
And that’s at the heart of the dilemma for Demetrious Johnson. He looked good in the Moraes fight and it’s clear he still enjoys fighting and wants to keep doing it but he’s beginning to acknowledge that he needs to be thinking about life outside the cage as much as he trains for life inside of it. He needs to know what his plan is for when he stops because, like it or not, he’s going to have to stop.
He has a good life outside the cage. He has a family. He has businesses. He has championships and records and all sorts of accolades that even a potential late career slump, if he were to have one, couldn’t shake.
The game changes when you get this late into it. That’s the reality Henry Cejudo, the one who unseated Demetrious Johnson in the UFC, is now facing after his failed bid to knock off Aljamain Sterling at last Saturday’s UFC 288. He hasn’t retired but it has been acknowledged as a possibility now that he’s no longer directly in line to become champion. He doesn’t have the same desire to grind like he used to because of everything he now has outside of fighting.
To Henry, fighting is no longer worth that kind of risk.
Is the same true for Demetrious Johnson?
Whether he already knows the answer and is just looking for validation; whether he truly is conflicted and needs to hear the right voices to point him in the right direction; whether he’s just trying to get the MMA media to lay off on the retirement question, only he knows what matters most in this stage of his career.
And, whatever decision he makes, he’ll be no less mighty for having made it.
…wait, what’s that? Cejudo wants to keep fighting?
Screw it, then. DJ, go make that money.
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