Demetrious Johnson: The LeBron James of UFC?

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
Demetrious Johnson seems to keep getting better as his UFC career progresses. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
Demetrious Johnson seems to keep getting better as his UFC career progresses. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

The good news for Henry Cejudo is that he’ll get a chance to avenge the only defeat of his MMA career, while challenging for the world title at the same time.

The bad news is that no fighter improves more bout-to-bout than flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.

Johnson stopped Cejudo in the first round of their heavily hyped match at UFC 197 in 2016, and is better than a 5-1 favorite to win their rematch on Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in the co-main event of UFC 227.

Cejudo has spent considerable time working on his game since back-to-back losses to Johnson and Joseph Benavidez, and he believes he’s covered a lot of ground.

“Demetrious is the pound-for-pound best in the world and he’s one of the best, if not the best, to ever do it,” Cejudo said. “As an athlete, it’s always motivating to fight a guy like that. Demetrious is the standard by which the rest of us are judged. He showed me the last we fought that I have a lot of work to do, and I think I’ve accomplished a lot.”

No doubt, he has done that.

The issue, though, is that Johnson improves on a fight-to-fight basis perhaps more than anyone in the UFC. He’s so good, it’s not easy to see all the time, because Johnson is so much more gifted than most of the opponents he faces.

In 2011, he defeated Miguel Torres in a bantamweight fight, but many ringside, as well as Torres, thought that Torres had done enough to win.

In 2012, Johnson drew with Ian McCall in their first-round bout in the UFC’s flyweight tournament. It’s almost laughable now, six and seven years later, to think of either of those fighters coming close to Johnson.

But what separates Johnson from the field, beyond his other-worldly physical skills, is how he is constantly adding to his game. He was the best fighter in the world three years ago, but he’s significantly better now than he was then.

“It is incredible how he continues to get better and is always looking for a finish when he fights now,” UFC president Dana White said.

The statistics bear that out. In his last 10 UFC bouts, he’s 10-0 with seven finishes, including two knockouts and five submissions. In his first seven UFC matches, he was 5-1-1 with no finishes. To be fair, his first three UFC fights were at bantamweight. The draw with McCall marked his move to flyweight.

Johnson’s ability to evolve and intensify his martial arts training has been a huge plus. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Johnson’s ability to evolve and intensify his martial arts training has been a huge plus. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Johnson is not a braggart and rarely boasts. In that regard, he’s not much different than he was in his days as a forklift truck operator. It’s all in a day’s work to him.

“This sport is evolving and the coaching is better and we just have a lot more knowledge, so you would be cheating yourself if you didn’t take advantage of all of that,” he said. “I have great coaches and they have the ability and the knowledge to build upon what I already have, so it’s just a process.”

That process culminated with the 2017 Submission of the Year, a suplex turned into an arm bar that finished Ray Borg at UFC 216 in October. And while he’s derided by some in the UFC’s fan base as boring, it was his eighth post-fight bonus win. He’s gotten Performance of the Night four times, Fight of the Night twice and Knockout of the Night and Submission of the Night once apiece.

That means he’s winning a Fight Night bonus nearly 50 percent of the time (eight bonuses in 17 UFC fights). Importantly, all of Johnson’s fights are against the division’s elite, since as champions he’s not getting to meet a division’s lesser lights.

“Improving as a martial artist every day is what it is all about,” said Matt Hume, Johnson’s highly regarded coach. “With us and with the training that we do and our viewpoint on martial arts, we’re not looking to go win a fight. Our goals aren’t related to a particular fight. We’re looking to be the best martial artist possible.”

Hume said that as great as Johnson is, he still has plenty of room for growth.

“Physically, as an athlete, he’s probably near his peak, but he definitely has room to grow as a martial artist,” Hume said. “He’s got unlimited growth in every area.”

This is a guy who knocked the great Joseph Benavidez cold, and who made an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler like Cejudo look like just another guy.

Had he not been injured – he had surgery on both of his shoulders earlier in the year – he might have been facing T.J. Dillashaw for the bantamweight title instead of defending his flyweight belt.

Johnson is as competitive as they come, even if he does a good job of playing Joe Cool and trying to hide it, and beating someone with the talent of a Dillashaw would be quite the feather in his cap.

Cejudo referred to him as the LeBron James of the UFC, which is about as high praise as can be given to an athlete these days.

From Johnson’s perspective, it’s about seeing how far he can take it. He respects the title and he respects the sport and so he’s constantly looking to evolve.

“You don’t hear me talking about being pound-for-pound or being the best or anything like that, because it’s not my place,” Johnson said. “My job is to go in there and win that fight on Saturday and the more tools I have to do it, the better. So it just makes sense to try to add as many things to the arsenal as possible.”

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