For the first time in UFC history, the flyweights will take center stage as the headline fight for a pay-per-view as champion Demetrious Johnson takes on Ali Bagautinov on Saturday night, but talking to the No. 4 ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, you’d never know he’s even the main event.
Johnson certainly appreciates the position he’s in as the champion and one of the best mixed martial artists on the planet, but staying grounded and never allowing the moment to get to him is a big key to his success.
His past few fights have aired on FOX, which is an even larger audience than pay-per-view but even then he wasn’t acting like it was anything special.
"It’s still just another fight," Johnson told the Great MMA Debate podcast this week. "It’s going to be on pay-per-view, I’m still training the same whether it’s going to be on FOX or FOX Sports 1, it doesn’t matter to me, it’s just another fight."
If the money’s right then we can talk about going back up to bantamweight and trying my hand there but as of right now I’ve got a lot of work to do with the flyweight division and that’s what I’m focused on
— Demetrious Johnson
What Johnson really relishes has nothing to do with the spotlight or hearing his name burst out of Bruce Buffer’s mouth when it’s time to shine in the main event. The best flyweight in the world would rather spend his days and nights in the gym getting better because his thirst is for knowledge.
The improvements have shown in the cage as well where Johnson has turned into a finishing machine lately first putting away John Moraga with a fifth round armbar in July 2013 before blasting through Joseph Benavidez by knockout, which accounts for the fastest knockout in UFC flyweight history.
Just because he’s champion doesnât mean Johnson has stopped evolving so he amped up his training camp again for this fight and that means everyone can expect an even better performance at UFC 174 against Bagautinov.
"I’m always working hard in the gym trying to get better," Johnson said. "Bibiano Fernandez came out for this camp, well he came out for his camp for his fight in ONE FC, but everyone knows the man is a beast on the ground. I would say he has the best mixed martial arts jiu-jitsu where he can wrestle, and he has just straight jiu-jitsu, so I spent like five weeks with him working on his striking game and he was helping me work on my ground game.
"Ali Bagautinov is a great fighter, but you don’t see him take guys down, submit them, take their backs, and all that stuff but Iâm still working on that for my game. Making sure I’m the best Mighty Mouse when I step into the Octagon to fight."
A win over Bagautinov would mean Johnson has virtually cleared out all of the top contenders at 125-pounds only two years after the division’s inception. He’s beaten John Dodson, Benavidez on two occasions, Ian McCall and John Moraga, which accounts for four of the top five fighters at flyweight.
While a potential rematch with Dodson looms overhead following his impressive win over John Moraga last weekend at UFC Fight Night in Albuquerque, the questions will still inevitably come for Johnson about a possible move back to bantamweight for a super fight at some point soon.
Johnson was a top five ranked bantamweight prior to the move down to 125 pounds, and while he lost in his own title fight in the division there’s no doubt he’s a vastly improved fighter from those early days in the UFC.
The champion quickly puts the brakes on any notion of moving up to bantamweight, however, despite past indications that he would be open to the idea. Money talks and Johnson listens, but outside of a ridiculous offer to move up to bantamweight there are plenty of up and coming 125-pound fighters for him to face.
The fact is the way Johnson sees it, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just being the best flyweight fighter in the sport. Maybe even the best of all time when it’s all said and done.
"You’ve got Ali Bagautinov we’re going to fight pretty soon, you’ve got Brad Pickett who’s taking on Ian McCall, you’ve got Zach Makovsky," Johnson said.
"You’ve got a lot of guys and once I go through and beat all those guys, if the money’s right then we can talk about going back up to bantamweight and trying my hand there but as of right now I’ve got a lot of work to do with the flyweight division and that’s what I’m focused on."