Finally accepted as one of the elites, Demetrious Johnson has arrived

With the exception of his trainer, who exactly saw Demetrious Johnson coming as a force of nature? An underdog in his first WEC fight, an underdog in his first UFC fight, an underdog when he first fought for the UFC bantamweight and flyweight championships, the numbers clearly illustrate the believers among us were scarce. 

And even coming on two years as the flyweight king, it seems it is only now that people have begun to believe that the 27-year-old has staying power among the elites.

For the first time in his career, Johnson will be a huge favorite, a lopsided one even, as he steps into the Octagon to battle No. 4 Ali Bagautinov in the main event of UFC 174 on Saturday night. The odds that used to tilt in his opponent’s direction have see-sawed hard in the other direction in projecting a dire outcome for Bagautinov; Johnson is more than a 6-to-1 favorite in some spots. 

Welcome to the royalty, Mr. Johnson, it has been a long time coming.

The perception change was accomplished mostly through three sublime efforts within the last 18 months. During that time, Johnson has illustrated the kind of complete game expected of someone gaining significant consideration in the sport’s pound-for-pound rankings. He’s 3-0, outstruck his opponents by an obscene combined total of 302-128, and won Fight of the Night, Submission of the Night and Knockout of the Night awards. 

That’s a pretty good stretch coming against the best stretch of opposition he’s faced, but it was the last of those performances that served to silence his final remaining doubters. Facing Joseph Benavidez in a rematch of a 2012 fight that went five rounds and culminated in a could-go-either-way split-decision, their second date was mostly seen as a pick ’em. Odds waffled in both directions before closing on Johnson as a slim favorite. 

The angst was for nothing. He went out and starched Benavidez, scoring the fastest KO in flyweight division history.

Wait, the mouse is mighty? Well, that’s a game-changer. Prior to that, it seemed that power was the one element missing from an otherwise well-rounded repertoire. But with a capital letter "KO," the book on him needed a complete revision.

It wasn’t just the knockout, but also the manner of how he got there. Johnson (19-2-1) took his defensive mastery to a new level, forcing Benavidez to whiff on 23 of 27 attempted strikes.

Up until the recent past, the thing about Johnson was that he won fights mostly in the margins. He could beat you on volume because he has more energy than a desert solar farm. He could beat you in transitions, and out-scramble you. He could force you to miss due to his endless feints and speed. But he couldn’t beat you up. He couldn’t physically dominate you.

As it turned out, that scouting report was premature. We forgot that Johnson has only been a full-time fighter for little more than two years. That he was still a work in progress when he first chased a UFC title, a weight class over his true division, against a guy who inhaled the sport as his life’s calling. Sitting on his punches and generating finishing power was not a hole from his game; he just hadn’t gotten around to fully installing it yet. 

This KO of Joseph Benavidez changed perceptions of Demetrious Johnson.

So now what is missing? Is there anything left to criticize him on? There must be something else he could use work on, it’s just hard to see it when he performs.

In Bagauntiov, he faces a sambo expert who has proven himself to have significant power and a strong wrestling attack. Like many of the fighters who have come from his region and demanded the fight world’s attention, he is both durable and rugged. But Bagautinov has shown nothing close to the gas tank we know Johnson has. And that’s the place where you have to wonder if his pursuit of the belt will fall off the rails.

Johnson not only has great conditioning; he uses it as a weapon. His constant feinting gets opponents to unnecessarily fire against him, wasting energy. His punch output is relentless, and he forces you into defending takedowns, and worse, attempting to return to your feet, both of which are gas-guzzling endeavors. After two rounds of it, you’re tired. Heading into championship rounds, you’re mostly beaten, increasing his speed advantage from crack to chasm. 

The best thing about his fighting style is that he is a chameleon. His attacks are perfectly disguised until, well, until it’s too late. Where most fighters tend to gravitate towards one discipline, Johnson molds his movement to the prevailing action. If you swing high, he’ll go low for the takedown. Drop your hands to defend it, and he’ll come over the top with a cross. Moments of improvisation? Forget it. He’s Duke Ellington ignoring the confines of expectation. 

Maybe that’s why we never saw him coming in the first place. Johnson, though, has arrived, too quick even for the snap judgments of a sport always scanning for the next great talent.