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Back in olden times, when the UFC was more spectacle than sport, it was easy for critics to dismiss what they saw as little better than bar fighting, a visceral expression of humanity’s worst impulses and instincts. After all, there was often little artistry on display and even less athleticism. The UFC was exactly what it appeared to be: unrefined violence obsessives with an outlet to crack skulls without going to prison.
Over the years, fighters have steadily improved, skill sets have become more streamlined, and what was once carefully controlled chaos has morphed into an actual athletic contest. For living, breathing proof, fans need look no further than the great Demetrious Johnson (27-2-1), the UFC’s first and only flyweight champion.
Johnson is as magnificent a fighter as we’ve ever seen—a master of calculated destruction, inventing new and increasingly elaborate ways to dispatch opponents. In his last fight, perhaps bored by normal expressions of physical and mental dominance, Johnson grabbed top contender Ray Borg in a waistlock, tossed him into the air, and then—in a move that defies belief even as you watch it for the hundredth time—secured an armbar while his foe was still descending to the mat.
If this sounds absurd, it’s because it is.
These kinds of things don’t happen in the UFC Octagon. Certainly not on the main card, where elite fighters have been drilled to defend and negate a rival’s every move and breath to the point many fights devolve into a tense display of endless circling and staring.
The Borg fight was hardly an isolated incident. Johnson has made a career out of manufacturing moments; whether it was the stunning one-punch knockout of Joseph Benavidez, the destruction of Olympian Henry Cejudo, or the armbar win over rising star Kyoji Horiguchi in literally the last second of the fight.
When Johnson steps into the UFC Octagon, opponents know to expect things they’ve never seen before. It’s driven the most ambitious of them to extremes in trying to keep up with the most well-rounded fighter in the sport.
“He’s done everything right,” top contender Cejudo—who faces Johnson in a rematch Saturday on pay-per-view—told the media in a conference call. “I traveled the world. I’ve been everywhere. Amsterdam, Holland. I’ve been to Brazil. I’ve been to Thailand. Just trying to learn from the best surgeons of MMA.”
That diligent preparation hasn’t stopped oddsmakers from making Johnson the prohibitive favorite, per OddsShark. Cejudo, despite his Olympic pedigree and ever-improving MMA game, is a 4-1 underdog at some books, elucidating part of the problem with Johnson, if not as a fighter, as a promotional vehicle for the UFC. When he defends his championship for a record 12th time, he will do so in the co-main event, sitting beneath a relatively weak bantamweight title fight between two equally obscure fighters in T.J. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt.
“Why?” is the simple one-word question—and one that has inspired endless think pieces and debate. Sports is built on the premise that winning is everything. But for Johnson at least, it hasn’t led to the kind of commercial success others around him have enjoyed. The best fighter in the world, undefeated for almost seven years, isn’t one fans have been willing to embrace.
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Yes, this is the part of any Johnson story where the narrative shifts from his unprecedented string of success in the athletic arena to his various failings as a moneymaker for his billion-dollar bosses. Because despite his unfailing excellence, growing reputation as a finisher and undeniable charm, Johnson hasn’t been able to attract fans to his fights, either in the arena or on television.
“The disconnect between Johnson’s unreal skills and accomplishments and his inability to pull money from the fans is one of the great conundrums in MMA,” Bleacher Report alum Patrick Wyman wrote at Deadspin. “Johnson himself is sick to death of discussing it. He says it doesn’t bother him and tends to give one-word answers whenever it comes up. Who can blame him? His box-office shortcomings have become as big a part of his personal narrative as his accomplishments in the cage.”
Is it his size (Johnson stands only 5’3″)? His relative lack of spark and refusal to make a fight anything more than an athletic contest? His utter dominance in the cage making the results of any bout all too predictable?
There are no shortage of theories, and while Johnson may be exhausted by the subject, it hasn’t stopped others in the sport from giving their two cents. After all, who is more interested than fellow fighters in figuring out why one of the greatest of all time hasn’t managed to succeed at the top level?
“It’s weird, man. It’s crazy to me. He’s great to watch,” former middleweight champion Michael Bisping said on his podcast Believe You Me. “I love watching Demetrious…and you’ve got to be able to fight first and foremost in this sport. But you’ve got to open your mouth a little bit. You’ve got to talk. You’ve got to create some controversy…you’ve got to make it interesting.”
Former challenger Joseph Benavidez, instead, blames himself and the other fighters in the division for Johnson’s box-office struggles.
“We have the best fighter ever, and it feels like no one really cares,” he told UFC Unfiltered last year. “…It’s not DJ’s fault. It’s all our faults for not challenging him. He’s doing his job. He’s winning every fight and winning it impressively. It’s our fault for not doing anything about it.”
Last year, Johnson released a scathing statement to MMA Fighting, offering his perspective on the division’s struggles at the box office. He placed the blame squarely on the UFC, pointing out that the promotion has done little to build the flyweight class or create marketable challengers:
“We are now three years post-launch, and the company continues to do the bare minimum in marketing the division well past the launch of these other divisions. As a fighter, I pay very close attention to the amount of marketing that goes into and around my fights, and I can tell you that you’d be hard-pressed to find much that has been done to promote me outside of TUF 24, which was minimal in comparison to other fights, fighters and shows.
“With me, the UFC chooses not to market the best fighter in the world and arguably the greatest fighter of all time. I can’t think of any other sports organization in the world that has the best player in the sport where the league, or the organization, doesn’t market that player to their loyal fanbase to sell more of their product.”
UFC President Dana White fired back to TMZ, pointing out that Johnson has been marketed hard by the company—which has often featured him on Fox television—to provide the most possible viewers and exposure. These efforts, White claims, have been for naught, something he points out that Johnson himself recognized when negotiating his contract.
“He didn’t want [a percentage of the] pay-per-view,” White said. “He wanted upfront money, no pay-per-view. He wasn’t very confident in his abilities to sell pay-per-views. He has the lowest-selling pay-per-view in the history of the UFC in the modern era.”
In the end, the UFC is involved in the fight business, not the fight game. Johnson, demonstrably, has failed to make the company the kind of money that justifies a main-event slot on pay-per-view television. Cold hard numbers tell the UFC that fans don’t care about Johnson.
They should. Of course they should. In a more just world, his brand of understated excellence is rewarded, his bite recognized and celebrated above others’ mere bark. The blame for that can be spread around and parsed endlessly—but if it hasn’t happened in the seven years he’s been a dominant athlete, it’s perhaps not meant to be.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.