This past Saturday in Las Vegas, Nevada, Demetrious Johnson recorded his ninth consecutive defense of the UFC flyweight title when he defeated Tim Elliot and proved once again that he is the pound-for-pound king inside the UFC Octagon. The fighting pride of Parkland, Washington is now just one win away from tying Anderson Silva for most successful title defenses in UFC history. While Johnson’s performance on Saturday was dominant, this fight did show that there are still fighters in the flyweight division who can challenge the champion. In the opening round of his fight with Tim Elliot, it was clear that his size and strength were difficult obstacles for Johnson to overcome. That being said, Johnson quickly adapted his game plan and dominated the remaining four rounds of the fight. Still, looking at this fight and comparing it to other fights in which Johnson was greatly challenged there is one common thread, size. You have to look back to his lone draw to find an instance where he was in danger of truly losing a fight at flyweight. In that fight, he faced Ian McCall and it was clear that size played a factor.
McCall is not overwhelmingly large for a flyweight but his size advantage over Johnson was on full display in the first and third rounds of this fight. Almost right away, McCall’s ability to take Johnson down and stuff his takedown attempts proved pivotal to his success. When the fight was taking place in space and Johnson was allowed to use his speed, accuracy, and footwork, it was clear that Johnson had the advantage. His ability to take over a fight is very much tied to his ability to mix in takedowns off of his strikes. Against McCall, Johnson could not muster a single one. The power of McCall forced Johnson to become one-dimensional, and by the late stages of the third round, McCall put his power on full display. McCall had Johnson’s back with him flattened out and landed a series of strikes that some referees might have considered enough to stop the fight. This fight was declared a draw and for the first time in Johnson’s career he had two fights in a row without securing a win.
The fight prior to this was for the bantamweight title where Johnson lost a decision to Dominick Cruz. In this matchup, there was an obvious size discrepancy. Cruz stands nearly six inches taller than Johnson, and after rehydrating probably outweighs him by a solid 15-20 pounds. The story of this fight was very much the same as Johnson’s fight with McCall. Johnson was forced to become one-dimensional and that made him hugely susceptible to the takedowns of Cruz, who was able to control Johnson on the ground. The striking was basically split in this fight and that only helped Cruz appear more dominant. In this matchup, Cruz had ten takedowns to Johnson’s one and controlled top position for nearly twenty minutes. While this victory was clear for Cruz one thing swayed in the favor of Johnson, and that was pace. Cruz, who is known for having good cardio, looked visibly gassed throughout the fight thanks to Johnson’s ability to scramble and remain active even while on the bottom. Pace alone was not enough to help Johnson in this one and it was clear that should he want to capture a UFC title he would be much more successful at flyweight.
Early on in Johnson’s career, he suffered his first career defeat to Brad “One Punch” Pickett. Pickett is largely heralded as a striker, hence the moniker. However, in this fight, Pickett (a natural bantamweight) saw his advantage was his size and he used it to takedown Johnson ten times through three rounds. Pickett is not drastically larger than Johnson but the edge in power that his size gave him allowed for a dominant performance and a feather in the cap of the striker. To Johnson’s credit, he did what he does best and kept moving and forced Pickett to fight for the top position, but the pace did little to keep Johnson on his feet. In the frames of this fight that did take place on the feet, the power of Pickett was clearly an issue for Johnson who was visibly rocked by his punches. This loss was quickly followed up by four straight wins for Johnson. However, the loss to Pickett laid out a blue print for Dominick Cruz who, as we discussed before, won with this very strategy.
For those interested in the numbers, over Johnson’s two losses and one draw, he has lost the takedown battle 24 to 3. Clearly, this is an area that can be exploited by larger fighters with good wrestling backgrounds. Tim Elliot had the right idea going into his fight but could not maintain the control that could have kept Johnson one-dimensional. While people continue to speculate on what might be next for Johnson they should look at this matchup with Elliot as a warning. Size is a killer for Johnson. For those clamoring for a super fight with Dominick Cruz, go watch the first fight before you beg for a second. Cruz has improved greatly since the first matchup and he hasn’t gotten any smaller. Johnson is reigning right where he should be and barring some fighters looking to make a hellish weight cut there is no reason Johnson should fight outside his weight class. Johnson is the pound-for-pound king but he was only built for one division.