Trading Shots: Perspective on Demetrious Johnson’s UFC title reign since it’s over (for now)

Did Demetrious Johnson deserve to lose his UFC flyweight title at UFC 227? And how do we view his time as champ now that it’s over (at least for now)? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Fowlkes: The most dominant title reign in UFC history has come to an end, Danny. And it was only a couple points on one scorecard that did it.

After 11 consecutive flyweight title defenses, Demetrious Johnson finally lost a fight in the 125-pound division, dropping a split-decision to Henry Cejudo after five extremely close and exciting rounds at UFC 227. According to Johnson, he has some injuries to attend to before he can think about a rematch, and even then you know there’s a chance that the UFC might not give it to him.

Even if he takes the title back from Cejudo, the streak is broken. So what do we make of his largely unappreciated run as champ? And do you think the judges got it right when they ended it here?

Downes: I’ll answer your last question first because it’s the easiest to address. MMA judges overvaluing takedowns has been a problem as long as I’ve been watching the sport. Cejudo did earn the takedowns, but he did little to advance and also did little damage once he had the position.

Should a single takedown outweigh everything Johnson was doing on his feet? I don’t think so, but the decision wasn’t close to “robbery” status. There’s a feeling that for a champ to lose the belt by decision, the loss should be demonstrable. I understand that sentiment, but there’s no way to codify that into judging. Long story short, I’m fine with the decision.

As for your other question, I don’t know if I have an answer. It’s something philosophers have been asking for centuries. “If a champion dominates a division for six years, but (maybe) 200,000 people see it each time, does it make an impact?”

We all know Johnson is an incredible fighter. We also know that he had a difficult time getting over with fans. Was it the UFC’s poor promotion of him? Was it the fact that flyweight has been one of the most shallow divisions in all of MMA? Did it have something to do with Johnson’s personality? I couldn’t tell you. I’m sure you have your own theories.

What I do know, however, is that media’s strategy of telling fans that they don’t know real MMA if they don’t like his fights? That didn’t work. It was a type of MMA hipster-dom that never fully conveyed how great of a fighter Johnson was. You telling me I have a garbage palate for not liking your homemade kimchi kale kombucha isn’t going to make me like the stuff any more, Ben. It will give you the superiority complex you desire, though.

Johnson’s career isn’t over, but the streak is. I’m sure he’ll come back and be just as good as he’s been, but he’s a known commodity. What do you think about Cejudo? He’s already angling for 135-pound champion T.J. Dillashaw. What do you make of that move? Whether he wins or loses that fight, should we even continue with a 125-pound division?

Fowlkes: First of all, how dare you talk about my kimchi kale kombucha that way, you troglodyte. Second, how did you just watch the best title fight in the history of the flyweight division and come away wondering if we should shut the whole thing down?

I understand that the division has had its struggles. I also understand that “Mighty Mouse” didn’t always set the MMA world on fire with the searing heat of his star power. But the past year or so has offered some hope on both those fronts. I can remember when fans left the arena before a Johnson title defense. On Saturday night in the Staples Center, he got a huge pop from the crowd and a lot of love on social media. Maybe it took a while, but I think people have started to appreciate the guy.

Unfortunately, seems like it was just in time to see his title reign come to an end, but I’m not going to freak out just yet about Cejudo’s request to go after double champ status. If Johnson can get healthy enough to sign on for a rematch within a reasonable amount of time, I think that’s the fight to make. If he can’t, and if the UFC books Cejudo vs. Dillashaw for some time near the end of this, the unexpected year of the superfight, I can’t get too mad about that idea either.

Still, a part of me suspects that Johnson’s dominance atop this weight class is going to look a lot better in retrospect than it did while it was happening, maybe because we all spent too much time wondering why people weren’t excited about him. I don’t care what the numbers on the scale say, that was a great, competitive fight, with amazing displays of athleticism and creativity from both guys. Now that we can step back and see Johnson’s time as champ as one solid chunk, how do you not call him one of the all-time greatest fighters?

Downes: So one fight in the entire division resonates with people (mostly in your Twitter bubble) in six years and you say to yourself, “Things are finally starting to turn around!” I’d hate to see you at a roulette table.

Let’s say you get the rematch you want. Then what? Tell me the match you make to decide the next No. 1 contender. Maybe we’ll have Cejudo and Johnson fight a best-of-seven series. It’s easier to put on a Bellator heavyweight tournament than matchmake the UFC flyweight division. Doesn’t that say something?

I agree that Johnson’s accomplishments will look more impressive in hindsight, which is quite the testament in MMA. Usually we tear down people’s championship reigns (e.g. Anderson Silva, Stipe Miocic, etc.) the further we get away from them. The whole “pound-for-pound” thing is nonsense, but there’s little doubt that Johnson is one of the best MMA fighters ever.

A legacy is much more than a win/loss record, though. Randy Couture’s career record is 19-11. Kazushi Sakuraba’s is 26-17. BJ Penn’s is 16-12. I understand that they all come from different eras than the current one, but the point still stands.

You can go on about Johnson’s record and his wins, but why haven’t those wins resonated? Perhaps it’s a problem with MMA in general. Nobody outside Conor McGregor seems to resonate nowadays. Daniel Cormier just made history. And while we all objectively recognize the importance of his accomplishment, there just doesn’t seem to be that buzz.

It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is. Just because you want everyone to start to appreciating someone, it doesn’t make it so. Johnson made peace with that a long time ago. How come you can’t?

For complete coverage of UFC 227, check out the UFC Events section of the site.

Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

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