The sentiment leading up to UFC 178: Johnson vs. Cariaso was resoundingly fervent, but, to employ an admittedly oxymoronic descriptor, anomalously uniform when regarding its main event. UFC flyweight champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson—among the most talented, well-rounded, entertaining and consistently improving fighters in the entire organization—was once again being overshadowed by his supporting cast.
This time, he was facing Chris “Kamikaze” Cariaso, a fighter who’d until Saturday spent the majority of his three-year, 6-3 career with the UFC competing on the preliminary card. Basically, most people didn’t know who the hell he was and those who did didn’t quite understand how it was he got there—not a great selling point for a main event.
Part of this undercard-to-main-event incongruity can be attributed to the switcheroo the UFC had to pull after the original main event—a highly anticipated showdown between bitter rivals Jon “Bones” Jones and Daniel Cormier—was scrapped due to injury. However, let’s face it: like Rodney Dangerfield, Demetrious Johnson just gets no respect. Considering the lopsided Vegas odds on the fight (Cariaso closed out as a 20-1 underdog in many Vegas books), the way the bout played out (a thorough trouncing en route to a second-round Kimura submission) was a foregone conclusion and won’t serve to earn Johnson any more notoriety than he already had.
Before his fight even began on Saturday, however, fans were headed up the stairs and out the doors, their lust for artful violence evidently sated by all the fights that had already occurred. And who could blame them, really? The UFC themselves didn’t prioritize their champion in their promotional efforts outside of naming the event, going as far as omitting the champion and his challenger on a prominent billboard in Las Vegas, where the event took place, and yielding more minutes in their hour-long Countdown show to the much-hyped contest between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier.
To be fair, the UFC have done their darndest to gain Johnson a following, showcasing his talents on their high-profile UFC on FOX events three times in a row and giving him top billing in two subsequent pay-per-views. But none of that has yet translated into a marked interest in “Mighty Mouse” or a boost in what matters most to the organization at the end of the day: the bottom line. Verily, UFC 174: Johnson vs. Bagautinov, his previous PPV outing, drew the worst sales in the modern UFC era (just over 100,000). The last time the numbers were that bad for a pay-per-view (2005), the United States had a different president, the first season of The Ultimate Fighter had just introduced America to civilized full-contact fighting in a digestible format and gamers were still playing on Playstation 2 consoles.
The most frustrating aspect of all of this is how brilliant an in-cage technician Johnson is. He’s a whirling dervish of perfect technique, amalgamating the three key aspects of MMA—striking, wrestling and submissions—about as ideally as any fighter we’ve ever seen. The UFC evidently agrees, placing him just below Jon Jones and Jose Aldo in their pound-for-pound rankings at #3. Unbelievably, he’s also improving; the former decision machine has finished three of his last four opponents.
So how do Johnson and the UFC go about raising his stock? Let’s take a look:
1. Release the Dodson
Yes, they’ve already fought, but it wasn’t such a one-sided contest that a rematch isn’t warranted (and deserved; John “The Magician” Dodson has since gone 2-0, knocking out both of opponents). It’s no secret that Johnson doesn’t like Dodson. Hell, I’m not sure I like Dodson. His exuberance, although endearing when looked at through the lens of combative enthusiasm, often comes off as… well, annoying. The insincere giggling, the Howdy Doody grin, the insuppressible hyperactivity… it’s all a bit much. But let’s face it: the fact that he rubs the champion the wrong way could evoke some thus-far unseen character traits from his otherwise pristine public veneer. That alone would stir up more interest than any of the interviews conducted with him or Cariaso leading up to Saturday’s contest. The fact that Dodson matches Johnson in speed and athleticism and perhaps surpasses him in striking power also makes this matchup an easy sell to the public. Let’s just make sure to nurture and promote this rivalry well ahead of their scheduled meeting and I’ll bet you the PPV numbers will reflect how much fans really do love a good old-fashioned grudge match.
2. The Demetrious Johnson Publicity Tour
It’s no secret that the UFC wants to cross over into new markets, both geographical and cultural. As the company expands into uncharted markets, much of the promotional weight is placed on their fighters, and the good talkers naturally tend to hold the mic more. The UFC flyweight champion has a rather unique diction in terms of cadence, however he’s an inarguably endearing personality whose character could easily win over people otherwise uninterested in the sport. Place him on a series of morning talk shows over the course of a few weeks to discuss his unique upbringing (he was raised by a deaf mother), his outlook on the fight game and his personal interests, and his star power will undoubtedly rise.
3. The Ultimate Fighter: Team Rousey vs. Team Johnson
After Ronda Rousey faces Cat Zingano and Johnson squares off against Dodson for the second time, neither fighter will have a clear-cut challenger for their title lined up next. Both have been immensely active during their championship tenures and could easily use some time off, not only to re-center themselves but to allow the division to work itself out and produce viable contenders. Sure, the UFC has made it a point over the course of the last few season of The Ultimate Fighter to pit champion against challenger (or at least two fighters who will face each other at the end of the season), however it’s not the first time two title holders from incompatible weight classes have coached (see: Hughes vs. Franklin). Rousey’s stock would benefit from showing her good side against a coach with whom she shares no animosity and Johnson would fare excellently coaching against a true crossover star like Rousey.
4. Do the Anderson Silva Divisional Dance
Back in 2008, Anderson Silva had only been champion for two years (defending his belt four times during that time), however it was long enough for the UFC to justify allowing him to move up a weight class and face heavier competition at 205 pounds while still holding on to his title at middleweight. What he wound up doing was legendary—knocking out James “The Sandman” Irvin in the first round and following that performance up a year later with an even more beautiful destruction of fan-favorite Forrest Griffin at UFC 101. Johnson (21-2), who previously fought at bantamweight (135 lbs.) before being afforded a fairer playing field at flyweight (125 lbs.), would likely do excellently in these MMA exhibitions, his championship-level wherewithal a boon in tilts with larger opposition.
Agree? Disagree? Hit me up on Twitter and let me know @JesseScheckner.
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