Sunday September 6th, 2015

When John Dodson first challenged for the UFC flyweight championship 2½ years ago, he didn’t take home the belt but did earn the honorary title of 'Demetrious Johnson’s Toughest Opponent.'

Following the rematch Saturday night, Dodson walked away as merely 'An Opponent.'

The demotion came through no fault of Dodson’s. He was as speedy as ever in the main event of UFC 191 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, but he simply could not keep up the pace of a champion who has separated from the 125-pound pack and has sprinted over the rainbow, where a pot of gold should be awaiting.

Should. But might not.

After successfully defending his title for the seventh time, taking a unanimous decision that wasn’t even remotely close (50-45, 49-46, 49-46 on the scorecards), “Mighty Mouse” appears poised for a challenge beyond what the flyweight division can offer. He’s now defeated his top two challengers in the rankings, No. 3 Dodson and No. 2 Joseph Benavidez, twice apiece. No. 4 Ian McCall has lost three of five fights since earning a majority draw against Johnson back in 2012, and is nowhere near a shot at the belt.

The next challenger will likely emerge from a November showdown between Henry Cejudo, who sits at No. 5, and sixth-ranked Jussier da Silva. A fight with Cejudo would shine more brightly, because gold shines, and the 28-year-old won a medal of that precious metal at the 2008 Olympics, in freestyle wrestling. Those were the Games that also produced the UFC’s most shimmery star, Ronda Rousey. But while Cejudo is unbeaten in his nine MMA bouts, he is still raw in this fight game and could use a little more polishing.

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Then again, there might not be enough polish in the world to make Henry Cejudo (or Jussier da Silva, for that matter) a viable opponent for Johnson (23-2-1). The champ is simply too skilled and too physically gifted for anyone in the division to handle. He’s not at the Rousey level of domination—none of his defenses have ended in the first 20 seconds, only one in the first round—but he’s shown a resilience that “Rowdy Ronda” has yet to have to show off. If he makes a mistake, as he did in the first meeting with Dodson (17-7) by overextending himself with aggressiveness and leaving himself open to counterpunches, he makes adjustment on the run. His fight IQ is through the roof.

On Saturday night, the fight began much as the first meeting with Dodson had, with the fighters changing from their corners as if shot out of cannons. (Or, more fitting for their weight class, BB guns.) Their speed was especially shocking to see in the wake of a sluggish co-main event between aging heavyweights Frank Mir and Andrei Arlovski—fans watching the pay-per-view telecast at home might have thought their TVs had switched from slow-motion to fast-forward.

But while Dodson’s elusiveness and counterattacks had been trouble for Johnson on that night, this time there was no escaping the champ, who patiently picked apart a challenger who clearly had been getting under his skin in the leadup to the rematch.

“John Dodson said I was garbage, I’m boring, I’m bad for the division,” the champ said afterward. “Look at my face, I’m prettier than a motherf---er. That’s what technique will get you.”

The key techniques were a lead right hand that found a home time and time again, and a clinch game that produced a steady diet of knees and elbows, all of which conspired to make Dodson nowhere near as pretty as a, well, you know.

Dodson was bloodied and battered, and the unrelenting attack that made him that way was a sight to see. Well, at least for those who stuck around to watch. The crowd in Vegas did thin out a bit before and during the main event, and some of the fans who remained seemed to have done so simply so they could boo the flyweights. Johnson had some feedback for them.

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“The fans are fans,” he told MMA Fighting interviewer Ariel Helwani. “They’re just f-ing idiots.”

The champ is right. Those who boo a virtuoso performance like Johnson’s are morons. But this is the way of the world. This is why TV networks feed the unwashed masses pablum like Real Housewives and the like, rather than Masterpiece Theater spinoffs. The lowest common denominator owns the marketplace. Nonetheless, good on “Mighty Mouse” to call ’em as he sees ’em, and to just go out there and produce masterpieces of martial arts.

Of course, those “f-ing idiots” are paying customers, and Demetrious Johnson and the UFC must reconcile with that. Dana White, the promotion’s president, said after the fight he has “a plan” for his 125-pound champ, who ranks No. 4 in the pound-for-pound tally. There has been some speculation that the next challenge for “Mighty Mouse” might be not in his own weight class but at bantamweight, a division in which he once competed for the title belt (losing via decision to Dominick Cruz) before the flyweight division existed. And Johnson himself has fed into the talk of a superfight with current 135-pound champ T.J. Dillishaw, saying he’d do that bout for $2 million.

Is that kind of payday possible for a fighter who inspires a walkout by paying customers? It will be interesting to see if the UFC tries to solve that puzzle or simply feeds Demetrious Johnson another in a long, hopeless line of flyweights.

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