Flyweights Johnson, Moraga want more respect for their division
Demetrious Johnson stands just 5 feet, 3 inches and weighs in at a mere 125 pounds. But he's not so small that he should be flying under the radar. The UFC championship belt he wears around his waist shows up as a gleaming blip on the control tower screen. And on Saturday night, for the second straight time, he will defend his hard-won strap under the promotion's most far-reaching spotlight, the main event of a network television fight card.
Once again, the UFC will put its 125-pound weight class in front of millions of eyeballs, in hopes it will make a don't-blink spectacle of itself. Johnson (17-2-1) will be making his second defense of the relatively new belt against John Moraga (13-1) on a fight card at Key Arena in Seattle that will be televised nationally by Fox (8 p.m. ET).
The diehard mixed martial arts fan base has been slow to embrace the little-guy division, which the UFC launched last year with a four-man tournament to establish its first champion. The September night in Toronto when Johnson took a split decision over Joseph Benavidez to win the belt was notable for two things: a main event in which indomitable light heavyweight titlist Jon Jones was shockingly caught in a Vitor Belfort armbar and nearly submitted, and a co-main event flyweight title fight that was roundly booed. At the postfight press conference, combustible UFC president Dana White implored anyone who'd Bronx-cheered the 125-pounders to never buy another of his company's pay-per-views. "I don't want your money," he fumed. "You're a moron. You don't like fighting. You don't appreciate talent."
What was the problem? It certainly wasn't a lack of action. Maybe it was too much action. Maybe Johnson is too fast for his own good. The man known as "Mighty Mouse" fights more like Speedy Gonzales, and if MMA fans have shown one thing, it's that they want to watch guys hit one another, not sidestep each other's punches. Who cares about graceful? Floyd Mayweather and Pernell Whitaker would be booed by this crowd. Arturo Gatti and Rocky Graziano would be gods. If only Demetrious would embrace the "Mighty" part of his nickname more ...
Johnson did win over fans at his next fight, although it actually was his opponent who first caught their attention. Twice in the second round of the Fox-televised January main event in Chicago, John Dodson floored the champ. That electrified the United Center and set the tone for a high-octane fight, in which Johnson gradually turned the tide in his favor and took full ownership of the championship rounds. He didn't finish the Season 14 winner of The Ultimate Fighter, but he put a beating on him that, especially in the final round, quenched the crowd's thirst for violence.
In the aftermath, there was speculation that perhaps the flyweights were ready for prime time -- that is, the main event of a PPV, a lucrative slot that every UFC champion but Johnson has commanded. Then the Moraga fight was announced ... for a Fox telecast. The glass-half-empty folks probably saw that as a been-there-done-that slap in the face for "Mighty Mouse" and the flyweights, but a more clear-eyed way to look at it is as just another step in the promotional process. It's a smart way to draw an abundance of attention to the oft-overlooked 125-pounders, as a card on free TV attracts a large and diverse audience. Not just diehards willing to shell out $55 for a pay telecast, but also casual MMA fans and other sports followers who've never watched a UFC fight but are curious to see what all the fuss is about.
Will we ever see a flyweight-headlined PPV? "Yes, absolutely," Dana White said last week during a conference call with MMA media. But he acknowledged that, for now, "we're in the building process of that division."
That process, said the UFC poobah, need not involve a revamping of Johnson's fighting style. The champ has gone to a decision in all seven of his fights with the promotion. "[Lightweight champ] Ben Henderson has had fights that have gone to decisions, controversial decisions. Demetrious has gone to decisions," he said. "As long as it's an exciting fight, there's all different styles of fighters. Some guys go in there and they knock people out. Some guys pull off submissions. And some guys go to decisions but have exciting fights." He was satisfied that his flyweight belt holder fits within that last category, calling Johnson's win over Dodson "an awesome fight."
White could soon have a finisher wearing the belt, though. Moraga has a knockout and a submission in his two UFC bouts, and has finished five of his seven opponents following his only career defeat, a 2010 decision loss to Dodson. The aggressive challenger, a training partner of Henderson's at the MMA Lab outside Phoenix, began getting up in Johnson's face, metaphorically at least, long before fight night. "He's boring," he told reporters back in May. "He just bounces around. He runs around too much. He doesn't fight. He doesn't put on exciting fights. He's got a lot of technique and a lot of skill, but he doesn't finish people."
The headline-grabbing quote was "boring," but Moraga went on to qualify his critique of Johnson in a way that seems particularly relevant to this fight on this network-TV stage. "To the educated MMA fan, he's probably not boring. I probably didn't word that right," said the former Arizona State wrestler. "But to the people, you know, when you're trying to gain fans, especially for the flyweight division, I think it's boring to them because it's always the same thing with him."
What's more, casual onlookers are unlikely to get caught up in the melodramatic buildup to this weekend's fight because, well, the champion won't allow himself to play a role in a melodrama. Confronted with Moraga's "boring" accusation during the media conference call, Johnson fired back with this: "I honestly didn't care. It's his opinion. Everybody's entitled to his opinion, and it is what it is." Ho-hum.
Moraga didn't exactly do much during the call to get interest sizzling, either. Asked if he's feeling pressure going into the biggest fight of his career, he answered, "No." Not a syllable of soundbite elaboration. When a followup question inquired about his mindset, he got all loquacious on us with "I just got to win." Yawn.
Contrast that with the co-main event's tension-filled buildup, in which Jake Ellenberger has badgered welterweight opponent Rory MacDonald for months. They had a dustup on Twitter several weeks ago. And Ellenberger pretty much took over last week's UFC on Fox 8 conference call, starting with this: "I haven't said anything that wasn't true, and my message to Rory is pretty clear: for him to start tasting some flavors of baby food and find which ones you like and stock up, because this isn't the Tears for Fears lookalike contest. All I said to him was prepare for some horizontal television time, and I meant it."
MacDonald didn't take the bait this time, but even his understated response had a chilling serial killer vibe to it. "I don't care about the disrespecting or whatever," he said. "I just get in there and fight my fight, and yes, if they suffer, they suffer."
Ew. That's a fight I want to watch.
The main event for the flyweight championship? I won't be missing that one, either. People can find a lot of reasons not to watch Demetrious Johnson, but there's one overarching reason to be in Seattle or in front of your television on Saturday night: "Mighty Mouse" is a skilled, athletic champion. OK, there's a second reason: John Moraga has the irresistible confidence that the belt soon will be his. Maybe this opportunity is coming a bit early in his UFC career, but the fight promotion didn't have many options in a division that for a while looked like a three-man race between Johnson, Benavidez and Ian McCall, then added Dodson and ... not much else. Moraga now gets the opportunity to show he belongs. And so does the flyweight division.