UFC 174: Demetrious Johnson defends belt to show he's a top draw

Sunday June 15th, 2014

Demetrious 'Mighty Mouse' Johnson's star continues to rise after beating Ali Bagautinov at UFC 174.
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

This Mouse is so Mighty that he had to fight two fights in one night.

The only opponent Demetrious Johnson could really compete against on Saturday night in Vancouver, British Columbia, was Ali Bagautinov, and boy did the man called "Mighty Mouse" secure his position as the big cheese in that one, successfully defending his flyweight title for the fourth time with a unanimous decision. All three judges awarded the champion every round in the UFC 174 main event, and their scorecards probably had rows of exclamation points following the 10s they marked beside Johnson's name, because he was so dominant.

It's impossible to know if that will translate to a victory in the other fight that Johnson was fighting just over the border from his home base near Seattle. That fight inside the fight was for eyeballs and dollars. This was the 27-year-old's first time headlining a pay-per-view telecast, and mixed martial artists in lighter weight classes -- even champions -- have always had a tough time getting fans to fork over dough to watch their little bodies put on a show.

MORE COVERAGE: UFC 174 results with round-by-round analysis

Of course, Johnson's performance against Bagautinov has no bearing on the financial success of the UFC 174 PPV. Those who paid $55 for this title fight and the 10 bouts that preceded it at Rogers Arena did so on faith. Maybe they saw something in Johnson's last outing, a two-minute knockout of Joseph Benavidez, persuading them to tune in. Maybe they bought this fight card for the Rory MacDonald vs. Tyron Woodley co-main event with its implications in the welterweight title picture. MacDonald, the local boy, sure gave TV viewers and cageside ticketholders their money's worth with a thorough thrashing putting him in the driver's seat for the next shot at champ Johny Hendricks.

Or maybe some fans bought this fight card just because, well, just because. It's difficult to know what drives fans to place that cable or satellite order on a Saturday night. The evidence seems to say it's not s much about anticipation of a competitive fight as it is about star power. So there's the question that Johnson's five rounds of virtuosity begs: Is the flyweight champion a star?

Johnson (20-2-1) looked like one in this fight. He didn't get the finish, so it's tempting to go ho-hum with your appraisal of his dance with the Dagestani. But what did happen in the fight is kind of beside the point. It's what didn't happen that was the show. Bagautinov (13-3), who was on an 11-fight win streak, is a tough guy, and for five rounds he doggedly tried to engage Johnson in a fight. Again and again he came up empty.

Statistics don't tell the whole story of any sporting event, but consider the astounding lack of success Bagautinov had in finding the champ with his punches and kicks. He landed only 36 of 122 significant strikes at a 29 percent clip, according to FightMetric stats. Folks all over southern British Columbia are wondering when they put the new wind turbines in.

WAGENHEIM: Crash course on everything you need to know for UFC 174

Johnson, meanwhile, connected on 61 percent of his significant strikes (133 of 215). Those numbers show he wasn't just getting out of the challenger's way, although he did that masterfully using Anderson Silva head and body movement. At the same time he stood his ground and got in the challenger's face, again and again, engaging the combat sambo world champion in the clinch and faring well in every position.

This was not a very competitive fight, but neither were a lot of Georges St-Pierre's or Brock Lesnar's when they were big earners for UFC. "Mighty Mouse" isn't anywhere near the level of either of those ex-champs as a draw. But as a champion, he's pushing in that direction.

Consider the 125-pound landscape. Bagautinov stepped into the cage as No. 6 in the SI.com flyweight rankings. Ahead of him were No. 2 Benavidez (Johnson has beaten him twice), No. 3 Ian McCall (Johnson has beaten him), No. 4 John Dodson (Johnson has beaten him) and No. 5 John Moraga (Johnson has beaten him). So where does "Mighty Mouse" go from here?

Well, where and when the champ fights next, and the identity of the man who'll next stand across the cage from him are yet to be determined. If Saturday night's spotlight performance determined anything, the next dance should be another headlining act in front of all sorts of paying customers.

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