UFC 186: Johnson defeats Horiguchi, struggles to win over fan base

On Saturday night, Demetrious Johnson defeated Kyoji Horiguchi to win UFC 186. 
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The last time a UFC champion successfully defended a title belt, eight weeks ago, it took bantamweight queen Ronda Rousey just 14 seconds.

On Saturday night, Demetrious Johnson took preeminence to the other extreme, finishing flyweight challenger Kyoji Horiguchi at 4 minutes 59 seconds of Round 5 -- that’s one second before the 25-minute bout was to go the distance -- to put an exclamation point on UFC 186 in Montreal.

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You have to wonder, though, how many fans among the 10,154 who went through the Bell Centre turnstiles at the beginning of the evening were still in the building when “Mighty Mouse” seized an armbar and elicited a tapout just before the horn.

The 125-pound champion has two battles on every fight night. The 28-year-old always handles the most important one deftly -- he’s now beaten back six challengers to his throne, four of the last five by knockout or submission, and is undefeated in nine straight bouts. But Johnson (22-2-1) has struggled to win over the bloodthirsty fan base. Saturday’s crowd was quiet as the main event began, there were restless boos before the fight was two rounds old, and people were walking out in the fourth.

What the departed missed was a fifth round of continued domination, suddenly and dramatically shifted into overdrive.

Horiguchi (15-2), though a 9-1 underdog, was a game opponent, but he was overmatched. The 24-year-old challenger, who was seeking to become the first Japanese fighter to win a UFC belt, threw nearly 100 strikes but landed just 31, for an abysmal accuracy rate of 34 percent. “Mighty Mouse” landed more than twice as many punches and kicks, and his aggressiveness carried over to the grappling game -- the champ landed 14 takedowns.

Five of those takedowns came in the final round, in which Johnson, despite owning a clean sweep of all of the judges’ scorecards, didn’t let up off the gas. Whereas earlier in the fight the champ had been a touch too methodical in advancing his position toward potential finishing moves, as the final seconds ticked off the clock he shifted into an even higher gear than his usual fast-forward. With just over half a minute left, Demetrious secured what would be his final takedown, and within 10 seconds he was in side control with Horiguchi’s left arm trapped. The champ proceeded to pound away with punches and elbows, a good two dozen of them raining down with nothing to block them.

When the signal came from cageside that there were 10 seconds to go, Johnson could have just lay there. Victory was assured. But the champ heard his head trainer, Matt Hume, yelling from his corner. “I was being lazy,” said Johnson, “and Matt was like, ‘Armbar! Armbar!’ And I was like, aw f---, I’d better do what he says, or else I’m going to be yelled at. So I went for it.”

Johnson suddenly stepped across Horiguchi’s body, spun around into armbar position, grabbed the challenger’s limb, and leaned back.


Referee Yves Lavigne jumped in just before the horn sounded.

That’s fighting spirit, right to the finish. What a thing to see. Or not.

Now, paying customers can do pretty much as they please. But why sit through nearly six hours of also-rans and has-beens, along with a few never-will-bes, only to then skip out while one of the greatest fighters in the world is at center stage putting on a virtuoso performance? You just can’t wait a few more minutes before getting your lap dance on Saint Catherine Street?

These beat-the-crowd-to-the-exit types were probably the same bloodthirsty onlookers who couldn’t get enough of a washed-up Quinton “No Rampage Left, Maybe Just a Mild Disturbance” Jackson huffing and puffing his way through 15 minutes of co-main event nothingness with a Brazilian heavy bag named Fabio Maldonado. These fans are the progeny, no doubt, of the ticket holders at the old Forum who would glaze over at the sight of Guy Lafleur streaking down the right wing but couldn’t take their black eyes off Chris Nilan.

Of course, UFC 186 was maligned long before fight night. Originally, the main event was to be a rematch between T.J. Dillashaw and the man he had upset for the men’s bantamweight belt, Renan Barão, with the flyweight title fight being the co-main. And local hero Rory MacDonald was to fight on the card, too. But a month ago Dillashaw pulled out because of a broken rib, elevating the “Mighty Mouse” bout to top billing. Then MacDonald was yanked. Jackson vs. Maldonado was added, then canceled because of a twist in Quinton’s ongoing legal battle to get out of a contract with Bellator. It wasn’t until Tuesday that that fight was reinstated.

By then the Internet was buzzing with fan disharmony over a fight card many felt wasn’t worth the $59.99 pay-per-view price. This wasn’t the first time a Johnson-topped card has drawn griping. His first PPV headliner, UFC 174, was seen in fewer homes than any of the company’s pay shows in nine years. His second starring role,  at UFC 178 last September, did considerably better, but “Mighty Mouse” had a considerably better supporting cast.

The pickings were slim this time. No doubt many fans stayed away. But to walk away?

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The mass exodus and the booing did not go unnoticed by UFC president Dana White, who in the past has defended his flyweight division against all scorn. This time he metaphorically just threw his hands up. “People are going to say whatever they’re going to say,” said White on the Fox postfight show. “Who cares?”

White seems to be over trying to figure out why many fans don’t connect with the fluid, efficient, dominant and gentlemanly Johnson. The promoter just wants to get the little guy back inside the octagon with someone who can give him a fight. No announcement was made regarding future bookings, but if John Dodson takes care of business next month against Zach Makovsky at UFC 187, he would appear to be lined up for a rematch with the champ. Two years ago, he gave Johnson his toughest title defense.

That would be a fight that’s not to be missed. Or walked out of.