Inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) flyweight kingpin, Demetrious Johnson, looks to defend his title a third time against Team Alpha Male-trained powerhouse, Joseph Benavidez, in the UFC on FOX 9 main event this Saturday (Dec. 14, 2013) at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California.
After a shaky start, "Mighty Mouse's" grip on the flyweight division is looking quite secure.
His pair of fights with Ian McCall, his first fights at 125 in his mixed martial arts (MMA) career, were anything but definitive, as was his victory over Benavidez last year. Since then, things have changed, as he put a thorough beating on John Dodson to clearly secure a unanimous decision victory.
His next bout, against MMA Lab-product John Moraga, was the best performance of his ZUFFA career. Johnson looked excellent, repeatedly taking down the Arizona State University wrestler for what appeared to be a dominant decision victory. However, in the final round, Johnson isolated Moraga's arm and tapped him out, earning the first finish of his UFC career.
Can Johnson continue his streak of dominance against Benavidez?
Let's find out.
Johnson has become one of the most technical strikers in MMA. By heavily focusing on footwork, Johnson almost always keeps good distance and can switch stances at anytime, allowing him to open up with a wide variety of attacks. A natural athlete, Johnson uses his quickness to burst forward with a fast combo of punches and kicks, then exits with a side step.
"Mighty Mouse" often starts his combinations with a jab, often doubling or tripling it. By throwing multiple jabs, as well as feints, Johnson can cover a lot of lateral distance as he punches. Thanks to his frequent stance switching, Johnson is able to jab with both hands. To reset his stance, Johnson will throw his left hand or a high kick.
Johnson often throws extended combinations, where he'll throw a volume of hooks with both hands. Johnson is very crafty when throwing combinations, as he unpredictably switches stances and mixes in kicks with his punches. To end the combination, Johnson often initiates a grappling exchange by shooting or clinching. Wrestling at the end of combinations is an excellent way for Johnson to decrease his chance of getting countered, as his opponent has to be ready for a takedown.
If Johnson doesn't work for a takedown at the end of his combos, he'll exit at an angle, often utilizing the hook around. This means he'll throw a left hook as he moves to his left, effectively circling away from his opponent. Since he constantly is switching stances, he can do this with his right hand as well. Johnson will also exit while hiding behind his jabs.
Or, Johnson will circle without throwing any punches, simply moving his head.
Johnson is excellent at mixing kicks into his combination. Johnson does an excellent job varying his kicks, as he can throw them from either stance with or without a step. This lets him balance between power and speed, as well as throw them from the outside or while pushing forward. Another of Johnson's powerful kicking techniques is his switch kick, which is a natural addition to his game considering how often he switches stances.
In particular, Johnson likes to end his boxing combinations with a high kick. This is a perfect example of using his speed to its full effectiveness, as he's able to switch between a punch and kick faster than most, forcing his opponent to react even quicker. As is true with most of his techniques, Johnson can throw head kicks from both the Southpaw and Orthodox stance.
Since his drop to flyweight, Johnson has put more of an emphasis on clinch fighting, both striking and grappling. From the clinch, Johnson is very active with knees, uppercuts, and elbows. Against Benavidez, he used the wrestler's aggression against him, landing hard knees to the torso as Benavidez looked to press him against the cage.
When he fought John Dodson, Johnson nearly ended "The Magician's" night with a high volume of knees and uppercuts from the clinch. Utilizing both the double collar tie and front head lock, Johnson softened up Dodson in the fourth before really turning it up in the fifth. By the end of the fight, Dodson was severely fatigued, and his face wore the damage.
Another clinch technique that Johnson debuted in his fight with Dodson was a bizarre way to land elbows while he was pinned against the cage. He forced Dodson to carry his weight by squeezing his knees on Dodson's hips, not touching the mat at all. From this position, he landed a few elbows to the side of Dodson's head and continued to tire him out.
Against Dodson, Johnson capitalized on his cardio advantage by pressuring his foe until he got tired. In this fight, and a few others, Johnson showed just how good he is at pressuring his opponent with strikes. However, years of fighting bigger, slower men combined with his own quickness have made Johnson a spectacular counter striker.
Johnson uses his fantastic footwork to stay just outside of his opponent's range. When his opponent over-commits, Johnson will barely avoid the strike before landing at least one of his own. Against Benavidez, Johnson repeatedly frustrated his foe with expert movement, then capitalized with a counter when Benavidez tried to lunge in.
Perhaps Johnson's favorite counter punch is the straight right hand. Johnson will allow his opponent to throw the first couple punches of his combination as Johnson backs up, only to stop, plant his feet, and throw a straight right down the middle. His opponent, Benavidez, also uses a similar technique, although he throws an overhand.
Despite a tendency to get clipped by one or two big punches per fight, Johnson's defense is pretty excellent. He's always moving his head and his footwork allows him to get out of range quickly. The only time Johnson is in danger is when his opponent correctly predicts his how he will exit, causing him to run into their punch.
Johnson was a talented high school wrestler, placing second and third in the states.Wrestling is likely Johnson's most improved aspect since his drop to flyweight. Not only has his timing and double leg, which has always been excellent, improved, his defensive wrestling has never looked better.
There are many talented wrestlers in the UFC, but Johnson may have the best timing of them all. He rarely shoots at a poor moment, almost always catching his opponent unaware or while they're moving forward. This is largely thanks to his footwork, which always leaves him in the position to shoot.
Johnson greatly prefers to blast his opponents off their feet with a double leg in the center of the Octagon, where they can't use the cage to defend. Not only is his shot shockingly quick, but it's powerful, as evidenced by his ability to force his way through Joseph Benavidez's sprawl. Even if his initial blast is stopped, Johnson can turn a sharp corner or transition into the clinch for another attempt.
While "Mighty Mouse" may prefer to instantly sweep his opponent from their feet, he's more than capable of pressuring his opponent into the fence. In fact, grinding for takedowns against the fence was key for Johnson in his victory over John Dodson, one of very few fighters who's able to match Johnson's speed. Despite the fact that his usual speed advantage was neutralized, Johnson's superior footwork allowed him to cut off the cage and drive Dodson into the fence. From there, Johnson was able to complete most of his takedowns, although he couldn't hold "The Magician" down.
In his last three fights, Johnson has really demonstrated his improved takedown ability from the clinch. From transitioning between Muay Thai knees and double legs to straight up manhandling Moraga with slams, Johnson has proved that he recognized his former weakness and improved upon it.
For the majority of his career, takedown defense was Johnson's Achilles heel.
It wasn't as though Johnson had bad takedown defense, it just wasn't as phenomenal as the rest of his skill set, leading to losses to Dominick Cruz and Brad Pickett. The problem at first seemed to follow him to flyweight, as Ian McCall out-wrestled Johnson in their controversial draw.
That all changed with the second McCall fight, when Johnson repeatedly stuffed "Uncle Creepy's" shots while landing his own. One fight isn't proof, but Johnson backed it up against Benavidez, landing five takedowns to Benavidez's zero. In his last two bouts, Johnson's wrestling was dominant and prevented his opponent from settling into their striking.
Johnson's improved takedown defense is largely thanks to the fact that his opponents no longer hold such a huge strength advantage over him. Additionally, he does an excellent job staying out of his opponent's takedown range. If they clinch with him, which once was a weakness for Johnson, "Mighty Mouse" will use the double collar tie to keep his forearms on his opponent's shoulders, preventing their shot.
Additionally, Johnson is a very difficult fighter to hold down. When he is taken down, Johnson returns to his feet in a few seconds by causing a scramble. However, when his opponent secures a dominant position, like the back mount, Johnson's defense doesn't work very well.
He just looks trapped.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Trained by Matt Hume, a grappler so talented he was dubbed "The Wizard," Johnson has developed a solid jiu-jitsu game. With seven victories via submission, including both of his ZUFFA finishes, Johnson has proven that he's well-versed on the mat.
Early in his World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC), Johnson was matched up with "The Angel of Death," Damacio Page, a fiery brawler from Greg Jackson's MMA. After a back-and-forth first round, Johnson capitalized on Page's fatigue, latching onto his neck when he went for a slow double leg. Rather than pull guard, Johnson pressed forward and pushed through his guard, nearly securing mount. A few seconds later, and Johnson earned his first ZUFFA submission victory.
In his most recent bout, Johnson repeatedly went after John Moraga's arm.
By the fifth round, Johnson had worn through Moraga's defenses. Grabbing onto a kimura from side control, Johnson stepped over Moraga's head and waited for him to defend. When he failed to do anything other than hold his grip, Johnson spun around into the armbar position. Moraga managed to roll on top of Johnson, but he maintained the position, eventually breaking through Moraga's grip and attacking his elbow.
Throughout his career, Johnson has demonstrated excellent submission defense. In addition to preventing Cruz's many rear naked choke attempts, Johnson survived Benavidez's nasty guillotine choke, something very talented black belts, like Miguel Torres and Wagnney Fabiano, failed to do.
In fact, Johnson didn't just survive Benavidez's choke attempt, he quickly threatened with a heel hook afterward. By elbow escaping directly into the submission attempt, Johnson gave himself more time to recover from the brutal hook that had dropped him, as well as forcing "Beefcake" to be wary of Johnson's bottom game.
One fight that showcased Johnson's defensive jiu-jitsu abilities would be his title eliminator versus Miguel Torres. Torres repeatedly attacked from his back with armbars, triangles, rolling leg attacks and more, nearly locking in a finish multiple times.
However, Johnson was too sneaky and inched his way out of every attempt.
Best chance for success
Johnson fought brilliantly in his last match against Benavidez. His right straight counter worked brilliantly, as did his constant movement. That said, he must be on his guard for Benavidez's vicious knockout power and guillotine, as both could easily end the night regardless of how well Johnson had been doing.
The only serious recommendation for Johnson I have is to begin working his takedowns earlier in the fight. His wrestling success was shocking in their first bout, and he should look to take advantage of it as much as possible in the rematch. Takedowns are a phenomenal way to ice close rounds, which is generally what Benavidez and Johnson produce.
Another thing that worked very well for Johnson in the first bout was his body shots. Johnson worked Benavidez's torso with knees, kicks, and punches early and often. In addition to being easier to land, the shots added up in the fourth and fifth round. After surviving an early scare, Johnson thoroughly controlled the rest of the fourth against a fading Benavidez. This trend continued into the fifth round, which he easily won. This success in the championship rounds is largely due to his continually body blows.
Can Johnson defend his title once more, or will Benavidez finally get his hands on the belt?