Inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) flyweight strap-hanger, Demetrious Johnson, is set to scrap with Dagestani Sambo Specialist, Ali Bagautinov, this Saturday night (June 14, 2014) at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Since upsetting Joseph Benavidez back at UFC 152 in a close decision to earn the flyweight belt, Johnson has been on fire. He endured some heavy punches at the hands of John Dodson only to roar back in the later rounds and nearly finish "The Magician," then submitted John Moraga after dominating him for nearly five full rounds.
In a full showcase of the improvements to his mixed martial arts (MMA) skills, Johnson clobbered Benavidez for a first round knockout victory less than two years after their original bout. Now, Johnson looks to continue his reign by taking out the "Puncher King" (check out his opponent's preview here).
Does Johnson have the skills to get it done?
Let's find out.
One of the most technically sound strikers in the entire sport, Johnson has focused a lot on improving his footwork. Though he's listed as orthodox, "Mighty Mouse" is adept from both stances and is able to smoothly switch between the two as necessary.
One of the largest benefits of Johnson's improved footwork is his ability to maintain proper distance. Johnson may be frequently moving laterally or pivoting around his opponent, he's always keeping a range that is ideal for his game plan. This means that he's either just out of his opponent's boxing range if he's looking to counter, or keeping his opponent at the edge of his punches if he's the aggressor.
An excellent example of the benefits of footwork is his most recent victory over Benavidez. As Benavidez pushed forward with a combination, Johnson quickly moved around the Team Alpha Male representative and put his back to the cage. Benavidez is an aggressive fighter and tried to punch his way out, but Johnson was in the better position. and landed the knockout blow.
While circling around his opponent, Johnson is very active with his jabs and low kicks. He's capable of jabbing with both hands and will often double or triple the jab to maintain his distance. In addition, throwing multiple jabs allows him to cover a lot of distance, either laterally or towards his opponent.
Once Johnson establishes his jab and range, he'll begin to attack with extensive combinations. Johnson's combos are crafty and unpredictable, as his transitions between stances create multiple angles and options for him. Plus, he fluidly mixes in kicks at varying heights, further complicating things for his opponent.
When throwing long combinations that include stance switches, the threat of the counter is an important thing to consider. In fact, the only times Johnson's opponent's have recently had any success is when they get him to run into a punch.
To avoid these strikes, Johnson has a number of ways to safely finish his combinations. He never exits straight back instead exiting at an angle, often with a hook around. That means that as he throws his left hook, Johnson will pivot to his left. The punch helps turn his opponent and/or occupy one of his hands, allowing Johnson to get off the center line safely. The same concept applies for his right hook as well.
In addition, Johnson will hide behind a couple jab after a combination. While circling, Johnson obstructs his opponent's view with the flash of his jab. Of course, Johnson will exit without punches as well, relying on his head movement to keep him safe.
Finally, Johnson loves to end his combinations with a grappling exchange. He often uses a blast double but will also smother his opponent's offense with a clinch attempt. Not only is ducking under strikes with a shot an effective defense, it's a brilliant way to drag the fight to the mat and enforce his will.
Johnson's ability to effortlessly mix kicks into his combinations is very useful and largely thanks to his diversity of kicks. From either stance, Johnson can throw speedy kicks with or without a step, varying as distance requires.
Utilizing his impressive speed, Johnson is able to sneak high kicks around his opponent's defense. He often ends his combinations with a head kick, usually when his opponent backs out instead of looking for counters. Like most of his techniques, Johnson can throw his head kick with either stance.
Since Johnson is now fighting men of similar stature in the 125 pound division, he's been able to show off his clinch striking much more. Prior to his weight drop, Johnson had to avoid the clinch, otherwise he was likely to get thrown around. Now, he's active with punches, knees, and elbows. Additionally, he showed against Joe Benavidez that he can use a wrestler's aggression and tendencies against him, landing hard knees to the body whenever "Beefcake" pushed forward for a takedown. This is incredibly fatiguing and likely contributed to Benavidez slowing down in the championship rounds.
Against Dodson, Johnson relied on his clinch work for a different reason. Dodson, perhaps the most explosive athlete at flyweight, could not keep "Mighty Mouse's" pace but was still quite dangerous. To keep himself safe while doing damage, Johnson used a constant stream of knees and elbows from the Thai plum and front headlock to do damage and further fatigue Dodson.
Johnson is one of very few men who is excellent at both pressuring his foe and counter striking. Against Dodson and in the second Benavidez fight, Johnson was largely the one moving forward. This was a huge part of the reason that Dodson got so tired; Johnson was right on top of him for five rounds.
Despite his success with pressuring his foe, Johnson might be even better at counter striking. His ability to stay just outside of his opponent's range is sublime, and he frequently makes his opponent's pay for their misses.
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. This strike is often the result of his opponent's impatience, as he rushes to close the distance on the nimble champion.
A talented wrestler in high school, Johnson has long been a good wrestler. However, since his drop to flyweight, Johnson's wrestling has been largely untouchable. Even McCall, who arguably won their first bout with his imposing top game, was out-wrestled in the rematch not long after.
Of all the highly talented wrestlers that have fought inside the Octagon, Johnson may have the best timing. I cannot remember a time when the AMC Pankration-trained product shot at a poor time, as he always catches his opponent either moving forward or with his feet planted. This is largely possible due to his excellent footwork, which leaves him ready to shoot at all times.
Since his timing is so excellent, Johnson prefers to shoot his blast double in the center of the Octagon. In the open area, his opponent rely on the cage to keep him standing. In addition to his timing, Johnson's double is aided by his incredible speed and, perhaps unexpected, impressive drive. If his initial blast does not finish the shot, Johnson is still able to cut a corner or transition into another takedown/clinch.
It may not be his preferred method, but Johnson showed that his takedowns against the fence are rather effective when he took on Dodson. Since Dodson could match his speed and threaten with power shots, Johnson preferred to grind for takedowns against the fence. This not only fatigued "The Magician," but it allowed Johnson to partially neutralize the explosiveness that Dodson relies on to stay standing.
In his last few 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.
While at Bantamweight, takedown defense was the biggest hole in Johnson's game. A large part of his improvement is that he's now fighting guys closer to his size, but there have been technical improvements as well. The biggest part is likely his every improving footwork, which keeps him outside of his opponent's range and ready to defend.
In the clinch, Johnson's use of the double collar tie and knees is excellent at deterring takedowns. Using his forearms, Johnson can push his opponent back and prevent him from dropping levels. Plus, pushing forward while absorbing knees to the stomach is exhausting, as I previously mentioned.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Johnson's head trainer is Matt Hume, a well-known submission specialist. Under his tutelage, Johnson has developed a solid submission game and earned seven victories via tapout. With his submission victories almost evenly split between arm assaults and choke finishes, Johnson has revealed that his ground game is fairly well rounded as well.
In his victory over Damacio Page, Johnson used a combination of a rapid pace and nice technique to finish "The Angel of Death." A slow takedown from Page was easily stuffed, and Johnson quickly latched onto his neck. Rather than pull guard, Johnson forced Page backwards and passed into what is basically a mount. From there, the finish came easily.
More recently, Johnson showed both confidence and aggressiveness as he repeatedly attack Moraga's arm.
Either attacking with a kimura or armbar, Johnson continually wore down Moraga's defenses throughout five rounds. By the end of the match, Moraga was tiring, and Johnson once again went for a kimura. He spun around to an armbar, but his squeeze on the arm was loose enough that Moraga could roll up. Despite this, Johnson readjusted from his back and broke Moraga's grip, forcing him to submit.
Through a combination of toughness and technique, Johnson has proven that he is a very tough man to submit. This was first seen against Miguel Torres, who threatened Johnson with armbars, triangles, leg locks, and sweeps. Despite being put in some bad positions by the jiu-jitsu black belt, Johnson was able to inch out of every submission and take a close decision.
Perhaps more impressive was Johnson's ability to survive a position that fell names like Miguel Torres, Wagney Fabiano, and Tim Elliott among others. When Benavidez dropped Johnson and locked in a mounted guillotine, it seemed like the fight was over.
Benavidez has a hell of a squeeze.
However, Johnson was able to quickly shimmy his hips and transition into a heel hook, which forced Benavidez to release the position. Not only did he survive an extremely dangerous position, but he managed to threaten with a legitimate submission attempt immediately after and clear his head.
Best chance for success
In order to defeat Bagautinov, Johnson has to use the Russian's willingness to forgo the center of the Octagon against him. Utilizing his sharp footwork, Johnson can cut off the cage and then counter whatever the "Puncher King" does in response.
For example, if Bagautinov attempts to explode forward into a combination, Johnson can simply duck below the strikes and blast through his opponent. Should Bagautinov attempt to circle out, Johnson should look to catch him moving into strikes.
In that situation, Johnson's kicks would be especially effective.
Unless Bagautinov has seriously switched up his training, Johnson is very likely to have a serious conditioning edge. If he wears Bagautinov down with constant pressure and takedowns -- similar to the Dodson fight -- Johnson will take over late. Then, Johnson would be well advised to look for a submission, as it's likely his best chance for a finish.
Can Johnson finish his third opponent in a row, or will Bagautinov pull off a major upset?