History will be made this Saturday night (June 14, 2014) when Demetrious Johnson and Ali Bagautinov square off in the first-ever Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) flyweight pay-per-view (PPV) main event at UFC 174, airing live at 10 p.m. ET from Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Dominant champion Johnson has been on a tear since obtaining the belt by defeating Joseph Benavidez at UFC 152 in October 2012. "Mighty Mouse" has won five straight mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts, his most recent being a shocking "Knockout of the Night"-winning performance against Benavidez in their rematch at UFC on FOX 9 in December 2013.
With wins over four of the top five challengers at 125 pounds, it's clear that Johnson is beginning to separate himself from the relatively shallow flyweight pack.
The only man he has left to beat is the surging No. 4-ranked Bagautinov, who earned his shot at "Mighty Mouse" with a decision win over dangerous striker John Lineker at UFC 169 in February. Since making his way to the UFC in September 2013, "Puncher" has reeled off three straight victories to extend his overall win streak to 11.
But he's never faced anyone ever close to the level that "Mighty Mouse" is on right now, making this by far the toughest bout of his life.
Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Johnson vs. Bagautinov:
Record: 19-2-1 overall, 7-2-1 UFC
Key Wins: Joseph Benavidez (UFC on FOX 9, UFC 152), Ian McCall (UFC on FX 3), John Dodson (UFC on Fox 6)
Key Losses: Dominick Cruz (UFC on Versus 6), Brad Pickett (WEC 48)
Keys to Victory: Johnson is rapidly developing one of the best all-around games in the entire sport. He's redefined the stigma that flyweights can't finish fights by showing true one-punch knockout power against Benavidez and lethal submission skills by tapping out noted wrestler Moraga.
He may be the fastest fighter competing in UFC today, and he's certainly one of the best athletes. As always, "Mighty Mouse" is going to push an insane pace on "Puncher" and make him prove he can keep up. Bagautinov has never been into the championship rounds. With unrivaled conditioning, that is where "Mighty Mouse" thrives.
Johnson is a dangerous wrestler with his nonstop motor. Despite Bagautinov's extensive Combat Sambo background, "Mighty Mouse" won't be scared to get into a grappling match with him. He's at the top of the game in all aspects right now, making this his fight to lose.
The champion also has an unflappable mindset that won't allow him to get complacent. Despite having an iron grip on the 125-pound belt, he strives to improve each and every fight. Expect this one to be no different.
Record: 13-2 overall, 3-0 UFC
Key Wins: John Lineker (UFC 169), Tim Elliott (UFC 167), Marcos Vinicius (UFC Fight Night 28)
Key Losses: None
Keys to Victory: With five knockouts in 13 total wins, "Puncher' lives up to his namesake with fearsome power for a man his size. He mixes it with a ton of speed, but unfortunately that wont be an advantage in this fight.
Bagautinov has to find an opening for his strikes while simultaneously avoiding "Mighty Mouse's," and there may be no tougher task in UFC right now.
He may want to prove he can stand and trade with the champ, but that's probably not a good idea. Even though he has never been knocked out, that could change rather quickly if he gets hit with a shot like Benavidez did.
To neutralize the movement and frenetic pace of "Mighty Mouse," Bagautinov may want to resort to his accomplished grappling background. He spent years training in both Freestyle and Greco Roman wrestling, and he took home a 2012 World Combat Sambo title (although his title was stripped after he testing positive for methylhexanamine).
Attempting to make this fight ugly will play into Bagautinov's favor. He'll waste a ton of precious energy chasing down his opponent in a kickboxing match, and we don't know how his gas tank will hold up in a five round fight. Using his strength to find an advantageous position on the mat will help Bagautinov score points while slowing down "Mighty Mouse," at least momentarily.
All of that sounds well and good on paper, but obviously the hard part is implementing them against one of the world's truly elite fighters in the Octagon. If "Puncher" can pull that off, he'll deserve the coveted gold that awaits him.
Bottom Line From Vancouver: The bottom line for this fight is that we may be seeing the most dominant pound-for-pound force in UFC emerge.
If Johnson dispatches Bagautinov with the same ease he did Benavidez and Moraga, we'll know that he truly has no peer at 125 pounds. No other UFC champion can lay claim to wins over the top five challengers in their division. It's a momentous feet, even if it is in arguably the least talent-laden weight class.
On the other hand, Bagautinov has the chance to shock the world just like TJ Dillashaw did by knocking out Renan Barao at UFC 173 in May.
He's intensely focused and dangerous for sure, but the incredible burden of proving that a flyweight can defeat "Mighty Mouse" will weigh heavily on his shoulders. He's already been on a PPV main card so he knows what fighting under the bright lights feels like, but this is a bout of a different nature altogether.
It's a history-making one, and we don't get to say that too often.
Fitting that "Mighty Mouse" would be participating in it, because he's come to define the young UFC flyweight division as his own. Bagautinov will need to pull off something truly special to emerge with the crown.
We may see greatness continue to ascend, or we may see another upset that turns the MMA world upside down. Either way, the fans win, so enjoy the fight.
Demetrious Johnson is quickly earning a reputation as one of the world's best pound-for-pound fighters. Will "Puncher" be able to snatch that distinction away from him at UFC 174 on Saturday night?