Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) flyweight roost-ruler, Demetrious Johnson, will attempt to defend his strap once more, this time against Japanese knockout artist, Kyoji Horiguchi, this Saturday night (April 25, 2015) at UFC 186 inside the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Since earning his title in a close split-decision victory over Joseph Benavidez, "Mighty Mouse" has improved greatly and largely been untouchable. He's won his last five fights in fairly dominant fashion, scoring unanimous decisions or finishes in each win.
The flyweight division is relatively new, and Johnson has already beaten so many of its top contenders that UFC is scrambling for new ones. That search brought about Kyoji Horiguchi, and now Johnson is set to scrap with the Karateka.
Let's take a closer look at the skills that have made Johnson so dominant.
Johnson is a very effective kickboxer, as he works from both stances quite well, often within the same combination. In addition to opening up more angles to attack from, Johnson's diverse arsenal -- spread out between two stances -- keeps his opponent off balance and unsure what is coming.
Throughout his frequent stance switches, Johnson ensures he's keeping the perfect distance for his fight-specific game plan. For example, Johnson will stand just outside of his opponent's boxing range when looking to counter strikes. In both of his matches with Benavidez, this was the strategy Johnson pursued. In direct contrast to this, Johnson used his footwork to keep Ali Bagautinov in range and right at the end of his punches, while the Dagestani's back was to the fence.
In addition, the champion's footwork keeps him out of bad position. Johnson is rarely corralled into the cage, a position which leaves fighters immobile and vulnerable to punches and takedowns.
When fighting at range, Johnson is very active with his long range strikes. Active with jabs from both stances, Johnson will double and triple up on the strike as he circles his opponent. By putting out such a high volume of jabs, Johnson is able to cover distance well, either laterally or while moving toward his opponent.
Additionally, Johnson will occasionally throw kicks from this distance. "Mighty Mouse" normally mixes his kicks into combinations, but Johnson will also use them to find his range early on.
Once Johnson has established his jab and gotten comfortable with the range, he'll begin to open up with his combinations. The champion's combinations are varied and often extensive, as Johnson will switch stance in the middle of his attack. Plus, Johnson will make his offense even more unpredictable by suddenly mixing a kick into his offense.
Between these lengthy combinations and his habit of shift punches, Johnson is vulnerable to counter punches. In fact, the vast majority of success from his recent opponents -- not that much exists -- came in the form of counter punches. If Johnson is countered while switching stances, he's in a poor position to take a punch.
To avoid his opponent's counters, Johnson finishes his combinations very well. He never backs straight out, commonly exiting after a combo at an angle. For example, Johnson will often fire a hook as he pivots, occupying one of his opponent's hands or landing a punch as Johnson circles to safety.
Additionally, Johnson will snuff out his opponent's counters by forcing a grappling exchange. Johnson changes levels into a blast double to end his combinations all the time, which not only keeps him safe, it usually leads to him finishing the takedown. Plus, Johnson can push his way into the clinch, which also prevents counter punches from landing cleanly.
Johnson likes to finish his combinations with a high kick, as well. If his opponent is attempting to circle away and doesn't have his hands up, he's vulnerable to Johnson's round house kick. Of course, Johnson's speed and athleticism definitely help as well.
As mentioned, Johnson will end combinations by moving into the clinch, and that's an area he's really improved upon. This was first noticeable in Johnson's initial battle with Benavidez, as the Team Alpha Male-trained fighter looked to muscle Johnson around in the clinch. With his back to the fence, Johnson landed a few hard knees to the mid-section, and the strikes seemed to fatigue "Beefcake" as the fight wore on.
In Johnson's first title defense, he looked to implement the clinch offensively against John Dodson. Rather than try to out-quick Dodson -- who carried a clear power advantage and similar speed -- Johnson forced his opponent into the clinch and forced him to carry his weight. In addition to delivering hard knees from the double-collar tie and front head lock, Johnson really fatigued his opponent and largely diffused the threat of the knockout.
While clinch work hasn't been a major part of Johnson's game plan since, he's still been effective with it in his last couple bouts.
Johnson was a successful high school wrestler, though he never pursued the sport past that level. Since his drop to flyweight, Johnson's wrestling ability has improved tenfold, both offensively and defensively.
In addition to his above-average technical wrestling ability and explosiveness, Johnson's timing is really what separates him from most wrestlers. His excellent footwork keeps him in position to level change and shoot at all times. It's a rare case when Johnson does not shoot at an opportune time; he's normally ducking a punch or capitalizing on his opponent's feet being crossed up.
Johnson's double leg is quite versatile. He's able to blast his opponent from his feet with ease, in part due to his unexpectedly powerful drive. While he prefers to shoot in the center of the Octagon -- where his opponent cannot nullify his speed advantage by leaning into the cage -- Johnson is also able to finish his shots against the fence. He repeatedly turned to this technique against Dodson, forcing his opponent to work and fight off the wall.
Furthermore, Johnson's newly-developed clinch work has helped him transition into the double, as well. After weighing down on his opponent's neck in the Muay Thai clinch, Johnson will change levels when his opponent goes to posture up.
Takedown defense used to be the weakest aspect of Johnson's game. While the drop to flyweight didn't solve all of his problems immediately, Johnson has greatly improved in that area.
In particular, Johnson's defense in the clinch is much better. After securing at least a single collar tie, Johnson will use his forearms to push his opponent away and prevent level changes. In addition, his knees to the body are excellent at deterring his opponent's wrestling.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Outside of his flash knockout of Benavidez, each of Johnson's Octagon finishes came via submission. He's long been a solid positional grappler and is becoming more of a submission threat in each fight.
At this point in his career, Johnson is very active in pursuing his opponent's arms. Once Johnson passes his opponent's guard, he'll move into side control and begin to isolate his opponent's arm into a kimura. From there, he has a couple of options.
Usually, Johnson will look to step over his opponent's head and finish the kimura. After making the transition, Johnson keeps heavy pressure on his opponent's head. From there, he can use all of his force to crank on the arm.
If Johnson's opponent straightens his arm or is generally making it difficult to finish the kimura, Johnson can instead attack with an armbar. Rather than keep his weight on his opponent's head, Johnson spins all the way around his opponent's side and sets back on the hold. From there, he can wrench at his opponent's grip and attempt to finish the submission.
Johnson's submission defense is actually a pretty big part of his success. Back in the bantamweight division, Johnson scored the biggest victory of his career -- at the time -- over Miguel Torres. Despite a whirlwind of submission attempts ranging from triangles to heel hooks, Torres was unable to finish the scrappy "Mouse."
Later on, Johnson's submission defense won him the title.
In the fourth round of his initial fight with Benavidez, Johnson caught a hook directly on the chin and dropped to the mat. Benavidez hopped on his opponent's neck and quickly transitioned into mount. Historically, the next part in this sequence is "Beefcake's" opponent turning various shades of blue and furiously tapping.
However, Johnson survived.
Johnson scooted his hips rapidly and created just enough space to endure the hold. From there, he hip escaped a bit further and threw his leg across Benavidez's own leg, forcing him to roll away or risk being trapped in a heel hook.
Best chance for success
While Johnson likely has the footwork and agility to cut off the cage and strike with Horiguchi, it would likely be easier for him to look for the takedown. Horiguchi has been taken down before in his UFC career, and he's not really an offensive submission threat.
In order to take his opponent down, Johnson should look to time one of Horiguchi's blitzes. If Johnson is able to time a level change as Horiguchi moves forward rapidly -- which just so happens to be a specialty of his -- he shouldn't have a problem forcing his opponent to the mat.
Alternatively, Johnson could look to work from the clinch. If Johnson is threatening with knees and elbows while in close, "Mighty Mouse" should find opportunities to get in on his opponent's hips.
Will Demetrious Johnson successfully repel another title contender, or can Horiguchi pull off one of the biggest upsets in UFC history?