Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Flyweight roost-ruler, Demetrious Johnson, will collide with knockout artist, John Dodson, for the second time this Saturday (Sept. 5, 2015) at UFC 191 inside MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Johnson's chance at earning a title rose significantly when the 125-pound division was first announced, but it was far from a guarantee. Fast forward just a few years to today, and Johnson is one of the most dominant champions in the sport and shows no signs of slowing down.
Johnson's incredible success can be credit to his constant improvement. Between each fight, Johnson grows, sharpening his techniques or adding entirely new elements to his game. That's a very difficult undertaking for a fighter who is already one of the world's best, but he's improved consistently nonetheless.
Now, let's take a closer look at the champion's skill set:
Johnson is one of the best switch-hitters in the business. Smoothly transitioning between Southpaw and Orthodox -- often mid-combination -- Johnson works from a variety of angles and keeps his opponent off-balance.
One of the most important parts of Johnson's game is his sense of distance. Whether he's looking to step in with a combination or shoot a reactionary double leg, Johnson is very rarely too far out or too close.
This, in large part, is due to his excellent footwork. Between all the stance shifting, Johnson is always at the perfect distance, depending on his game plan for that fight. For example, he worked the outside quite well in both of his matches with Joseph Benavidez, doing his best to make "Beefcake" miss and land his own counter punches. On the other hand, Johnson pressured Ali Bagautinov into the fence and kept him there, peppering the Sambo specialist with punches and kicks from the edge of his range.
When working from distance, Johnson is very active with his long range strikes. He'll pump out a jab from both stances, commonly doubling or tripling up on the strike. He's also quite active with his kicks, as he'll throw out plenty of quick low kicks to measure distance 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 combination.
Because of the inherent risk of switching stances while punching and the length of his combination, Johnson can be vulnerable to counter punches. If he's caught with a shot between stances, he's in poor position to absorb the blow. Notably, Dodson dropped "Mighty Mouse" a couple of times in the early going while Johnson was throwing a combination, and he'll definitely look to do the same in this bout.
Johnson is aware of this risk, and he does a number of things well to minimize it. For example, he never backs straight out after landing his shots, always exiting at an angle. He often covers his exit with a punch, such as jabbing or occupying one of his opponents hands with a hook while he circles away.
In addition, Johnson is very good at stuffing his opponent's attempts to counter by forcing a grappling exchange. Earlier in his career, Johnson would frequently end his combinations with double leg takedowns, which obviously makes it difficult for his opponent respond with punches. While he'll still do that, he's been closing in with the double-collar tie more often, and he's gotten very dangerous from that position.
When Johnson's opponent's back away from his punches, he's very good at finishing his combination with a sharp kick. This is a common and very effective strategy, as Johnson can catch his opponent circling into the strike and make it even more powerful.
Perhaps the biggest improvement to Johnson's overall game has been his clinch work. It's now a very dangerous asset for him, as he's very active with his knee strikes while in close and is always threatening the takedown.
This improvement was first noticeable in his first bout with Benavidez. After being pushed into the fence by the powerful wrestler, Johnson delivered some very hard knees to the mid-section. These knees seem to tire his opponent and definitely helped Johnson get off the fence.
Since then, Johnson has become far more aggressive in seeking out the clinch on his own. This was especially true in his first bout with Dodson, as he hung on his opponent's neck and wore him down in the clinch. Using the front headlock and Muay Thai plum, Johnson landed heavy knees and plenty of elbows to his fatiguing opponent.
Johnson's bout with Ali Bagautinov really showed off his complete clinch game. When the Dagestani fighter looked to push his opponent into the fence and rough him up, Johnson would use the double-collar tie to circle off and land knees. Once he realized that Bagautinov had no real answer for that position, Johnson began pushing into the clinch on his own and working his opponent over with knees.
Though Johnson never wrestled past high school, he's become one of the sport's most efficient wrestlers. Since his drop to Flyweight, Johnson has shored up in the holes in his takedown defense and continued to improve offensively.
Johnson's technical wrestling ability and general explosiveness are well-above average, but it's the champion's measure of distance -- and thus timing -- that really separates him from most wrestlers. His excellent footwork keeps him in position to level change and shoot at all times. Johnson almost never takes a poor shot, as he's always dropping under an opponent coming in or distracting him with a combination.
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 cage, using up precious energy.
Because of his recent affinity for clinch work, Johnson has been hitting several takedowns from that position. After breaking his opponent's posture with the double-collar tie, his foe's common reaction is to attempt to posture up to avoid taking a knee to the skull. When his opponent attempts to hip in and break the clinch, Johnson will release the hold and level change into the double leg.
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, it certainly helped.
Of course, Johnson's improvements to his striking have also greatly improved his takedown defense. If his opponent cannot get into close range exchanges or force the clinch, he's not likely to put Johnson on his back.
It's also important to note that 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.
Since consistently scoring knockouts is rather difficult, Johnson has largely leaned on his submission ability to finish fights. He's been a solid positional grappler for a long time, but he's really gotten more aggressive with his jiu-jitsu in the last couple years.
The most important part to securing a finish from top position is actually passing the guard. To that end, Johnson is very smooth at systematically moving through his opponent's guard. First, he'll wait for his opportunity to step over a leg into half guard. Once he's there, he'll again bide his time until he can cut his knee through the guard and pass into side control.
At this point in his career, Johnson is very active in pursuing his opponent's arms. Once Johnson passes guard, he'll 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.
In his last bout, Johnson skipped a few steps. After securing the far side underhook, his opponent, Kyoji Horiguchi, did very little to prevent Johnson from stepping into mount and easily spinning into an armbar.
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
Having beaten Dodson once already, Johnson knows precisely what he needs to do. While Dodson has sharpened up every aspect of his game, his overall strengths and weaknesses are very much the same.
With that in mind, Johnson simply needs to focus on exhausting his opponent in the first two couple rounds. There are few men who set up their takedowns better than "Mighty Mouse," and the champion should rely heavily on the ability early on.
Assuming Dodson lives up to his promise to bring plenty of aggression into the Octagon, there will be plenty of opportunities for Johnson to get in on his hips for a shot. Really, it doesn't matter that Johnson completes the takedown or maintains top position, he just needs to force Dodson to expend energy on something other than potential knockout blows.
Once Dodson slows down, it's Johnson's fight to lose.
Will Demetrious Johnson continued his unbeaten run at Flyweight or will John Dodson leave the cage strapped with gold?