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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 215’s Demetrious Johnson

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Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Flyweight kingpin, Demetrious Johnson, will duel with up-and-coming submission ace, Ray Borg, this Saturday (Sept. 9, 2017) at UFC 215 inside Rogers Arena in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

For once, there’s actually quite a bit of lead up to this fight. Not all of it was intentional though, as the UFC and Johnson feuded on his potential opponent for quite some time. A fight with TJ Dillashaw would have been nice — and Johnson did agree to it — but the pair could not come to terms.

Bigger than that story line is the fact that this is Johnson’s chance to break the record for title defenses. If he secures his 11th straight defense, “Mighty Mouse” accomplishes a feat unmatched by anyone in history.

Let’s take a look at the champion’s skill set:

Striking

Part of the reason Johnson is such a difficult man to prepare for is his adaptability. On the feet, he works well from both stances, switching often even in mid-combination. Furthermore, he’ll switch his approach as necessary, either relentlessly pressuring his foe to exhaust them or carefully working from the outside.

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 because of his excellent footwork. Between all the stance shifting, Johnson is always at the perfect distance, depending on his gameplan 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 (GIF). Alternatively, Johnson had not interest in being at the end of John Dodson’s ferocious punches, so he did his best to pressure and jam him into the fence. With his back to the fence, Dodson was more vulnerable to takedowns and punches, and Johnson happily blended the threats of both to stymie his opponent.

In Johnson’s most recent fight with Wilson Reis, “Mighty Mouse” put on a range striking clinic. In that fight, Johnson kept his distance and allowed Reis to advance, but he punished him all along the way. Backing away, Johnson commonly planted with a hard kick before returning to his lateral movement. It didn’t take long for Johnson to begin springing forward with punches or knees as well, bouncing from side-to-side before suddenly going directly at Reis with something violent. Reis marched forward, but he never found “Mighty Mouse,” landing just 9% of his significant strikes according to Fightmetric.

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 (GIF). 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. Johnson is aware of this risk, and he does several 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 (GIF), and he's gotten very dangerous from that position.

When Johnson's opponents 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.

In this week’s technique highlight, we took a look at some of Johnson’s clinch tactics.

Wrestling

Years ago, Johnson’s sole weakness was his takedown defense, as more experienced and often bigger fighters were able to control him. Since winning the title, Johnson’s wrestling ability has skyrocketed, as he’s now nearly impossible to takedown and lifts just about everyone off their feet when he tries.

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 takedown is quite versatile (GIF). He's able to blast his opponent from his feet with ease, in part because of 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. Against opponents who prefer to work from the outside, such as Dodson and Kyoji Horiguchi, Johnson will switch it up and grind his foe into the fence.

Another technique that Johnson will rely upon along the fence is yanking down on the neck from the double-collar tie to open up the double. As his opponent attempts to recover posture and pull out of the tie, Johnson will level change into a double leg along the fence.

Defensively, Johnson is so rarely out of position on the feet that he’s a tough man to take down. Elliott is the most recent man to find the occasional hole in his wrestling defense, but that required two fairly unique traits: being a whole lot bigger than the champion, and being so awkward and aggressive that Johnson was at times caught off-guard.

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. If the initial shot fails, driving up into the clinch is no longer a particularly viable path to the takedown for his foes.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Johnson has never been bad at jiu-jitsu or easy to submit, but he’s come a long way in being offensive on the mat. After landing one of his takedowns, Johnson is now quite proactive about looking to pass and submit, which has helped him finish fights more frequently.

The most important part to securing a finish from top position is actually passing 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. Outside of the occasional rear-naked choke attempt, Johnson likes to hunt for his opponent’s arm. More specifically, he looks to finish the far side armbar or kimura.

Once Johnson isolates the arm, 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 (GIF).

If Johnson's opponent straightens his arm or is generally making it difficult to finish the kimura, Johnson can instead attack with an arm bar. Rather than keep his weight on his opponent's head, Johnson spins all the way around his opponent's side and sits back on the hold. From there, he can wrench at his opponent's grip and attempt to finish the submission (GIF).

Opposite both Horiguchi and Wilson Reis, Johnson attacked the arm bar directly. Against both men — who were worn and beaten from the previous rounds — it was as simple as latching onto the arm and spinning (GIF). Once Johnson has the arm, he does a nice job of keeping his hips and positioning tight, giving his foe few opportunities to slip away (GIF).

Finally, Johnson has never been submitted in his UFC career. He’s undoubtedly been threatened — by the likes of excellent fighters like Joseph Benavidez, Miguel Torres, and Tim Elliott — but Johnson remained calm. His experience is obvious, as Johnson knows when it’s necessary to remain composed and fight hands or when it’s time to scramble like hell.

Conclusion

Like his last opponent, Borg is a tough but very likely outmatched contender. He may be a champion down the line, but for Demetrious Johnson, he’s just another number. This time, however, it’s a very important number; the one that pushes Johnson past all other champions and gives him a solid claim to be the best ever.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.