The sport of boxing is sometimes boiled down to the old adage, “to hit, and not be hit.” Athletes who can do this simple thing again and again, and at the highest levels, are the victors. And those unable to deliver and/or who take too much punishment while exchanging blows, inevitably lose out.
Mixed Martial Arts is vastly more complicated than boxing, and yet for over half of all fight minutes in the UFC, the two fighters are standing at a distance and trading strikes. And while they have more weapons at their disposal than just two heavily gloved fists, their objective remains simply “to hit, and not be hit.”
Current Flyweight Champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson has successfully defended his title eight times as of UFC 197, and cemented himself as the king of the weight class. And despite facing continuously elite talent, he has not appeared to be threatened significantly during his title reign or taken much damage. And when we look at the data, we see why.
The graph below shows Significant Strikes Landed versus Absorbed, per minute while standing a distance. Johnson is a complete MMA fighter, with a solid ground game, and his defense is arguably the best in the division. On paper, he’s one of the most elusive fighters in the sport. But how do the challengers stack up, and where might the threats lie down the road?
Johnson has effectively cleaned out much of the division’s top ranked fighters, and several of the best have already had two shots at the title. Some of these opponents like Dodson, Moraga, and McCall, don’t have the output or defense to take rounds off of Johnson. Others like Bagautinov didn’t stand a chance trading strikes with Johnson.
Among prior challengers, the biggest threat remains Joseph Benavidez. He’s had two shots at Johnson’s belt, and came up short both times, once in vicious fashion. But through his career he has managed to perform quite well in standup, despite his most dangerous weapon being his submission game. Even though a rematch would mean a rare third title shot, he still makes for one of the toughest challenges in the division should he earn it.
The most recent contender was Henry Cejudo, who shows up in the middle of the pack among numerous former contenders. His standup game has generally been favorable, doing more damage than he absorbs, though he’s not into the most effective quadrant on striking alone. But that’s hardly what makes him a threat in MMA. Cejudo’s Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling is a weapon that he has yet to fully utilize while in the UFC, which he’ll need to do if he wants to shut down Mighty Mouse in a rematch.
Top Potential Threats
The surprise here is young prospect Justin Scoggins, who is surging up the division. Scoggins’s striking is as effective as it is flashy, with seemingly effortless kicks that resemble Stephen Wonderboy Thompson’s acrobatic arsenal. And the damage he delivers does not tend to draw him into danger, as he’s able to deploy plenty of punishment without taking much of his own. Look for Scoggins to get a big step up in competition to test his potential for a title shot down the road.
John Lineker was at one point poised for a title shot, but his inability to make weight forced him up into the Bantamweight division. Still, if he can perform soundly and get back in the UFC’s good graces, he may get the chance to make weight back at 125 pounds. If he does that, he remains a viable challenger based on his standup skill. His power striking is among the best in the division, and he’s a fighter who literally “punches above his weight.” But all this relies on him coming down in weight.
The Bantamweight Champion
The fact that Mighty Mouse has cleaned house at Flyweight could be a problem for promoting that division. But after UFC 197, more and more supported the idea of a rematch with current Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz. Here is how Cruz would appear on the same graph as above.
If Mighty Mouse has excellent defense, then Dominick Cruz is the best in the business. His strike avoidance is elite, relying heavily on his unique style of movement and entrances. On paper, the two stack up very similarly, and Johnson at least has evolved his game significantly since their first meeting at Bantamweight in 2011. A rematch would pair two of the top five Pound-for-Pound best against each other in a true Champion vs Champion super fight. So while the UFC might currently have a promoting problem on their hands with the Flyweight division, a little of the box thinking could turn it into a big opportunity while some younger Flyweight prospects take some time to establish themselves as contenders.