Dodson, Johnson fighting for flyweights around the world Saturday
You just knew the addition of a flyweight division would get UFC fans riled up. Perpetual motion fighters like Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez had been competing -- and faring quite well, thank you -- against men bigger than them because they had no other option if they wanted to be part of the top promotion in mixed martial arts. Some pint-sized dynamos, like John Dodson, were putting on a show in other organizations and waiting for their time to come. Finally, the UFC created a division for 125-pounders, and boy did the fans react.
Not the way Dana White & Co. expected, though.
"If you didn't like the flyweight fight, please, I'm begging you, don't ever buy another UFC pay-per-view again," the company president spat out four months ago in Toronto after sitting cageside at UFC 152 and hearing fans loudly boo the evening's historic happening, in which Johnson edged Benavidez by split decision in the first UFC flyweight title bout. "I don't want your money. You're a moron. You don't like fighting. You don't appreciate talent."
Well, the morons and their money were back two weeks later in Minneapolis, jeering rather than cheering as Dodson, who'd finally made it to the UFC by beating a season's worth of bantamweights on The Ultimate Fighter, earned a title shot with a second-round finish of Jussier da Silva. The disapproving fan reaction again was not lost on White, although this time he was more puzzled than perturbed.
"Yeah, it's a little weird, man," he said at the post-fight press conference. "I think guys get 10 to 12 beers in them and expect guys to run out and do the windmill or something. It's a very important fight for both guys. Like [Dodson] said, it was a technical fight, he waited, he got his opportunity, and he capitalized on it. That's fighting. That's the beauty of two of the best in the world going at it, you know?"
So here we go again. On Saturday night, two of the best in the world once more will be going at it when Johnson (16-2-1) defends his flyweight belt for the first time, taking on Dodson (14-5) at UFC on Fox 6 (8 p.m. ET) in Chicago. In the main event.
That last detail is not Dana thumbing his nose at the naysayers. If there's a championship fight on a card, it's always the main event. That's standard UFC hierarchy at play. In a month, for example, Ronda Rousey also will make her first title defense, putting her bantamweight belt on the line against Liz Carmouche. It will get top billing on an evening that also will see Dan Henderson take on Lyoto Machida. We heard a little grumbling by macho men who can't stand to see a couple of former champions play second fiddle to a girl fight, but as the Neanderthals learned the hard way, you've got to learn to adapt.
The flagellation of the flyweights is even more perplexing. The fights we've seen so far in the 125-pound division have been nonstop displays of well-rounded mastery. Johnson and Benavidez went back and forth for five churning rounds, exchanging on their feet and scrambling on the mat. It had my heart pounding for the better part of 25 minutes, even as the engines of the two fighters whirred along with no visible signs of a need to downshift.
And while Dodson's two rounds in the cage with Da Silva didn't have as many gripping moments, the fight ended with a knockout, which did get a grudgingly approving response from the crowd. Now we have the dazzling footwork and lightning-strike grappling of "Mighty Mouse" matched against a challenger who's no less quick and can really pack a punch.
Why does this happen? Maybe because the Road Runner vs. Speedy Gonzalez action of a flyweight fight is simply too much for folks in the arena to fully take in. I was cageside for Johnson-Benavidez, and while I followed the fight well enough to write about it that night, I must admit that when I returned home from Toronto and rewatched it on my DVR, I saw an abundance of details I'd missed in real time. Because real time in a flyweight fight feels like fast-forward. So many of the intricacies are lost on us that the fight can look like two little guys just dancing around.
Then again, maybe it's something more fundamental that's lost when fans are watching the little guys. It's a whole lot easier for us to live out our fantasy of being the biggest, baddest man on the planet while we're witnessing two big, bad men in a cage fight. Sit us down instead outside a cage containing a couple of guys a hundred pounds smaller than us, and maybe it's more of a stretch — or, um, a squeeze — to live vicariously.
Bottom line: Fans are going to do what they do, and the fighters just have to do their job. "They can sit there and boo through the whole thing, and I'm just gonna go out there and fight," Dodson said during a conference call with MMA media last week. "That's what matters to me."
True, but he's not a guy who's unaware of the spotlight shining upon him. As he said earlier in the call, "How many people can say they're in the main event for their third fight in the UFC after only being in the UFC for a year? It's a great feeling, and I am blessed to be here. And I want to make sure I put on a good show. I'm fighting for flyweights across the world right now."
Johnson, as is his way, has been quieter about being smack dab in the crosshairs of the leather-lunged paying customers. He's been a UFC headliner twice before, when he earned his title shot back in June with a win over Ian McCall and also back in 2011, when he challenged Dominick Cruz for the bantamweight title. From Cruz to McCall to Benavidez to former bantam champ Miguel Torres before them, Johnson has been in big fights one after another for nearly two years. He's not consumed by the moment, saying, "A fight's a fight, regardless of whether the title is on the line or not."
And regardless of whether the fans are behind you or not.