By most objective measurements, Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson – both of whom are co-headlining this Saturday’s UFC 197 card – are the two best fighters on the planet.
Their records speak for themselves. Jones is 21-1 in professional fights, his sole loss a fluky disqualification against Matt Hamill in 2009. Since joining the UFC in late 2008, he has defeated six UFC and/or Strikeforce champions; his 2011 run – in which he not only beat but finished Ryan Bader, Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson and Lyoto Machida – may very well be the single most impressive year any MMA fighter has ever had. Conversely, Johnson is the UFC’s longest-reigning champion, having dominated the 125-pound division since 2012. Over the last four years, the flyweight strap holder has won eight consecutive fights, defeating Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson twice apiece in addition to picking apart top-ranked challengers Ali Bagautinov, John Moraga and Kyoji Horiguchi like it was nothing.
Alas, as dominant as the two fighters have been, the reactions they have received from the MMA media and fans alike couldn’t be any more different. No matter how many times Jones exhibits immature behavior, he is celebrated (and rightly so) for being one of the most gifted fighters the sport has ever seen. On the flip side, however, Johnson is considered a “joke” in the eyes of non-fans (and even many hardcore MMA followers) no matter how impressive his victories. Jon Jones’ idiotic behavior outside the cage is always excused because of his dominance inside the Octagon, yet despite being a veritable paragon of virtue by combat sports standards, Demetrious Johnson just doesn’t receive the same praise for being as dominant within his division.
It’s a strange scenario. How can the No. 1 and No. 2 pound-for-pound fighters on the planet be treated so radically different from one another? Why is it that Jon Jones got shoe company endorsement deals and was featured on the cover of Xbox games and is still touted as the company’s acme of athleticism despite testing positive for cocaine and leaving the scenes of accidents involving pregnant women, but Mighty Mouse – whose biggest vice appears to be the video game Dark Souls III – remains unknown but to only the sport’s most die-hard fans?
Jones and Johnson are both athletic freaks of nature, using their decisively un-fighter like physiques to prove that old theorem F=MA true in the most beautifully violent of ways. Neither Jones nor Johnson may have a lot of muscle, but they have astonishing speed. What they lack in M, they more than make up for with A; in a world where power is most often equated with size and strength, the two best MMA fighters on the planet instead exemplify it through velocity and agility.
Furthermore, both Bones and Mighty Mouse have proven their deftness at various styles of fighting. They can knock you out just as easily as submit you, and they are just as adept at pummeling foes on their feet as they are grinding them into the mat in wrestling-oriented ground battles. Both can rightfully claim they’ve cleaned out their divisions, and both would likely excel at the weight class above them – if not be the outright favorites to become champions.
There are differences, of course. At 6’4, Jon Jones has the biggest reach advantage of any fighter in the company. Johnson, at 5’3, has a wingspan nearly two feet less than Bones and is officially the shortest male fighter on the UFC roster. Stylistically, Jones is more prone to keeping his opponents at bay with jabs, while Johnson is a master at bobbing and weaving. Jones looks to finish fights by smothering foes against the cage and clipping them with lightning fast strikes; Johnson prefers dragging his challengers to the canvas and pummeling them into submission.
Regardless of their similarities and dissimilarities, both men win and they win often. In almost 50 combined fights, the two have a collective three losses, and none of them are by knockout, TKO or submission.
But one man is the “face” of the sport, and the other isn’t.
Going by character alone, Demetrious Johnson should be one of the most popular fighters in the world. He grew up in poverty, having never known his biological father. His mother was deaf and he was routinely beaten by his abusive stepfather. Inspired by the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, he worked at a shoe store so he could pay for MMA training while he was still in high school. While other fighters get embroiled in domestic violence and substance abuse controversies, he spends his time outside the gym gleefully eating peanut butter with his child and spending quality time with his ridiculously hot wife. He doesn’t talk trash, he doesn’t showboat and he doesn’t constantly try to promote his brand. When he does well, he doesn’t boast, and when he underwhelms, the only person he blames is himself. He just goes out there and fights as hard as he can, every time he steps into the cage.
Compare that mentality to Jon Jones’, the hard-partying, egotistical, pseudo-Christian holy roller, who appears to halfass it whenever he finds himself against opponents who are clearly out of their league. Although he has one of the most likable personalities in MMA, Johnson is often criticized as “boring” or “predictable” or “unexciting.” Conversely, despite being arguably the most despised “heel” in the UFC, very rarely does one encounter an account of Jones’ style that doesn’t include terms like “electrifying” or “dynamic,” even from his most ardent detractors.
Does mere “sizism” explain why Jones is celebrated but Johnson remains shrouded in obscurity? Is it a lack of charisma on Mighty Mouse’s part? Is the flyweight division just too talent-deficient, compared to the slew of marquee names in the light heavyweight division? All of these could be factors, but no single answer explains the discrepancy in the two fighters’ mass appeal.
That said, popularity doesn’t win you fights. Training and preparedness and talent does. When Mighty Mouse steps in the cage to do battle with Henry Cejudo this weekend, you know he’s going to go into the bout 100 percent laser focused. This is his job and he takes it deathly serious. He might finish Cejudo in the first round or he might scrap by with a grueling five round decision. Regardless, his mannerisms and verbiage in the post-fight interview will be the same, dominant win or razor thin decision. He will be cool, he will be calm and he will be gracious to his opponent.
Meanwhile, Jon Jones – returning from a lengthy suspension – will likely pander to the audience. He will toy around with Ovince St. Preux, a late sub for Daniel Cormier who is seemingly unequipped to do battle with a fighter of Jones’ caliber, and he will look for the flashy finish. Almost certainly, he will get it and in his post-fight interview, he will talk trash and pat himself on the back and try to set himself up for another massive payday. He’ll thank Jesus for giving him the ability to punch people so hard they pass out, and he and his entourage will probably go out clubbing (heck, it might even be at the same after-party hosted by Mighty Mouse’s crew.)
Both men, presumably, will walk out of UFC 197 with rather facile wins on their records. Both men will almost certainly remain No. 1 and No. 2 in the P4P rankings. And, without question, one fighter will remain one of the most talked-about athletes on the planet.
And the other – for better or for worse – will remain Demetrious Johnson.