Demetrious Johnson’s quest for glory put on hold

Demetrious Johnson speaks with the media during a UFC 197 mixed martial arts news conference, Thursday, April 21, 2016, in Las Vegas. Johnson is scheduled to fight Henry Cejudo in a flyweight title fight Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

Demetrious Johnson was on the cusp of history, just one win from standing alone as the only champion in UFC history with 11 consecutive title defenses.

His quest for eternal glory was set to culminate in the main event of UFC 215, as he was scheduled to defend his flyweight championship against rising contender Ray Borg. Johnson, as always in any contest in his normal weight class, was heavily favored to win the bout — expected to cruise past another naive soul who believed he was the one to solve an unsolvable puzzle.

Johnson, however, will now need to wait.

Borg, ranked third in the UFC’s flyweight list of contenders, was forced to withdraw from Saturday’s contest at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Company doctors would not clear Borg to compete Thursday evening, deeming him ineligible because of an illness fewer than 48 hours before his title shot. The bout is reportedly expected to be rescheduled, essentially only delaying Johnson’s attempt at breaking Anderson Silva’s all-time record for title defenses.

The medically induced delay will give Borg more time to try to come up with a suitable plan to defeat Johnson, who has dominated every elite flyweight contender he has faced. It also nets the UFC more time to orchestrate a marketing plan fitting for one of the greatest, most reliable champions it has ever housed.

Having dispatched 10 straight title challengers (eight men total), Johnson’s attempt at reaching the illustrious mark fell far under the mainstream radar. That has been the case for a majority of the champion’s career; the masses have consistently ignored arguably the greatest fighter the world has ever seen.

It’s unclear exactly why “Mighty Mouse” has struggled from a box-office front. He is the smallest male champion the UFC has to offer, but he also has become one of the most consistent finishers the company has to offer among its titleholders. Lack of size can only be a valid argument when smaller fighters regularly produce overdrawn affairs. It’s a criticism Johnson has long since erased after earning stoppages in six of his 10 victories as champion. Each of his decision victories was followed by a stoppage, never allowing the masses to become comfortable in knowing what to expect.

To be fair, one can’t expect a few more months of planning to help the UFC to come up with a foolproof solution to Johnson’s issues. It has tried a number of approaches to help shed some light on what greatness Johnson exudes inside the cage.

It started off by placing its smallest champion on cable television, theoretically opening the doors for far greater viewing potential on big FOX. Those cards, generally speaking, offer fighters a greater amount of exposure. Though cable-TV fights don’t offer the same sort of prestige as a pay-per-view event, casting a wider net for overall viewership wasn’t a bad way to go.

Then came time for Johnson to stand atop PPV cards of his own — a yearlong stretch that provided some of the worst-selling cards in company history. At his very best, Johnson generated 205,000 buys, a remarkably low number for any champion. Worse yet, that number could arguably be attributed to the fact that he was accompanied by a star-studded cast featuring Donald Cerrone, Conor McGregor (only a budding star at the time), Yoel Romero and Eddie Alvarez. He averaged a total of 140,000 buys across four PPV events.

Placing him on free television was not the answer. Neither was placing him atop an otherwise must-see card.

Then came the third method: Booking Johnson on a card as the co-main event behind a truly must-see championship headliner. Johnson was booked to defend his title against Henry Cejudo at UFC 197, sitting just one slot behind one of the most anticipated fights in UFC history: Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones II.

If only it went down as planned. Cormier vs. Jones II — ultimately selling a reported 860,000 buys at UFC 214 this summer — did not take place at UFC 197, after Cormier was forced to withdraw with an injury. Jones instead fought Ovince Saint Preux that night, reducing the total amount of viewers for that PPV event to 322,000. It was bad news for the UFC, but terrible news for Johnson, who finally had his golden ticket to the top.

But that plan, placing Johnson on the same card as a true draw, can really only work in theory at this point. There is no Jones, Ronda Rousey or Brock Lesnar for the company to fall back on present day. Its last remaining star, McGregor, isn’t due back until 2018, and plenty of other capable champions will likely dial Dana White’s number in hopes of landing on whatever card is lucky enough to carry McGregor’s octagon return. Johnson might not be one of them, which could force him to make UFC history in an empty room.

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