Demetrious Johnson has spent more than half a decade trying to reach this moment. A champion inside the Octagon at 125 pounds, and arguably the greatest titleholder the sport has ever seen, Johnson faces Ray Borg at UFC 216 in hopes of defending his championship for the 11th consecutive time. Currently in a tie with all-time great Anderson Silva, who dominated the middleweight ranks during his historic run from 2006-13, a victory for Johnson would set him apart as the most accomplished champion in Octagon history.
Yet, Johnson won’t receive the greatest share of the spotlight Saturday night. That honor will be bestowed upon Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee, who will fight for the UFC interim lightweight championship in this weekend’s main event.
While not abundant, a few circumstances explain this questionable decision.
For starters, Ferguson and Lee were originally scheduled to headline this event when it was first announced several months ago. Johnson and Borg, meanwhile, were only inserted into the card a few weeks ago after their originally scheduled contest was scrapped at UFC 215 in September due to an illness from the challenger. A last-minute addition to a card that had all but been finalized, it’s understandable why the UFC would prefer to keep its original promise to Ferguson and Lee despite the changes in circumstances.
However, at least half of Saturday’s main event was open to the idea of dropping down to the second-to-last fight of the night. Ferguson, on a remarkable winning streak of his own and eager for his big moment, understood the magnitude of Johnson’s run and was more than willing to forgo his main event opportunity to give “Mighty Mouse” the stage his potentially historic accomplishment deserved.
“I was upset, I was upset,” Ferguson told the media about finding out Johnson would not be headlining (via MMA Fighting).
“I was gonna write Johnson a note and tell him and be like, ‘Hey man, I feel f–king terrible for you.’ Sh-t, I’m not getting any [pay-per-view] points on this stuff. So you know what, why? Why would you make me the main event?
“I’m an entertaining fighter. I’m gonna be always the main event.”
There’s also the company’s tradition of scheduling its championship contests — assuming there are more than one in a single night — from lightest to heaviest. It hasn’t made quite as marked an impression in recent years with the influx of superstar champions Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, but it’s a method utilized more often than not…
… but that wasn’t the case when Johnson was last scheduled to fight in September. Booked on another two-title fight card at UFC 215, Johnson-Borg (125 pounds) was billed ahead of Amanda Nunes-Valentina Shevchenko (135 pounds). Though it’s possible the UFC was merely only attempting to punish Nunes for pulling out of her originally scheduled rematch with Shevchenko this summer, it’s fairly clear the company recognized the gravity surrounding Johnson’s 11th consecutive title shot at the time. Fast forward a month later — suddenly that understanding is lost.
What’s more, Johnson’s championship contest is for an actual title. Ferguson-Lee, while potentially setting the stage for an eventual showdown with McGregor, is for an interim strap that was virtually created as a means to sell more pay-per-views.
This, if nothing else, only amplifies Johnson’s inability to become a favorable fighter in the eyes of mainstream fans. Inarguably the greatest pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, and arguably the greatest to ever compete in MMA, Johnson has rarely received the sort of praise and recognition his talents deserve. It’s not as though the company hasn’t given its fair share of effort in trying to sell Johnson as a must-see talent, but decisions like this — essentially admitting he’s not worthy of a main event despite the historic implications surrounding his upcoming title defense — certainly don’t help the cause.