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UFC 191 Gaps in the Armor: How John Dodson beats Demetrious Johnson

Bloody Elbow's technical analyst Connor Ruebusch lays out the gameplan for John Dodson to dethrone flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson at UFC 191.

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

I'll say up-front that this is one of the hardest articles I've ever had to write. Demetrious Johnson is not only one of the most dominant champions in all of MMA, but one of the most well-rounded fighters, period. Since mounting the UFC's flyweight throne, Johnson has held the newborn division in an iron grip, and it's getting harder and harder to envision anyone knocking him off any time soon--but today I will attempt to find the strategy to do just that.

Anyone can be beaten on any given day. This is one of those unwritten rules that we forget all too easily, but it remains true nonetheless. We've had enough reminders of this over the past year to keep this rule fresh in our minds. TJ Dillashaw exceeded even my expectations when he dominated Renan Barao to take the bantamweight belt. I had an inkling, but who really expected Rafael Dos Anjos to batter Anthony Pettis the way he did? In combat sports, no one is immortal, and any man can become a god, even if only for a night.


With Johnson's vulnerability in mind, it helps that the man set to face him is the only one to have made him look human since the start of his championship reign. Not only did Dodson come within a hair's breadth of taking three rounds from Johnson in January of 2013, but he did it by knocking the newly crowned champion to the canvas three separate times. This gave Dodson an unfortunate opportunity to witness Johnson's sheer doggedness, but it's also more than enough to believe that he could do so again, and even improve upon his prior success.

As usual, I've identified three key points, without which Dodson will have only a puncher's chance of taking the belt.

1. Counter in combination, and follow up
2. Disincentivize the clinch
3. Make Johnson close the gap

Now let's break down each key in reverse order, from least important to most.

3. Make Johnson close the gap

John Dodson is a counter puncher by nature, though he doesn't always realize it. Aided by his unmatched speed and explosiveness, he's fought his fair share of aggressive fights, chasing timid opponents down with wild swings of his left hand. At his best, though, Dodson plays a patient game, drawing his opponents in and letting them collide with his brick fists.

It was as a counter puncher that Dodson found much early success against Johnson the first time around, and a similar approach should yield similar results. Fortunately for Dodson, Johnson has always been happy to pressure an opponent. In fact, he pressured Dodson from first second to last when last they met, despite eating the most punishing shots of his career. While that does say something about the champion's tenacity, it also suggests an opening. Dodson shouldn't have to worry too much about drawing Johnson forward; all he'll have to do is stay one step ahead of him as he adjusts and renders that pressure effective. A tall order, of course, but not an impossible one.

1. Johnson circles around Dodson, looking for an angle of attack.

2. Reacting to Dodson's pawing jab, he level changes and steps forward.

3. Already overextended, Johnson throws an ineffectual uppercut to the body, eating a left uppercut in the process.

4. Shifting forward into southpaw, Johnson tries a short left hand across Dodson's jaw, but Dodson has used a shift of his own to step back out of range.

5. And before Johnson can change angles and move away, Dodson drops his weight onto his back foot, smashing a Tyson-esque counter hook across Johnson's jaw and knocking him down.

Dodson needs Johnson in that sweet spot where his heavy hands can do the most damage possible, which means just within the end of his reach, and while Johnson is out of position to absorb a solid blow. Fortunately for Dodson, Mighty Mouse has a dangerous habit of attacking in straight lines, chasing after his opponents as they scuttle backward across the canvas. Johnson has improved this habit somewhat recently, as he continues to grow more technical and defensively responsible in his striking, but if Dodson can goad Johnson into chasing him, opportunities like the one above will reveal themselves again.

Johnson's reckless forward momentum is made worse by his dangerous tendency to switch stances right in front of his opponent. The shifts and unexpected side-steps can render his angular movement more unpredictable, and allow him to close distance with blinding speed, but they leave him momentarily off-balance and vulnerable. A fighter with compromised balance is a fighter with a vulnerable chin, and there is no way to completely avoid compromising your own balance while crossing your feet.

For Dodson, the key to landing punishing counters will be in retreating just enough to get Johnson to chase him, at which point he can plant his feet and unleash attacks of his own.

2. Disincentivize the clinch

Demetrious Johnson's championship run has seen a host of small improvements--his footwork, his punching mechanics, and his submission grappling all included--but none have stood out quite so much as his clinch fighting. In fact, over the last three years Johnson has turned out to be a downright clinch specialist, using the threat of his wrestling and the perimeters of the cage to trap opponents in his deadly embrace.

This new wrinkle was first revealed when Johnson and Dodson first met. After enjoying two very successful rounds, Dodson found himself faced with a Demetrious Johnson hell-bent on getting close to him--too close to hit, and too close to hurt--and it worked. By the end of the third round Johnson was not only getting his hands on Dodson, but finding ways to hurt him once he'd done so. If you were to go back through the thirteen or so minutes of fighting before that looking for the moment that sprouted this opening in Johnson's mind (not to mention the mind of head trainer, Matt Hume), it would probably be this seemingly insignificant sequence from just after the big knockdown in the second round.

1. Having just been hurt (by the knockdown above, in fact) Johnson retreats with Dodson in pursuit.

2. Johnson flashes a distracting punch upstairs . . .

3. . . . and then immediately changes levels and dives on Dodson's hips, nearly meeting a Dodson uppercut on the way down.

4. With some considerable momentum on his side, Dodson has no trouble reacting to the shot in time, and he sprawls Mighty Mouse into the canvas.

5. Then, crossfacing to create a little space, Dodson works to his knees . . .

6. . . . and stands, disengaging altogether.

All told, that looks like a pretty successful sequence on Dodson's part. Not only does he have the champion on the reactive, but he successfully stops his takedown, after just barely missing on a potentially fight-ending counter. The problem is what Dodson does after stuffing the takedown, which is to say: nothing.

For some fighters, a powerful sprawl is as good as a clean shot to the chin. Unable to take their opponents down, they lose heart, lose their heads, and usually lose the fight. Demetrious Johnson is not such a fighter. Not only does a stuffed takedown have no discernible effect on his bottomless gas tank, it only encourages him to adjust that takedown and find a way to make it work, even if that means abandoning the takedown altogether, and merely using it as a way to get into body contact with the opponent.

Before the start of round three, Matt Hume implored Johnson to make better use of the distance. "When you're getting hit," he told him, "It's because you're trading with him and standing up in front of him. Staying at arm's length. He only punches at arm's length." Then, bringing his palms to his chest he underlined the crux of the new gameplan: "Stay in here." In close. Against Dodson, who up to that point had comfortably outstruck him at range, the relative safety of the clinch spurred Johnson to unprecedented aggression. Upping his own workrate as Dodson's inevitably began to slow, Johnson relentlessly attacked Dodson's hips, turning failed takedowns into successful clinch entries. Slowly but surely the momentum shifted, and Dodson spent the remainder of the fight helplessly fighting to defend himself from Johnson's arsenal of clinch attacks, absorbing too many knees and fists.

The solution is simple enough in theory. Come September 5th, Dodson needs to be prepared to punish Johnson in the clinch, even if that means occasionally stepping forward and grabbing the clinch himself. Allow UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk to demonstrate.

1. Penne tries for a hip toss, but Jedrzejczyk is slipping out of her headlock.

2. Escaping, she crossfaces with her left hand as Penne turns, to maintain some distance.

3. Then immediately fills that distance with a smashing right forearm to Penne's jaw.

4. Changing her crossface to a collar tie . . .

5. . . . she targets the liver with a knee . . .

6. . . . and steps around, avoiding a knee from Penne in the process and putting her back to the fence, pinning her there with a posted left arm.

7. Not to leave it there, Jedrzejczyk keeps Penne busy with a right hand across her guard.

8. Followed by a left hook right around it.

Like all of Jedrzejczyk's opponents, it was Penne who first sought that clinch, but Jedrzejczyk quickly makes it a very uncomfortable place to be. This is not merely a takedown defended, but a takedown punished, and that's the exact tack that Dodson should take when Johnson seeks to close the distance. Hume wasn't wrong when he said that Dodson does his best work at arm's length, but a a few well-placed shots in the clinch could make it far easier to keep the champion where he wants him.

1. Counter in Combinations, and FOLLOW UP

So we come to the follow-up, easily the most important aspect of any fighter's gameplan against Demetrious Johnson. The key to beating Mighty Mouse on the feet (and that's starting to look like the only place where he can be beaten) is to press, but only in bursts. Johnson's not so bad at being chased--in fact, he's got some pretty slick misdirection footwork and a few nice counters to go along with it--nor is he bad at pressuring. It's the transition between the two which leaves him vulnerable. Against most opposition, this transition is so small as to be unexploitable. But John Dodson is fast enough to take advantage, and he's done so before.

1. Dodson stands near the cage, with Johnson moving toward him.

2. Johnson lifts his right leg as if to kick, and Dodson steps forward to meet him, suddenly leaving the champion in a very vulnerable position.

3. Johnson puts his foot down, but now he's square to Dodson, who lands a left uppercut to the body.

4. A barely missed right hand collides with Johnson's chest as he stands up, desperately trying to get back out of range.

5. And a short left right on the button ends the combination with a bang . . .

6. . . . dropping the champion to the ground.

Johnson is, and I might upset a few folks by saying this, not a great defensive fighter. Though his technique continues to improve, he has spent years relying on his footspeed to get him out of trouble, and with his penchant for reckless stance-switching he finds himself in trouble far more than he should. Just to prove that this recklessness is still very much a part of his game, here's a still from his most recent fight.

As he escapes a left hand from Kyoji Horiguchi, Johnson commits every defensive sin in the book. He stands up tall, extending his knees and taking the shock-absorbant spring out of his stance. Speaking of stance, he abandons it, crossing his feet in an effort to move backward more quickly than his opponent can move forward. And, for that extra bit of space, he leans back, compromising his balance even further. This habit has persisted for so long because most men are incapable of punishing Johnson for these flaws, but John Dodson, alone among UFC fighters, is fast enough to not only catch Johnson coming in, but to follow up as he tries to get back out as well.

Dodson can maximize these opportunities by frequently countering in  combinations. He showed in the first fight that he is more than capable of overriding the champion's limited defense by attacking high to low and low to high (GIF), but on September 5th he should look to build on this success--by pursuing the champion as he tries to retreat, just as he did to John Moraga last year.

1. Dodson tries to counter Moraga with a left uppercut, forcing him to cover up and retreat.

2. Dodson stays on him, plugging a left hand through his guard . . .

3. . . . and following with another, and another, until Moraga is completely backed into the cage.

4. Now Dodson throws up his left arm as if launching another punch. Moraga ducks . . .

5. . . . and ends up running nose-first into an intended body kick.

Dodson is not a bad kicker by any means, and it would behoove him to use those kicks to attack the legs, body, and head of the champion. With his speed, he alone can counter Johnson coming forward and continue attacking after he haphazardly changes direction. Unlike Dodson, Johnson does not keep his feet in position when he retreats. Trying desperately to get himself out of range, Johnson renders himself unable to counter, and vulnerable to a well-placed shot. By countering in combination and ending with kicks, Dodson can attack Johnson moving in every direction, essentially reenacting Shogun Rua vs Lyoto Machida, but playing both roles.

Ultimately, this strategy should make Johnson uncomfortable in every phase of the striking exchanges. If Dodson makes Johnson come forward, he can counter him. If he pursues the clinch and does damage there, he can make the champion reluctant to attack, slowing his unmatchable pace. And if he follows him on his way out of the pocket with hard punches and kicks, he can make him uncomfortable moving backward. I have no doubt that Demetrious Johnson will eventually find someplace to make himself comfortable in this fight, but Dodson's goal should be to keep him reacting and adjusting long enough to lose three rounds. All Dodson needs is 13 solid minutes of success, hopefully with another pretty knockdown somewhere in the mix. It's a lot to ask, but Dodson came close before.

Of course, Demetrious Johnson's adaptability is such that, even if Dodson does follow these keys, he may still find himself at the champion's mercy by the end of the fight. Who knows what adjustments the sorcerer's apprentice could come up with over the course of 25 minutes? However Dodson's goal should be to give Johnson enough problems to adapt to that he fails to do so until it's too late. And if Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn can keep Dodson's power focused on the right targets for long enough, Demetrious Johnson may find himself in one hell of a mousetrap.

For more on Johnson vs Dodson II and the rest of the fight buffet that is UFC 191, check out this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.

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