When Demetrious Johnson stepped into the cage at UFC 197, he did so as one of the two best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport of MMA. Preceding a tepid (if dominant) performance by Jon Jones, the only other man in that discussion, he may have cemented himself as the greatest mixed martial artist on the planet.
Johnson and Jones share a number of similarities. Both are out-fighters of a type, who prefer to fight either at long range, or in close. All the way in, or all the way out. And as potent as both are in open space, it is clinch where they excel. Both even prefer similar positions and grips in that phase. Rather than looking for double underhooks and chaining takedown attempts, these two athletes keep their options open, fighting for wrist control, securing the inside position, and strafing the opponent with strikes while he struggles to keep up.
Demetrious Johnson's clinch has more of a Muay Thai flavor to it, however. Where Jones likes to smash his opponent against the fence, pinning him with head control while he fishes for wrists, Johnson spins around his adversary with his trademark speed, using momentum and leverage to create the openings that strength alone cannot. Such was definitely the case against Henry Cejudo who, despite a lack of elite experience, most expected to test the champion in some of his preferred ranges. Cejudo himself admitted his own belief in this after the fight, saying, "I really did believe I was going to dominate in the clinch."
Those who watched the fight know that this belief didn't carry him very far.
It took Johnson three clinch exchanges to figure Cejudo out, after which he plied the aggression and methodical pressure that has become his calling card in recent fights. From his entries, to his creation of openings, to his devastating shot placement, "Mighty Mouse" picked Cejudo apart piece by piece, turning in one of his most impressive and dominant performances to date.
Here's how it started.
1. Circling the perimeter of the cage, Johnson looks for an opening.
2. Breaking rhythm, he lunges in with a lead right . . .
3. . . . dipping down to avoid Cejudo's counter, and initiating the clinch.
4. Johnson pops up into an arm-triangle position, but Cejudo spins and frees his arm.
5. Johnson spins with him, pulling Cejudo to the right and driving up with his left underhook to expose Cejudo's liver.
6. Johnson promptly capitalizes on the opening with a well-placed knee.
Johnson's game is full of subtle tricks like this. Even when he has an underhook, he is unlikely to immediately look for a takedown. Instead, he uses that underhook to lever the arm of Henry Cejudo away from his body, exposing his ribs for the knee that ultimately leads to the finish. Johnson enhances his control with momentum. Cejudo actually spins first to escape the standing arm-triangle which Johnson threatens upon entering the clinch, but Johnson quickly adapts and uses that spin to his advantage, swinging Cejudo around and off-balancing him even as he wrenches up on his underhook and creates the opening.
Floyd Mayweather's deceptive lead right in action.
The lead right with which Johnson initiates the clinch is another interesting aspect of his game, and one which was only added recently. Johnson first employed this kind of lead right--what I would call a "soft right"--in his rematch with John Dodson in September of 2015. Despite fighting a very different opponent this time around, Johnson found a way to work the punch into his arsenal. Like the right hands of Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather (see the video to the left for a short breakdown), or the lead left of Guillermo Rigondeaux, Johnson throws this punch without proper weight transfer, cutting out the kinetic chain that would normally add weight to the blow in favor of speed. Johnson snaps the right hand home while lunging toward his opponent and preparing to roll under whatever counter may come his way. Like the aforementioned boxers, this tactic often leads Johnson to the clinch--the so-called "punch and clutch" approach--except Demetrious has far more options than a boxer once he gets there. It's a brilliantly simple way of closing the distance and creating the kind of exchange in which Johnson is most dangerous.
Once Johnson had Cejudo hurt with the liver shot (afterwards, he recounted hearing an audible grunt at the moment of impact), he knew that he could press Cejudo in the clinch. A systematic mauling ensued, in which Johnson repeatedly threatened Cejudo's body in order to open up shots to the head, controlling him all the while.
1. Cejudo attempts to blunt the attack by pressing Johnson into the fence.
2. Blending wrestling with his Muay Thai, Johnson uses head position to divert Cejudo's pressure and angle away from the fence.
3. He ends up with open space at his back and an inside collar-and-elbow position.
4. As with the underhook before, Johnson flares his elbow to raise Cejudo's left arm . . .
5. . . . and drives a knee through the opening.
6. Cejudo drops his arm to defend . . .
7. . . . and Johnson takes the easy path to his neck, securing his second collar tie.
8. Johnson breaks Cejudo's posture, but the wrestler blocks his hips with a forearm to defend the knees.
9. So Johnson takes the easy path again, and cracks Cejudo with an elbow over the top of his lowered left arm.
Demetrious Johnson is, above all else, an opportunist. This is why every fight Johnson has had at flyweight, barring his divisional debut against Ian McCall, has seen him grow stronger and more effective in each concurrent round. Johnson forces very little, instead finding the openings that his opponents give him and capitalizing on those. And once those openings have been found, Johnson will use the threat of those early successes to open up other attacks. In this case, he smashes Cejudo with an elbow just after nailing him to the body with a knee. This not only puts Cejudo on the defensive, but forces him to pick his poison. Because Johnson is perfectly happy to attack whatever opening presents itself, Cejudo's every defensive move only opens him up for another attack.
Johnson maintained this clinch assault, using the same principle of opportunism, and found the finish less than three minutes into the very first round.
1. After landing the above elbow, Johnson cranks down on his collar tie, breaking Cejudo's posture.
2. At the same time he pulls Cejudo's left arm aside with his right elbow grip and drives home another knee to the body.
3. And another.
4. Body hurting, Cejudo can only cover his ribs with his right arm.
5. Johnson releases his grip on Cejudo's elbow and places his right palm against Cejudo's temple . . .
6. . . . both driving and pulling his head down into a sideswiping left knee to the jaw.
7. The beginning of the end for the Olympic gold medalist.
Here, Demetrious Johnson almost seems to be forcing a certain tactic. Twice in a row he attacks Cejudo's body with the right knee, while Cejudo tries to cover up. He only does this, however, to cement Cejudo's choice of defense.
As soon as Johnson throws the second knee to the body, Cejudo is fully committed to covering his midsection with his right arm while his left fights for control. Only then does Johnson follow up with the decisive blow, attacking from the opposite side and kneeing Cejudo's jaw. Even the arc of his strike is carefully thought-out. To minimize the chance of Cejudo defending with his left arm, Johnson swings the knee up to the side before arcing it in, driving through Cejudo's chin with the full-bodied motion of a roundhouse kick. With only 125 pounds to work with, Demetrious Johnson may not hit very hard, but when strikes are as well placed and immaculately timed as this, even the most durable of flyweights will feel it.
Henry Cejudo certainly did, and the fight was over within seconds. As Demetrious Johnson continues his championship reign, quickly approaching the 10-defense record of Anderson Silva, he seems to be embracing his role as a pound-for-pound great. Some of it has to do with the lack of depth at flyweight, but no one can argue that Demetrious Johnson is becoming more dangerous with each and every fight. The champion has finished in five of his eight title defenses, with both of the knockout wins occurring within minutes.
Precision, timing, and opportunism are the traits which make Demetrious Johnson great, and he incorporates these skills into a systematic fighting style like few others in the sport of mixed martial arts. Each of "Mighty Mouse's" fights is a pleasure to behold. Unless you are one of his opponents, there are no grounds on which to disagree.