It was one of the most highly skilled bouts ever contested in the sport, and showcased tactical greatness, grit, and unthinkable will from both men. At the end, Whittaker narrowly snatched victory, surviving a hellacious fifth round. For the third consecutive time, Whittaker displayed a level of technical brilliance rarely seen before, against a quality of opposition few, if any, have had to face in a three-fight span.
Before Whittaker, and before the Bisping era (an unfortunate time for 185’s elite in the title picture), the middleweight division was dominated by the looming presence of four kings: Luke Rockhold, Chris Weidman, Ronaldo Souza, and Yoel Romero. Perhaps at no time before had four men stood so far above their contemporaries, yet so close to each other. Any of those four men could conceivably have beaten the others, and gone on to have a long championship reign.
Despite never winning the championship, Romero defeated all three of his peers, finishing two of them, and proved himself to be the best of the four. More than that, he may very well be the greatest fighter in the promotion’s history to never win a belt, and a shoe-in top five middleweight of all time.
Before twice besting Romero, Whittaker knocked out the aforementioned Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, who himself narrowly lost a split decision to Romero. In the fight’s few grappling sequences, he out-scrambled ‘Jacare’ - one of the best BJJ practitioners to enter the upper echelons of the sport. He denied Yoel Romero on 21 of 28 takedown attempts, quickly scrambling to his feet with ease on numerous occasions. Against, no less, one of the best and most explosive wrestlers ever to compete in MMA - both in terms of his credentials, and his in-cage performances.
He has proven the quality of his skills in every area against fighters of near-unrivaled prowess.
Which brings us to the man most would consider to be the “most technical” fighter in the UFC, Demetrious Johnson.
Johnson is one of the greatest fighters of all time, and has displayed remarkably rounded skill, but the ghost that has haunted Johnson for years now is his quality of competition. And a fighter’s skill set must be judged, in large part, on the opposition against which it can be executed.
The techniques a fighter is capable of employing become fewer and fewer as an opponent’s skill level rises, and at the elite levels of pretty much every other division (with a few singular exceptions), striking is king. Fighters have progressed to the point that dominating from top position is hardly ever viable in a championship fight. Yet, Johnson has had several title defenses where he has managed to score takedowns pretty much whenever he chooses to.
It could be argued that perhaps Johnson is simply that good of a wrestler. On the other hand his two best wins are Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson. His matches with Benavidez were both striking affairs as Johnson struggled to make anything happen on the ground. His fights with Dodson consisted of largely being out-boxed by a one-note power puncher until he realised that he could dominate the battles in the clinch, his true wheelhouse, and he controlled the rematch after a narrow first fight.
It could also be argued that the flyweight metagame is simply different to other divisions. However, at bantamweight, ten pounds north, striking matches are still the norm. In all likelihood, it has a lot more to do with the youth of the flyweight division, and the lack of developed talent. Any prospect with legitimate potential either loses, or is quickly rushed into a match opposite Johnson, due to the UFC’s struggles to find contenders.
Henry Cejudo may be the best young talent the division has seen since its inception, and he finds himself entering a second match with Johnson just five years into his professional career, well before what would be considered the peak of a fighter’s growth. When Johnson pulled off perhaps the most spectacular submission in UFC history against Ray Borg, it was five years into his UFC career. Borg earned that fight on the back of a two-fight winning streak. Other championship wins for Johnson include Tim Elliott, UFC record 4-6. Kyoji Horiguchi, who also fought Johnson five years into his professional career, and whose technical ability now does not even resemble that of the man Johnson defeated on that night in 2015. Chris Cariaso who, if you are familiar with him, needs no introduction in a paragraph discussing Johnson’s lack of competition.
And sure, it probably seems harsh to pick apart Johnson’s victories in this manner. In some ways, it is. Outside of Whittaker’s last three fights, it becomes difficult to find another marquee win on his resume, but there are only so many marquee wins to go around. And Johnson’s best wins saw him, naturally, look much more limited in his offense. This is the inevitable progression of championship-level MMA. All-time greats like Jose Aldo, Jon Jones, and Georges St-Pierre became more technically capable as time went on (because of course they did), but in the cage, they all gradually stripped back their games into reliable sequences which they tended to repeat, over and over. The more overmatched an opponent, the more they could get away with. But, very few overmatched men stood across from any of them during their championship reigns. On paper, at least.
A fighter with Johnson’s preternatural gift for in-cage decision making would likely do the same against a fighter of the caliber of, say, T.J. Dillashaw. But, that’s a much bigger indicator of his greatness than any of the wild finishes he has pulled off over the last four years.
I’ve held this opinion for quite some time, but it feels uncomfortable to put into words. On a surface level, it may seem to take shine away from a fighter who deserves far more than he has ever gotten from this sport, or its fans. But when it comes to technical ability, raw skill, the essence of a fighter? Demetrious Johnson is not the only man in that conversation. The likes of Max Holloway, T.J. Dillashaw, and now Robert Whittaker all stake violent, beautiful claims with each successive performance.
What Robert Whittaker is doing, and who he is doing it against, gives him a claim to the title of ‘most proven technician in the world’ every bit as valid as the flyweight champion’s. There are things that each man does better, and things that each man does worse, but their games have shown their true strengths only against their best opposition. And from my discerning eyes, Whittaker’s mashup of karate and boxing stylings, his incredible defensive grappling and scrambling abilities, and the innate fighting mind which tie them together deserve recognition. The kind of recognition that Johnson also deserves, but that was given to him on the back of a series of one-sided maulings of mediocre championship competition.
In the last four years, Johnson may have shown us his most impressive performances, but he has not shown us his best. To deify his technical ability based not on nuance, but dominance, undermines the quality of Whittaker, Johnson, and the truly elite fighters whom each man struggled with along the way.
As fighters like Holloway and Dillashaw prepare to face truly transcendent divisional talents, remember that the flyweight division is not the only place you can turn to see martial arts executed at the absolute highest level we have ever seen. The truest greatness is expressed, and appreciated, on the grandest stages.