The unfortunate truth about Demetrious Johnson’s star power and who’s to blame

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Demetrious Johnson (Getty Images)

Demetrious Johnson is the only flyweight champion the UFC has known since the division debuted for the promotion in 2012. The inaugural and current champion holds the record for consecutive title defenses in UFC history with 11 and hasn’t lost a fight in nearly seven years. He’s widely considered one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in the history of MMA but his title defense at UFC 227 will mark the third time that he hasn’t headlined a major UFC pay-per-view. 

Johnson is undoubtedly great, but we’ve reached a point where the reality has set in that Mighty Mouse will never, ever be a superstar. If you need proof, take a look at the buy rates of the last four PPVs that he has headlined (according to MMA Payout).   

  • UFC 191: Johnson vs. Dodson (115,000)
  • UFC 186: Johnson vs. Horiguchi (125,000)
  • UFC 178: Johnson vs. Cariaso (205,000)*
  • UFC 174: Johnson vs. Bagautinov (115,000)

*UFC 178 also featured Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier

The sum of the PPV buys from Johnson’s last four PPVs (560,000) doesn’t equal Conor McGregor’s least-purchased PPV (UFC 189 at 825,000). It’s a harsh reality that has also led to Johnson being one of the lowest-paid champions with career UFC and WEC earnings at $3,085,000, according to The Sports Daily. His highest disclosed payout to date was his last fight against Ray Borg where he earned a total of $460,000 ($370,000 to show, $40,000 in Reebok sponsorship and $50,000 for a Performance of the Night bonus). It’s unfair to compare Johnson’s earnings to a draw like McGregor, but let’s put it in perspective by comparing Johnson’s payouts to a fighter who has never held a UFC title. 

In the same timeframe that Johnson has gone unbeaten (seven years), Alistair Overeem has gone 7-6 with one of those losses coming by first-round knockout against then-UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic. Overeem has earned $6,843,786 in UFC payouts since 2013, more than twice what Johnson has made in his entire career, without ever having a world title. He has headlined only one UFC PPV in his career.

To make matters worse, Overeem’s biggest disclosed payday ($860,000 in a losing effort to Curtis Blaydes) is nearly double Johnson’s highest career payday ($460,000 against Borg). It’s almost criminal to think that a middling heavyweight is making so much more than arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in mixed martial arts. 

Who’s to blame?

The UFC should certainly take the brunt of the blame here. It’s the promoter’s job to promote fighters. And there is absolutely no reason why Johnson shouldn’t be lauded outside of the hardcore MMA community.

Aside from the fact that he’s been extraordinarily dominant since becoming flyweight champion, Johnson’s mainstream angle is that he’s a gamer who has an exceptional following on Twitch with 165,000 followers. There’s no reason that the UFC shouldn’t be pushing Johnson’s presence into the video game community.

Furthermore, finding ways to get Johnson into the mainstream — whether it be on late-night talk shows, magazine covers or cameos on television — should be priority for the mixed martial arts promotion. Sadly, for one reason or another, this hasn’t happened. It’s rare that the best pure athlete in any sport isn’t remotely close to being recognized as the most popular. LeBron James, Tom Brady, Mike Trout and Sidney Crosby are all celebrities for their athletic prowess. With the exception of Crosby, who doesn’t have a Twitter presence, all of the aforementioned have well over 1 million Twitter followers. 

As for Johnson, he only has 309,000 Twitter followers. 

Part of this blame rests squarely on Johnson’s shoulders because it makes it difficult for a promoter to do their job if they are given very little to promote. 

The UFC has always been in the business of promoting fights and not fighters, until the fighters force their hand. McGregor wasn’t a product of the UFC push until his boisterous antics, coupled with his rare knockout power, made the UFC get behind the Irishman. Dana White didn’t even want women fighting in his organization until Ronda Rousey exerted her dominance and demonstrated a unique gift of gab.

Even the earlier days of the UFC had some over-the-top personalities that spearheaded the growth of the company. From Tito Ortiz’ bleached blonde hair and trash-talking antics and Chuck Liddell’s Mohawk to Brock Lesnar’s sheer physical presence and George St.-Pierre’s athletic prowess, there have been traits that the UFC has managed to hang its hat on. Demetrious Johnson doesn’t really present anything different that makes him stand out. 

It also doesn’t help that he’s remained in a division that has very little star power. Not only has he cleaned out the division, he’s currently in a wash, rinse and repeat cycle where he’s taking rematches against opponents that he already defeated. The bigger issue is that he’s shown very little interest in moving up to the bantamweight division — where marketable personalities like TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt are present — to challenge for another world title. 

Part of the reason is that his last endeavor as a bantamweight didn’t go well and led to the last time he wasn’t in the win column when he lost to then-champion Dominick Cruz. It was obvious that Johnson was too small for the division and needed the UFC to open up a flyweight division so he could compete at a more natural weight.

However, the best fighters in the world all eventually dare to be great. Manny Pacquiao was thought to be too small for Oscar De La Hoya and we saw how that went. Currently, Mikey Garcia has been vocal about moving up two weight classes to challenge welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr. Those are moments when fighters go from good to great. 

In the wonderful world of mixed martial arts, Conor McGregor and Daniel Cormier have both taken it upon themselves to go after world titles in a higher weight class. McGregor’s success in three divisions certainly helped him secure a career-high payday against Floyd Mayweather, while Cormier’s stoppage of Miocic will almost certainly lock him in for a massive payday against Lesnar. 

None of that is what interests Johnson. He’s quite happy where he is and with the money he’s been making. We can’t be upset with him for being happy with his life and fighting career. But it’s unfortunate that he’s not a bigger star considering how much of a dominant force he’s been in the UFC. 

Sooner or later, however, Johnson will realize that there’s nothing left for him to prove. Either he’ll take the risk of challenging at a higher weight class or he’ll retire. The UFC is clearly content too, and hasn’t shown any interest in giving the 31-year-old the push he rightfully deserves as a world-class fighter. 

But the fact of the matter is that neither the fighter nor the promoter has helped build the star that Demetrious Johnson should be.