Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson has historically been everything you could ask for in a UFC champion. He has stayed healthy, defended his title a record tying ten times, fought all comers, never said a bad word about pretty much anyone, and carried out his career with class and dignity in a way most comparable to another legend of the sport, Georges St. Pierre. In short (and that’s not a pun about the flyweight division in the slightest), he’s been a loyal company man.
This, despite often being overlooked for his accomplishments, ridiculed by portions of the fan base who just can’t seem to get that yes, smaller men can be entertaining fighters too, and constantly told that he wasn’t a draw. Of course, the fact that Johnson has been relegated to free TV with little promotion is a chicken/egg situation. Since the UFC hasn’t promoted him as well as it could have, especially early on, is it that he’s not a draw? Or that they haven’t made him one? It’s the company’s job to promote, after all, not the fighter’s. Still the company line seems to be that he’s not a draw, unless he fights T.J. Dillashaw.
There’s some truth to the fact that Johnson isn’t a hugely marketable name, as far as sound bites and out-of-cage antics. He’s not throwing water bottles at press conferences, after all (and for that we are thankful). He’s not calling out boxers (please, stop that already). Neither did the aforementioned GSP, mind you, and he managed to become one of the biggest draws in the sport, despite a fighting style that wasn’t always to most exciting. Johnson, meanwhile, is always exciting in the cage, has six finishes among his ten title defenses, but gets criticism for not being a finisher.
GSP had a nation behind him, of course, which helped his PPV buyrate. Mighty Mouse does as well — Twitch nation. With over 100,000 followers on game streaming site Twitch, Demetrious Johnson has found his niche. He has found a way to connect with fans, enough so that he has amassed a total of over 3.6 million viewers, all time.
Now imagine if the UFC bothered to market to some of those viewers with some cross-over promotion.
Yet that’s not what this is about. This week, on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani, Johnson made nice with the UFC. He called his feud with Dana White, stemming from his refusal to be bullied into a fight with T.J. Dillashaw when he’d already agreed to fight Ray Borg, a “big misunderstanding.” Because of course he did. At the end of the day, that’s the kind of guy Mighty Mouse is.
“It was just a big misunderstanding and we’re going to meet with Dana White” Mighty Mouse told Helwani on the show. “Dana White’s a grown-ass man, I am too, he’s got kids, I got kids, we’re going to sit down and get on the same level and go from there and see what options we have.”
Plenty, really, and don’t be surprised if you see Johnson fighting as early as September, possibly on Edmonton’s UFC 215 card. Yet the real question is how it ever got to this point.
Why are there so many misunderstandings with top UFC stars aired in public, and why do they so often come as a result of UFC President Dana White airing private business in public?
First, lets consider that White, a modern day P.T. Barnum, is in the promotion business, where throwing your product under the bus is generally a bad idea. Second, lets consider that you don’t see these situations arise nearly as frequently in other promotions. When’s the last time you can recall former Strikforce/current Bellator chief Scott Coker publicly lambasting a fighter? Yet White has feuded with Johnson, GSP, Anderson Silva, the Diaz brothers, Amanda Nunes, Cris Cyborg, Tito Ortiz, Ken Shamrock, Randy Couture, even trainer Greg Jackson. In public. Often times to the detriment of his own company.
It’s baffling, and barely made sense when White answered to no one past a couple of childhood pals. When he answers to an entity like WME|IMG? Even less so.
Joe Rogan put out an idea late last week that perhaps White suffers from CTE. He has boxed, been hit in the head, maybe he’s a little punch drunk, right? Rogan suggested that could be, perhaps, the reason for White’s impulsiveness.
Good thing he’s not flying a jetliner. Yet for White, public feuds with top stars have been an ongoing issue for years. There’s a more plausible answer to why he continues to enter into public spats with his own stars time after time, a simpler one than CTE. It’s because no one has reined him in, and after years of getting away with it, it has become second nature.
Yet it may also be holding the UFC back from hitting the next level, something WME|IMG is bound to realize at some point. White telling the world that Mighty Mouse isn’t a draw (even in a roundabout way) is actually shooting the promotion in the foot by continuing the narrative that smaller weight classes can’t draw. Why not change that narrative? Just because Demetrious Johnson didn’t draw years ago doesn’t mean he can’t now, with smart promotion and the right card under him.
The bottom line here is that for the UFC to move forward, to build more than just one or two stars at a time (something frankly necessary for the company to live up to its $4.2 billion price tag), these feuds need to stop. Which means someone needs to rein White in. Is WME|IMG willing? Time will tell.