Jack Slack: Is Demetrious Johnson Still Untouchable?

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

At the conclusion of UFC 174, we were left asking the same question which has confounded us for the past two years:

Who can stop Demetrious Johnson?

Certainly, Ali Bagautinov seemed to have nothing for the flyweight champion, while Johnson only seems to be getting better.

The virtuoso performance from Mighty Mouse really saved what had been a dry main card up to that point. Andrei Arlovski and Brendan Schaub served to remind all of us in the media that while watching fights is a brilliant profession, it is still a job. Further down the card, Yves Jabouin and Mike Easton had an entertaining scrap, Rory MacDonald outworked Tyron Woodley, Ovince St. Preux channeled his inner Mark Schultz, and Ryan Bader took Rafael Feijao down with ease.

But let's not talk about those today. Instead let's reflect on Demetrious Johnson and his weighty bag of tricks.

Pick and Move

Last week I pointed out that Ali Bagautinov will back himself to the cage almost constantly and that his ringcraft seems a little lacking. Bagautinov showed nothing different in this fight and was almost always standing right in front of the fence. Now this is strategically terrible—you can't retreat, and you are forced to choose between circling out in one direction (and into a strike) or going straight at your opponent, who probably wants that.

What is interesting though, is that fighting along the fence really isn't Mighty Mouse's game. The majority of the time he would have 'Puncher King' along the fence, but would only pick with low kicks or jabs, then move away. He's a man who likes to fight on his back foot, against an opponent who never wanted to be on his front foot.

An opponent who backs himself onto the fence or ropes routinely really plays into the hands of a fighter who wants to jump in and flurry with strikes. There are plenty of fighters who do this excellently, but it just doesn't seem to be part of Demetrious Johnson's game. Here, for instance, is a lovely flurry from Fedor Emelianenko as he has Mirko Filipovic along the ropes. He steps in with a kick, lands and flurries with body shots.

Flurries like these will wear a man down quickly.

Initiating with a kick along the fence is a great strategy because, while the chances of landing a knockout body or head kick are low, most of the time a fighter will land shin on forearm and land ready to punch while the opponent is still bracing against the kick or smarting from the connection.

Johnson did actually attempt this a couple of times against Bagautinov, but he's more a pot shot style striker than a flurrying combination puncher.

Johnson is out in the open far more often—usually being the smaller man he chooses to strike at distance. Bagautinov was giving Johnson every advantage in the type of fight which Johnson doesn't normally get into, so the results were a little underwhelming.

The danger of leading with a kick along the fence is that if you telegraph your intentions your opponent can catch it and turn you onto the fence. This happened on one occasion against Bagautinov.

Johnson himself did the same thing in his first bout against Joseph Benavidez to get out of a bad spot.

The majority of Johnson's offense at range was his usual stepping right hand, and his low kicks. In the break before round 2, Matt Hume advised Johnson to look to land the southpaw right hook off of the inside low kick. The lead hook off of the low kick is a beautiful combination because so many fighters will follow the low kick as it is retracted.

The kickboxer, Gokhan Saki is a master of this. Here is a video I made with the folks at Glory about Saki, which demonstrates this technique at length.

The Double Collar Tie

One technique which Johnson used repeatedly to stifle Bagautinov's clinch and land powerful strikes was the double collar tie. Commonly called the Thai clinch, the double collar tie is the position with both hands cupped on the base of the opponent's skull and the forearms in front of the collar bone. This position can be used to lever the opponent's head forward and keep their chest and, therefore, hips away.

Essentially, locking in the double collar tie hinders the wrestling clinch and stalls the clinching stage of a fight in a striking capacity. The idea of holding it indefinitely is pretty far fetched against strong wrestlers, and Johnson certainly couldn't—but it means that one can land hard, discouraging strikes on the way into the clinch proper.

The elbows keep serve to keep distance and create a lever to put pressure on the neck, rolling it up like a ball of paper, down into the chest.

Johnson would then look to angle off, taking Bagautinov past him, towards the fence.

Johnson gets off line, taking Bagautinov past him and exposing one whole side to knees, while escaping the clinch proper.

And here it is in action:

On the occasions that Johnson got taken down, he sprung up and immediately started working again. While judges remember takedowns, and they do win rounds, the fact that Johnson was so productive between them (and that they didn't last), allowed Johnson to remain the dominant force in the fight and on the scorecards.

Here is a particularly lovely occasion when Johnson achieved double underhooks, Bagautinov backed his hips out to defend, and Johnson switched to the double collar tie:

Johnson used short elbows beautifully from the double collar tie and reddened his Dagestani opponent's body with knee strikes. Each time time Bagautinov turned Johnson onto the fence, Johnson would make space, slide his double collar tie in and use his forearms to create distance and defend takedown attempts.

Signs of Weakness?

There will be a time for a proper Killing the King: Demetrious Johnson, but the more you see a fighter compete, the more you learn about them. Even if they don't appear to show weaknesses, they show habits, and in the right hands those can be exploited in just the same way.

Chief among the concerns when watching Johnson fight is that he will still move to come in while switching stances, then seemingly change his mind. Perhaps it is an ineffective feint, perhaps he sees a twitch in the opponent and changes his intentions—but for a moment his feet are underneath him and he stops dead.

Feet level is never a good idea:

With his feet level like this, Johnson can only push off in sideways directions, as his feet aren't staggered he has nothing to drive him forward or backward with speed.

On the one hand he does it fast, on the other, it already got him knocked down against John Dodson.

With the tentativeness of Johnson to commit to power strikes along the cage, and his tendency hang his chin out when he does, perhaps backing to the cage could be a strategy used to bait Johnson, then jump on him when he starts feinting his stance changes and cannot move so effectively. 

One thing which was clear throughout this fight, and Johnson's fight with Dodson, he can be pushed to the fence in a clinch fairly consistently. The problem is that he goes to that double collar tie. What would be interesting to see is if a fighter could work effectively while conceding the double collar tie.

Something which foreign kickboxers often talk after training in Thailand is that the Thai boxers have been training the clinch since childhood and it's almost impossible to catch up. An experienced Thai fighter will be unlikely to concede inside position in the clinch (the double collar tie).

A view I have heard repeated a few times is that it is a good idea to get good at fighting from the inferior position in the double collar tie, rather than struggling to get to the dominant position against someone who is expecting and wanting that.

Bas Rutten had a good deal of success in Thailand by bracing one forearm across his opponent's elbows and wailing on their body and head with his other hand. Andy Hug, who could kick for days but had little boxing experience and none in the clinch, answered a double collar tie by trying to create space to punch while there too.

Both of those methods are a little rough around the edges but there's room to grow. Perhaps the most fascinating example of fighting from the inferior position is Nick Diaz. Diaz is also a brilliant example of taking advantage of an opponent who is along the fence as we spoke about earlier.

Notice here, Evangelista Santos backs onto the fence, Diaz presses his forehead against Santos' and opens up with body punches. It is hard to hit with any venom when someone's head is against your own, and old school infighting (thing Julio Cesar Chavez) utilizes this kind of head pressure a good deal.

But the more common response to this is to slap on the double collar tie for free. Diaz seems to bait this as he works so well from within the collar tie. Against Paul Daley this was evident as he landed hard body shots, before cross facing Daley and flurrying on him with elbows and more body shots.

It has long been known that the key to slowing down a high pace, high stamina fighter is body work. It just seems that most of this will have to be performed from inside the double collar tie, at least to start with, against Demetrious Johnson. What certainly will not work is continuing to rely on landing one shot for every five or six of his. The one way that strategy would work was if a fighter could draw him out and limit the exchanges, Machida style.

Johnson looked sublime, and Bagautinov looked the same as he usually does, but against an opponent who was having none of it. Bagautinov has plenty of time to improve, however, and if he learns the rudiments of ring craft and the value of punching three times at fifty percent over swinging once at a hundred, he could go a long way.

Pick up Jack Slack's new ebook, Fighting Karate at his blog Fights Gone By.Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


Check out this related story:

Can Ali Bagautinov Kill the King?