In the co-main event of Saturday night’s UFC 197, UFC flyweight champ Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson took on Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo in a fight that many considered the toughest challenge of his title reign thus far. He cleared that challenge just 2:49 into the fight’s first round, putting the highly-touted contender away with a series of knees from the clinch.
With the win, which stands out as one of the best of his already sterling career, Mighty Mouse is a fantastic 24-2-1 overall, and is now widely considered MMA’s pound-for-pound king. Indeed, even if you’re one of the flyweight champ’s surprisingly numerous haters, it is becoming harder and harder to refute his status as the best fighter on earth. And yet, Mighty Mouse’s dominance is also pushing him towards a rather unfavorable position. Having defeated most of his division’s top fighters—some more than once—it is becoming increasingly difficult to find him credible challengers.
This, of course, begs the question: what’s next for the bafflingly dominant flyweight king?
Well, for a time, it was thought that his next challenger would be produced by an upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter—an almost unprecedented move, and a clear indication of the struggle the UFC now faces in finding viable opponents for its flyweight champion. These plans, however, now look somewhat shaky. Reactions to the news that the UFC’s most dominant champion would be defending his belt against an untested TUF winner were unsurprisingly negative, and so the UFC seems to be changing its tune. Yes, it seems that Mighty Mouse’s next challenge is likely to be drawn from the organization’s current crop of ranked flyweights.
But which flyweight gets the call?
One of the more logical choices, at this point, seems to be Brazil’s Jussier “Formiga” Da Silva who, though riding a loss, has merit as a title challenger on the basis of his being one of the few top flyweights Mighty Mouse has not yet defeated. If the grappling ace is able to return to the win column in his next bout, his subsequent challenge thereafter could well be for the title. Another obvious choice for Mighty Mouse is Joseph Benavidez who, on the heels of a five-fight streak, has established himself as the flyweight division’s clear-cut number-two. Yet Benavidez has two previous losses to Mighty Mouse on his record, which immediately deflates his appeal as a title challenger, even in spite of his current run.
If Formiga and Benavidez are withdrawn from the debate, Mighty Mouse’s next challenger could be one of the division’s more untested prospects. He might, for example, find himself in the cage with Hawaii’s Louis Smolka, who has recently dazzled with wild wins over Richie Vaculik, Neil Seery, and Paddy Holohan. The champ could also find himself defending the belt against 23-year-old Kempo Karate specialist Justin Scoggins, who is currently on a respectable two-fight streak. Yet neither of these young prospects appear ready for the dynamic flyweight champion. Their inexperience against elite opponents alone makes them pretty hard sells as title challengers.
Mighty Mouse’s most intriguing choices, then, could exist in the bantamweight division, ten pounds north of the division he rules.
If he were to move up for a bantamweight super fight, the clear choice would be a title bout with Dominick Cruz, who recently staged a comeback for the ages by reclaiming the bantamweight crown after years on the injury list. Of course, Cruz handed Johnson a fairly decisive defeat back in 2011, but both fighters have done some serious evolving since then, establishing themselves as bona fide, pound-for-pound greats. Yes, today, their prospective pairing is more compelling than ever.
The problems with this potential mega fight, however, are immediately clear. First and foremost is the UFC’s reluctance to grant fighters the opportunity to win belts in two weight classes simultaneously. Unless your name is Conor McGregor, you can be fairly certain you will not be given this chance. Then, of course, there is the small but real possibility of Urijah Faber’s wresting the title from Cruz’s waist at UFC 199 on June 4. While Faber would make an interesting challenge for Mighty Mouse in his own right, there’s no refuting that this prospective bout is markedly less exciting than Mighty Mouse’s taking on Cruz. And finally, there’s the problem of Mighty Mouse’s ambition as flyweight champ. While he has said he’d be willing to fight Cruz if the price was right, he’s made no secret of his goal of out-doing Anderson Silva’s record of 10 consecutive title defenses. A high-stakes bout with Cruz would put this goal on hold in a major way.
Of course, Mighty Mouse has other options at bantamweight, too. Much like Anderson Silva made several, non-title forays up to light heavyweight, taking on middling fighters like Forrest Griffin and Stefan Bonnar, Mighty Mouse could head up to bantamweight to take on a top contender. His tangling with TJ Dillashaw, for example, who recently surrendered the belt to Cruz in a razor-close contest, would be plenty interesting. His taking on a top contender like Rafael Assunção or the undefeated Aljamain Sterling would be similarly intriguing.
The main conclusion we can draw from all this option weighing, however, is that there is a clear downside to Mighty Mouse’s incredible dominance. With each opponent he defeats, his options become fewer and fewer, which means that, whatever his future holds, the UFC is going to have to get seriously creative to keep him satiated.
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