Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson doesn’t look like much of an MMA fighter. At five-foot-three and 125 lb., he appears rather inconspicuous standing alongside fighters who outweigh him by 60 lb. But underneath the crisp grey dress shirt he wears to a press event in Toronto is the same chiselled physique of any other mixed martial artist. Still, Johnson has heard the critics—flyweights lack knockout power and therefore don’t have the right to be on the same stage as the big boys. “People think it’s a problem when we’re not finishing people,” says the effusive 26-year-old, who has a 15-2-1 career record.
Johnson has won just three fights by knockout—and two were early in his career, before he joined the UFC—so it’s not a totally unfair critique of guys in his weight class. But it ignores an important fact: The flyweight division features furious striking and hold-onto-your-seat action that is in sharp contrast to the recent yawn-inducing clinch-fests (see: Cheick Kongo–Shane Carwin at UFC 149 in Calgary) that pay-per-view audiences have been subjected to by fighters in higher weight classes. “Technique [among flyweights] tends to be a lot crisper,” says welterweight Jon Fitch. And audiences, as well as a sold-out crowd at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, will see that firsthand on Sept. 22, when the UFC features its first flyweight title fight as Johnson takes on Joseph “The Beefcake” Benavidez (16-2-0).
Benavidez, at five-foot-four, echoes the same positivity and happy-to-be-headlining vibe as Johnson. “The action we bring to the cage, there’s really nothing like it,” says the 28-year-old from Las Cruces, N.M. “Everyone in the division is good at everything—wrestling, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing.” The UFC’s decision earlier this year to introduce a 125-lb. division has paved the way for this title fight, but it’s been a longer and windier road than most for the two flyweights. Both spent years punching above their weight at 135 lb. in the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC). When Benavidez first started MMA training, the UFC was an afterthought. He’d won a state wrestling title, but after dropping out of college, he started hanging with the wrong crowd and partying too much. While turning his life around, he fell in love with MMA and in 2007 showed up in Sacramento at Urijah Faber’s gym willing to do anything, including work at the front desk. “I was always super-competitive and I realized I was really good at it,” Benavidez says.
Johnson, meanwhile, was working 50 hours a week as the assistant manager at a shoe store in Kirkland, Wash., when in 2005 his light-bulb moment occurred while watching Rashad Evans on The Ultimate Fighter. “I can do that,” he thought. But at 123 lb., “I was really small. Bruce Lee style,” he says. The former college wrestler trained irregularly and scrapped in a variety of local organizations, but it took him until 2010 to land his first WEC fight. He lost that one but won the next two, and suddenly he was fighting in the UFC (after the organization subsumed the WEC). His win over well-known bantamweight Miguel Torres announced his arrival as a legitimate threat.
So what can fans expect on fight night? Each man is a lethal, dead-serious fighter intent on proving smaller weight classes can be hugely entertaining. Benavidez, the more physically dominant and the favourite, will rely on his strength advantage—he KO’ed his last opponent, Yasuhiro Urushitani, 11 seconds into the second round. Johnson’s lightning-quick reflexes have posed problems for his previous opponents and he’ll undoubtedly push the action. But he’s also well-rounded in other departments. “The striking from Mighty Mouse is better,” says HDNet’s Bas Rutten. “He’s really good on the ground, but is he good enough to submit Benavidez? I don’t know.” All title fights in the UFC are now five rounds, but that won’t be a problem for the flyweights—they’re both in excellent shape. Rutten suggests momentum will be more of a factor. “It’s all about who sets the pace,” he says.
The ramifications of this fight for the entire flyweight division are massive. The ranks are only 14 UFC fighters strong—the colourful group includes a green-haired brawler, and the mustachioed Uncle Creepy—but expect president Dana White to sign more guys at 125 lb. if the Johnson-Benavidez tilt delivers on the promise that tiny also means mighty. One last look at Johnson’s grey shirt is evidence enough—a bulging, tattooed arm cocked and ready.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet Magazine.