The instruction given from superiors when Demetrious Johnson first became a professional cage fighter was clear:
“We just want you to fight.”
Johnson, 31, has risen to become the UFC’s No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter and the longest reigning champion in organization history as he seeks a 12th consecutive flyweight title defense Saturday at Staples Center.
Yet, the appreciation for the 5-foot-3 champion’s effort is limited, based mostly on his lack of stunning knockouts to his name and his desire to keep a low profile.
On Saturday’s UFC 227 card, Johnson faces Henry Cejudo for the second time in the co-main event to the T.J. Dillashaw-Cody Garbrandt bantamweight-title rematch. Johnson knocked out Cejudo in the first round of their first meeting in 2016.
But Johnson considers that first instruction he received all those years ago and replies, “That’s all I’ve done.
“People might say I’m beating guys who aren’t as good as me,” Johnson said. “I just try to fight. It is what it is, so take what you want from it. What I want to leave is that I was very technical, very well-rounded … very dominant.”
His most recent title defense, in October, was his most sensational. After getting the better of challenger Ray Borg for most of the fight, Johnson lifted Borg from behind, then shifted and grabbed Borg’s left arm on the way to slamming him on the canvas, holding tight for an armbar finish that remains an example of his devotion to the craft of mixed martial arts.
It was as if he was answering the criticism of his other one-sided triumphs with the purest excitement possible.
“Fans, other people around the sport, tell me to talk more all the time,” said Johnson, a father of two from Washington who is expecting his third child with wife Destiny in the coming months.
“I’ve gotten away from MMA in recent years because of the stuff that rubs me the wrong way … trash talking and all that.”
Cejudo, a former Olympic wrestling gold medalist from Phoenix, is allowing his manager, Ali Abdelaziz to press Johnson in verbal gamesmanship this camp.
“D.J. is an amazing guy, but he beats guys with tricks now,” Abdelaziz said. “He’s been getting hit, and Henry is a 100% better fighter than he was [two years ago], when he was just a wrestler.
“You’ll see now. D.J. was just a high school wrestler. Henry was one of the youngest Olympic champions and hasn’t gotten to his prime in the UFC. This sport is about timing: Who’s younger, stronger, faster? It’s time for the torch to be handed to Henry. He’s going to finish D.J. His time is over.”
Johnson smiled in confidence, and defiance.
“They can think what they want. Obviously, everything changes when you get in the octagon and don’t have your team and all that [talk] … we’ll see how much he’s changed,” Johnson said.
UFC President Dana White and Dillashaw earlier this year pressed for Johnson to engage in a super-fight between the champions, but Johnson suffered a shoulder injury and required surgery that scrapped the effort.
Should both men win Saturday, Dillashaw believes he has Johnson cornered.
“It’s not like he owes me anything, but it’s the biggest fight for both of our careers and it will push our names to the next level,” Dillashaw said. “If that’s what he wants, that’s what he should chase after.”
But a few days after lightweight boxing champion Mikey Garcia won at Staples Center and said he wants to move up two weight classes to fight unbeaten welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr., Johnson stood outside the same arena and said he isn’t about to engage in such risk or vocal theatrics.
“If the question is if I’m looking for a super-fight, I’m not worried about that stuff anymore,” he said. “It’s like beating a dead horse … ‘When’s the super-fight?’ I’m like, ‘Don’t really [care] about it.’”