UFC president Dana White credits the rise of the company’s flyweight division to a champion nicknamed after a cartoon character.
“Every time he fights he gets better and better,” White said of Demetrious Johnson this week. “You talk about legacies – his legacy is going to be as the guy who built this division.”
Known in the cage as “Mighty Mouse,” Johnson will look to continue that work on Saturday night at UFC 174 when he defends his title against Ali (Puncher) Bagautinov in the octagon at Rogers Arena – the first time a 125-pound division bout will anchor a pay-per view card.
“It’s awesome,” said the 5-foot-3 Johnson. “The UFC has given us a shot to headline a big pay-per view so I’m pretty pumped to be the man to front that bill. Hopefully we can put on an exciting show on Saturday.”
Johnson (19-2-1 all-time) won the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s inaugural flyweight title back in 2012 and has defended it three times since, including a knockout of Joseph Benavidez in December.
The 27-year-old who fights out of Parkland, Wash., said the pressure of a pay-per view spectacle doesn’t add any pressure to put on a show.
“My job’s to go out there and fight,” said Johnson, who has a record of 7-1-1 in UFC. “If you look at all the flyweight fights, there hasn’t been one boring one. Obviously there’s boring fights in every single division.
“But I haven’t sat there and watched a fight and thought, ‘Man that was pretty boring.’”
Johnson said the five-foot-four Bagautinov (13-2, 3-0) will pose a unique challenge because the 29-year-old Russian specializes in Sambo fighting, a form of mixed martial arts that he has never faced.
“In order to keep my belt I’ve just got to go out there and be myself and just fight,” said Johnson, a heavy favourite in the eyes of bookmakers against the fourth-ranked challenger. “Regardless of whatever happens with this fight, whether I win or lose, the same thing is going to happen [afterwards]. I’m going to go home, relax and get ready for my next fight, whether it’s be defending my belt or trying to get it back.”
Saturday night’s co-main event has Canada’s Rory (Ares) MacDonald taking on Tyron (The Chosen One) Woodley in a welterweight matchup between the No. 2- and No. 3-ranked challengers for Johny Hendricks’ belt.
“It’s the biggest fight ever for [MacDonald] and Woodley,” said White. “Saturday night is the night that both these two have got to go out and make people want to see them fight for the title.”
The soft-spoken MacDonald – who was born in Quesnel B.C., but now fights out of Montreal and was mentored by Georges St-Pierre – said the Woodley fight is a chance to show he belongs at the top of the 170-pound division.
“It’s a big opportunity. Every fight you take is a big opportunity, but this on in particular,” said the 24-year-old. “I’m facing a very talented opponent and I’m very excited to be matched up against someone like that and challenge my techniques against his.”
MacDonald (16-2, 7-2) lost to Robbie Lawler in a split decision at November’s UFC 167, but rebounded to take a unanimous decision against Demian Maia at UFC 170 in February.
“Losing can be a good thing in the long run for a mixed martial artist,” said MacDonald. “You learn your weaknesses and turn them into strengths.”
A technically sound fighter who learned his craft at the famed Tristar Gym alongside St-Pierre in Montreal, MacDonald said he believes he’s ready to take his game to the next level.
“I want people to talk after my fights and be like ‘Wow that’s another Rory MacDonald I haven’t seen. That’s the best Rory MacDonald I’ve seen so far.’ That’s my goal for this fight.”
White said MacDonald needs to start turning some of the talk and hype surrounding his talents into consistent performances.
“Rory has these moments where he comes out and does nothing,” said White. “The fight isn’t exciting. He doesn’t seem like he’s got that killer instinct to finish a fight and get to that next level to be everything that GSP said about him.”
The 32-year-old Woodley (13-2, 3-1), a former All-American wrestler, scored a technical knockout of Carlos Condit at UFC 171 in March and expects MacDonald to be the most well-rounded fighter he has faced.
“Rory is a guy who started doing mixed martial arts all together,” said the St. Louis native. “I think that’s the biggest challenge. He spent quite a bit of his youth as a teenager training [in] mixed martial arts. He’s had a great camp to train out of, he’s had a champion to train under. I think those are the threats, but in actuality I’ve had other fights and other fighters who’ve been a little bit more threatening than Rory.
“If you can’t really threaten me to freakin’ knock my head off like certain other guys I’ve fought, I just don’t get that anxiety.”
Like MacDonald, Woodley added that he also sees Saturday’s bout as a stepping stone to an eventual shot at the UFC welterweight title.
“I plan on every fight from now on being me fighting for the title or defending the title,” he said. “I’m just mentally getting prepared for that. I know that I have to beat guys like him consistently.”
It’s expected that Saturday’s crowd at Rogers Arena should be on the side of the B.C.-born MacDonald, but his American opponent, perhaps naively, disagreed.
“I really just don’t think Rory MacDonald has this huge following in Vancouver like people think,” said Woodley. “He’s not Georges St-Pierre. This is not Montreal.
“Vancouver fans like MMA and they might like me, they might like him, but I think they respect what I bring to the table and they respect that I respect him, and I think that’s enough.”
White called that view a little far-fetched.
“I think he’s super delusional if he thinks that’s the case,” White said with a smile. “We’re in Canada, man. Let me tell you what – Canada’s going to be cheering for the Canadian.”
Saturday’s card also includes: light heavyweight Ryan (Darth) Bader against Rafael (Feijao) Cavalcante; heavyweight Andrei (The Pit Bull) Arlovski against Brendan (The Hybrid) Schaub; light heavyweight Ovince Saint Preux against Ryan (The Big Deal) Jimmo of Saint John, N.B.; welterweight Daniel Sarafian against Kiichi (Strasser) Kunimoto; women’s bantamweight Valerie (Trouble) Letourneau of Montreal against Elizabeth Phillips; bantamweight Yves (Tiger) Jabouin against Mike (The Hulk) Easton; lightweight (Ragin) Kajan Johnson of Burns Lake, B.C., against Tae Hyun (Supernatural) Bang; bantamweight Roland Delorme of Winnipeg against Michinori Tanaka; and lightweight Jason Saggo of Toronto against Josh Shockley.