There comes a point in the career of a transformative athlete when he's presented with the opportunity to increase his size and scope and perspective and his sense of self and re-evaluate his place in the world, a time when has ask to ask himself: Will his achievements exist entirely within the confines of his sport—those 48 minutes, those five sets, those five rounds—or will he allow himself to contemplate a world outside those lines, a world of his own making?
In the last couple of weeks UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson has been allowing himself to do just that, standing strong in the face of increasing pressure from UFC matchmakers and President Dana White to fight bantamweight contender TJ Dillashaw against his will, signaling a new resolve from the longtime UFC company-man to use his considerable leverage to impose his reasonable demands and flip the way things are done.
Yesterday, in an act of unprecedented and wonderful gall, Johnson released a statement decrying what he called the UFC's "mistreatment and bullying" during recent fight negotiations, attacking executives, particularly the infamously brash and demanding White, for tarnishing Johnson's "values and character as a person and a fighter," and accepting his role as a possible impetus for "other fighters to band together to start getting fair treatment"—which, if I weren't so cynical, I might take to be that long-awaited, mythic endorsement of a fighter's union from an A-level champion fighter.
Johnson's statement is a veritable Iliad of mistreatment and disrespect on the part of the UFC—including "tyrannical" matchmaking demands, unfair contract stipulations, dismissive attitudes about Johnson's monetary value, attempts by White to bully Johnson in both private and public, and the slandering of Johnson's reputation in the media—culminating in a supposed threat, relayed through UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard, from the UFC that if Johnson doesn't take the Dillashaw fight, the promotion will shut down the flyweight division.
It wasn't long ago that threats far less terrifying that those would have cowed any UFC fighter, much less one as uncontroversial and amenable as Johnson. But the days of absolute authority in the UFC seem to be on the wane, and there's no doubt something has happened to Johnson in recent weeks, transforming him from a loyal company-man into a shrewd and forceful advocate for himself. Yesterday on The MMA Hour, Johnson answered the UFC's threats directly, telling them, "Close the motherfucking division then. Because if somebody is willing to do that, that just shows you that they have no interest whatsoever of working with the champion. I never missed weight, always showed up on time, did all of my interviews on fight week, traveled to Australia in coach two times for the flyweight division. I've done a lot."
Where did this new, huge, vast Demetrious Johnson come from, this empowered civilian Johnson who now matches the temerity and self-actualization of the in-cage fighter we all know and love? Was it simply born out of the realization that he had tied the record for most UFC title fights a few months prior and was therefore in a negotiating position reserved for only the best and the brightest? No, Demetrious Johnson's come-to-Jesus moment didn't come in the quiet of the post-fight locker room or at home with his wife or on a mountaintop in India. Johnson's rebirth was much more ironic than that.
It seems Johnson was inspired to rethink his relationship to the UFC and his approach to negotiating at the UFC's own Athlete Retreat last month, an event put on by the promotion's new owners, Hollywood talent agent WME|IMG, and which featured presentations from, in their words, "a wide variety of experts across sports, entertainment, and business." Which is just where WME fucked up. Here they thought they would hire a bunch of big names from other sports to inspire their new employees (the fighters) to view their careers as opportunities for brand synergy and cross-promotional marketing integration, thereby benefitting the UFC brand and WME, and what they did instead was inspire their best employee to view his career as an opportunity for brand synergy and cross-promotional marketing integration, thereby benefitting himself. All those rich athletes on stage convinced Demetrious Johnson of one thing: to do whatever he can to become one of those athletes, which means being an athlete beyond the control of your promotion.
According to Johnson, those speakers—in particular former NBA star Kobe Bryant, former NFL player Michael Strahan, and current NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall—convinced the flyweight champion that the most important thing for an athlete is "finding your purpose, sticking to your principles, and don't back down from what you believe in. Seeing these big sports figures preach to us about that. Nobody out there is looking out for the best Demetrious Johnson. There's only one person doing that and that's me. … That's where I gained my backbone. Kobe and Brandon Marshal are like, 'You can't let your sport define you. You have to make sure you stick to your principles and what you believe in.'" I hope WME sees the irony here.
Since Johnson released his bombshell yesterday White and other UFC spokesmen have been quiet, though TJ Dillashaw, the bantamweight fighter whose desire to skip the line at flyweight and fight Johnson inspired all this mess in the first place, somehow managed to miss the point altogether. Taking Johnson's refusal to be bullied into fighting him as a personal slight, Dillashaw called out the champion on Instagram for being "afraid" and complained to ESPN, "Trying to say that I don't really deserve a title shot which I think is complete bullcrap. I don't think there's anybody in his weight class right now to push him and I'm healthy, I'm in shape, I'm already in the process—because Dana told me that's who I'm fighting—of dropping the weight class. I'm waking up at 143 pounds in the morning so that's a very, very reachable goal. … And it's kind of embarrassing to have him go and call himself the GOAT, to be the greatest of all time and turning down fights because he's scared to fight. He can say whatever he wants to say about all his other issues he has and being bullied—which, I don't understand how the greatest of all time gets bullied—but it all comes down to him being scared of me beating him."
Which is just the kind of small thinking Demetrious Johnson has recently liberated himself from (and, one could argue, just the kind of thinking the UFC wants their fighters engaged in: myopic, fighter-on-fighter, paying no attention to the man behind the curtain): seeing every action of a fighter through a fighting lens, refusing to acknowledge the world outside the cage, failing to understand how a person who fights for a living could possibly be bullied by the corporation he works for, not understanding just how perilous a situation Johnson just put himself into, refusing to look at the bravery of one fighter as potential liberation for all fighters. It's small-time thinking, free of the scope and breadth and depth and light and air and enlightenment of the new and improved Demetrious Johnson. Long may he reign.