As the noise surrounding Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey’s UFC dominance dims, affording them an opportunity to lick their wounds, two quieter presences have the chance to step into the front line.
If McGregor and Rousey are the UFC’s star pupils, then Demetrious Johnson is the straight-A student and Jon Jones is the class rebel. Both Johnson and Jones have sat on top of the pound-for-pound rankings before and during the mania surrounding McGregor and Rousey and own the longest active winning streaks in the sport.
Jones, whose only loss is a disputed disqualification, has won 12 on the spin (four behind the all-time record held by Anderson Silva) while Johnson has racked up nine in a row. They are a little-and-large combination with personalities that are worlds apart but skill-sets inside the cage that are only rivalled by each other.
The lanky and languid Jones, nicknamed ‘Bones’ on account of the height and reach that he maximises so ferociously, has rarely even tasted competitiveness in his remarkable career to date. Perhaps boasting the most stellar CV in the history of MMA, only a bizarrely illegal elbow strike in his 10th fight against Matt Hamill prevents him being unbeaten.
Aged 23, Jones became the youngest UFC champion ever and his destruction of Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua ushered in a new era of athleticism and craft in a light-heavyweight division previously crammed with brawlers. Since 2010, he has dispensed with ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort who previously ruled at 205lbs before sweeping past rivals of his own generation.
Johnson, meanwhile, was a middling bantamweight in those days. Over a foot shorter and 80lbs lighter than Jones, his ‘Mighty Mouse’ moniker rang truer at the inauguration of the flyweight division four years ago. Competing at 125lbs (the smallest category), Johnson became the first champion and has outlasted each of the other nine UFC title-holders.
“It’s a pleasure to watch Johnson,” flyweight rival Neil Seery told Sky Sports. “He’s just so, so good at his job. He’s the pound-for-pound best, I see him as that. It’s my pleasure just to be mentioned alongside him.
“Demetrious has people thinking he can strike – he throws combinations from crazy angles – but he’s a phenomenal wrestler. He’s very good in the scrambles and his gas tank is second-to-none. Nobody knows what he’s going to do next, and I think that’s what sets him apart.
“I believe Demetrious is better than Jones because of his movements and his transitions between striking and wrestling – he’s the best fighter in the UFC. People at two weight classes are trying to fight him because he’s so good.”
Yet Johnson is No 2 in the official pound-for-pound listings behind Jones, despite his four-reign title reign making him the only current champion to reign for longer than 15 months. Jones continues at the top of the tree despite the self-destructive episodes that resulted in his light-heavyweight championship being stripped from him last year.
Jones’ flashes of instability outside the cage appear to be his only obvious adversity, considering he already owns victories over six of his division’s top 10. At 28, he hasn’t fought since January 2015 due to suspension and has missed a year of his athletic prime while he reconstructs his day-to-day life. Those who share his gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, insist a newly-focused and calmer Jones is readying a return that should terrify current champion Daniel Cormier.
“Listen, he did some stupid stuff and it was a wake-up call for him – he took lessons from that and became a better person,” Andrei Arlovski told Sky Sports. “He is 100 percent a different person now. I’m telling you, I’ll bet my money he wins and becomes the new light-heavyweight champion.”
Alistair Overeem added: “I think he can return even better, I know so. He’s been very focused and dedicated – I’ve seen him in the gym non-stop. He’s determined to make a strong comeback.” Both Arlovski and Overeem stress Jones remained a “great training partner” while he battled personal demons.
Jones was set to challenge his greatest rival Cormier at UFC 197 for the belt that he only lost in a fight with the law, in a rematch after ‘Bones’ handily won the first time. Cormier’s injury means No 6 contender Ovince Saint Preaux will fight Jones on three weeks’ notice. Sharing the card, appropriately, is Johnson – the man so tiny he can go unnoticed until the first bell rings and he moves faster than a blink of the eye – who makes his eighth title defence against Olympic gold medal winner Henry Cejudo.
Jones and Johnson have separate business to attend to, and their paths are unlikely to cross all evening at UFC 197. But each will know that, despite the colossal size differential between them, they are locked in a fight with each other to become the sport’s undisputed pound-for-pound No 1.