When Barry Bonds was closing in on Major League Baseball’s career home record, a battalion of reporters crisscrossed the country with him, certain to be on hand to document history.
It was equally big news in 1984 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was poised to pass Wilt Chamberlain as the NBA’s all-time scoring champion.
They were moments that transcended the sports page and made their way into popular culture, and were featured on the nightly news. It was Americana.
On Saturday in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, another similar moment is about to occur. Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson will make his 11th consecutive successful title defense if, as expected, he defeats Ray Borg when they meet in the main event of UFC 215.
It’s a noteworthy accomplishment just for the simple fact that no one has previously been able to do it. Johnson shares the record with Anderson Silva.
The three men below Johnson and Silva on the list – Georges St-Pierre (9), Jon Jones (8) and Jose Aldo (7) – would be a pretty good representation, along with heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, of the greatest MMA fighters ever.
The other 10 current UFC champions have a combined 13 successful defenses. Eight of those – five by strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and three by welterweight champion Tyron Woodley (two wins and a draw) – are held by two fighters.
Winning a title in the UFC is extremely difficult. There have been 81 fighters who have held a UFC title belt, either outright or interim. Several of them had multiple reigns. But 39 of them never made one successful defense.
The problem is that most of the acclaimed records in sports are much bigger numbers. Bonds hit 762 home runs, and 73 in a season. Joe DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak. Cal Ripken played 2,632 consecutive games.
Eleven just doesn’t seem that impressive in that context.
The sport’s history, though, indicates definitively how difficult it is. This is the most significant record in combat sports.
There are few nights off for a UFC champion; he or she is constantly facing the hottest fighter in the division and doesn’t get the softer touches that are often given to, say, boxing champions.
There’s no way to rack up the defenses in the UFC by beating up on a handful of lesser fighters before getting to the legitimate contenders. The fan base won’t tolerate it.
He’s been so good that he’s angered fans by not moving up and fighting at a bigger weight. The record chase is what will ultimately invigorate the fan base, though Johnson himself hasn’t done a good job of selling it.
He should have been everywhere this week talking up the significance of surpassing Silva in the UFC record books.
The chase, though, has barely been mentioned. Much more has been made of Johnson’s feud with UFC president Dana White, which he said on a conference call was settled in July at UFC 214 in a meeting between “two grown-ass men.”
The accomplishment of defeating Borg on Saturday and standing alone in the UFC history books is hugely significant. It’s just being seriously underplayed.
And Johnson isn’t helping it.
“For me obviously as an athlete and as a competitor who has been doing it for a very long time, it’s just another fight,” Johnson said. “Obviously, if I’m successful defending my belt for the 11th time, it’s going to be the grandmother of them all.”
It’s not just another fight. It’s a shot at history, something that may not be approached for a long time. Jedrzejczyk has made five successful defenses and thus isn’t halfway there.
This should be dominating talk shows and getting the full-on treatment from “SportsCenter.” It should be the talk of the sport, but when Johnson answers a question about the shot at the record by saying, “ … It’s just another fight,” it’s hard to get others excited about it.
In his 10 successful defenses, he’s won Knockout of the Night, Fight of the Night, Submission of the Night and Performance of the Night. He’s totaled six fight night bonuses in his 10 defenses and seven in his UFC career.
Going up in weight to chase another belt isn’t particularly compelling to him now. He’d give up a significant amount of size to bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt and said he’d do it if the UFC paid him like it was a significant event.
‘We’ll see,” he said about a move to bantamweight. “Going up to a different weight class, it’s got to be worth my time. Why not set the bar as high as I can [for flyweight title defenses]? Now I’m going to go out and set 11, but if I can set it at 15, why not?”
Why not, indeed.
This is a massive story, even if few people are talking much about it.
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