Demetrious Johnson has moved on from the UFC’s flyweight division just as much as it has moved on from him.
The UFC’s 125-pound weight class took center stage last week, in a way it never did during Johnson’s six-year reign as champion. Henry Cejudo defended the title against TJ Dillashaw on the UFC’s first event on ESPN, and both athletes were promoted heavily beforehand.
UFC Fight Night in Brooklyn saw a champion retain his belt and top prospects continuing their rise. Here’s how ESPN MMA analyst Chael Sonnen saw the night play out.
After UFC flyweight champion Henry Cejudo’s 32-second finish of bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw in their Jan. 19 superfight, the two titleholders have swapped spots in the ESPN pound-for-pound MMA rankings.
Meanwhile, Johnson, who parted ways with the UFC for Asia-based promotion One Championship months ago, spent all of last week in Japan, filming promotional material for One. He says he didn’t have any thoughts about his old division moving on, other than joy for Cejudo.
“It was never my division, it’s the UFC’s division,” Johnson told ESPN. “I’ve moved on to bigger and better things, in my opinion. I am legitimately happy for Henry Cejudo, TJ Dillashaw and the flyweight division.
“Once I became part of One Championship, that’s where my focus went. But I’m happy for the opportunity those guys got. They deserve it.”
Johnson (27-3-1) will make his One debut against Yuya Wakamatsu (10-3) March 31 in Tokyo, at an event fittingly titled “A New Era.” The card will also feature former UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez.
Chael Sonnen is frustrated the ref stepped in and ended the Cejudo-Dillashaw fight, and he is pessimistic about the future of the flyweight division.
Few would blame Johnson if he were to feel bitter toward his old home. He was the flyweight division from 2012-18, defending the belt a UFC-record 11 times. None of those fights seemed to resonate with the public, however, as much as Cejudo’s did on Saturday.
But Johnson, 32, said he is completely content with how things unfolded — and it doesn’t hurt that he is exactly where he wants to be. Many of his favorite MMA fighters growing up — Fedor Emelianenko, Quinton Jackson, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, Mirko Cro Cop — rose to prominence in Asia.
“It’s not about trying to create drama over here,” Johnson said. “I always felt like in the UFC, your star power is based on how many pay-per-views you sell. When Dana White comes to you and says, ‘We’re thinking about getting rid of your division,’ and you’re on your ninth title defense, it kind of makes you wonder. But you never have to worry about that here. It’s a different vibe.
“When you’re not worried about selling a f—ing pay-per-view and just competing — and everyone is happy with it — that’s what it’s all about.”
Johnson didn’t even catch the fight live in Japan, but he learned the result from his wife shortly after it ended.
For the record, he and Cejudo are 1-1 against each other. Johnson knocked him out in 2016, and Cejudo evened the score with a split decision in August. Johnson says he’d never rule out a third meeting, but it would have to take place in Asia — where he’s happy.
“At the end of the day, you never know what could happen,” Johnson said. “I’ll tell you what, though, I’ll never go back to North America. So the only way we’d compete against each other is if he came over here. It all depends on what happens in the UFC. A lot of things would have to fall in order, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”