Uncrowned Kings of MMA is a series where we take you through eight fighters – each one at a different weight class – who never achieved a belt in any major promotion. There are a few rules – they can still be competing but must be out of the title picture. Major promotions are the UFC, Pride, Bellator, Strikeforce, the WEC’s featherweight and bantamweight divisions, and RIZIN’s bantamweight division. Interim championships do not count unless the bearer is later promoted to undisputed champion. Today we will be looking at the flyweight and bantamweight John Dodson – “The Magician”.
This is part two of an eight-part series. To read the previous article, on Carlos Condit, click here.
In many ways, John Dodson was not a subtle fighter. A southpaw, he did not so much load up his left hand as he cradled it close to his chest like a babe, before dispatching it to fetch his fight purse. Certainly, it had seized his UFC position, when Dodson knocked future great TJ Dillashaw flat in order to win the fourteenth season of The Ultimate Fighter. That had been at Bantamweight, however; now Dodson was fighting at his true weight, flyweight.
Outside foot control is incredibly important in orthodox/southpaw matches. This is because it allows a fighter to throw their rear hand right down the middle. This means that their opponent will have a minimum of protection. A perfect strategy to exploit Dodson’s deadly speed and power.
Dodson was so tenacious at battling for outside foot control that by the second round of their fight, Jussier Formiga seemed to outright concede it. Formiga stepped in but Dodson made him pay for it with a vicious left hook that sent the Brazillian crashing to the canvas. Likely out of respect for Formiga’s grappling Dodson then backed off.
Formiga was understandably more tentative from then on. Dodson instead created his own next opportunity. Building off of the reactions created by his bodywork, he went to the body before continuing the combination, throwing a second right to the body before throwing a second left hook upstairs that swept Formiga off of his feet again, this time for the finish.
It’s a testament to Dodson’s sheer power that the knockdown blow actually hit Formiga’s gloved hand which he was protecting his jaw with. This at flyweight no less.
The Magician seemed unstoppable, destined for the belt. But as will be a theme in this series, one of the very best to ever step inside the cage stood between Dodson and gold.
Before the creation of the UFC’s flyweight division, Demetrious Johnson fought at bantamweight just as Dodson had. He had even earnt a title shot and fought the legendary Dominick Cruz while the latter was still in his physical prime. But what is astonishing about this feat is not just that Johnson was able to battle his way to a title shot at a division above his weight class. It is that he was able to do this while still not training full time in MMA.
Mighty Mouse would only truly come at his own in flyweight, where he first campaigned his way to the belt of the division in a tournament designed to crown the first champion and then proceeded to steadily make his way through a list of contenders. Few gave him as much hell as the Magician.
Dodson began the fight very strongly. Johnson was trying to use stance shifts initially to throw him off, but nearly ran into hot water and got dropped early on. The champion rapidly cycled through strategies trying to find something Dodson wouldn’t be ready for, but by the end of the first round, it was the challenger who had the momentum.
Johnson seemed to be getting back into the game in the second round, snapping Dodson’s head back with a stiff jab. But Dodson simply grinned before rattling off a furious body to head combination that dropped the champion. Johnson tried to push forward again but left his right hand down after a combination and got caught with a massive left hook and dropped again. Now the tide seemed to have turned against Mighty Mouse absolutely. Three times Dodson caught Johnson’s low kicks and punished him for it.
The third round started off poorly for the champion as well. Johnson ran into a knee as he attempted a takedown. He managed to drive Dodson to the wall, but the fight was derailed by a groin shot (the first of many that Dodson would receive in his career). When the fight resumed, Johnson pressured Dodson to the cage but nearly fell victim to a monstrous flying knee. After that, Johnson began to get back into the fight, hacking away steadily with leg kicks. He even managed to get a takedown and ground and pound later in the round. Though it was still incredibly close, the champion had managed to win the third on the judges’ scorecards. But with two rounds almost certainly going to Dodson the fight was still up in the air.
It was in the fourth that the champion finally discovered a strategy that worked. Getting Dodson into a headlock, he assailed him relentlessly with knees. Initially, Johnson only managed to illegally knee Dodson, who had placed a hand on the ground. But when the champion got into the same position a second time he was able to start breaking down the challenger more comprehensively. Simply put, Johnson spent a minute that seemed to go on forever kneeing the everliving daylights out of Dodson’s head and body. The challenger, already flagging, found himself drowned in a endless sea of knees.
Johnson wasted none of the decisive change in momentum. The champion came out strong in the fifth round and immediately dragged Dodson into the clinch again. Dodson conceded a takedown but was able to get up quickly and reverse Johnson against the cage. Johnson responded by literally hopping on Dodson and hammering him with elbows from above. By the middle of the round, it was Dodson shooting takedowns, to little avail. Every time he tried to get space Johnson would be there to drag him into another series of clinch attempts.
Despite how close the fight was, the decision would be unanimous. 48-47: to Johnson.
John Dodson and Demetrious Johnson – The Rematch
John Dodson would get his second chance against Johnson two years later at UFC 191. Though Dodson had gotten a severe knee injury in the intervening time, he had also racked up three more wins, including two finishes.
Johnson was tearing apart contenders so quickly that he was threatening to totally deplete the division. This was likely the reason that Dodson never fought other flyweight greats like Joseph Benavidez. While it’s understandable that the division was short of contenders, it is a shame that so many good fighters were never able to compete. Not that Dodson had time to care about that; he had to prove that he had grown enough to defeat Mighty Mouse.
However, rather than Dodson closing the gap between them, it was Johnson who had lengthened it. From the opening bell the champion refused to let Dodson dictate the action or get comfortable enough to send left hands down the pipe. In addition to this relentless pressure, Johnson used stance switches to prevent Dodson from getting comfortable. However, this time the switches were used more cautiously so that he wouldn’t get caught as he had been before.
Instead of playing into Dodson’s game in boxing range like in the first fight, Johnson threw shifting right hands. This meant that not only would Johnson exploit the traditional southpaw/orthodox matchup to land with the rear power hand without setup, he would be in southpaw himself when he finished attacking. This meant that he would be in a far safer stance from which to take Dodson’s response; Johnson was stripping Dodson of his greatest weapon and using it against him.
Even more critically, Johnson’s pressure meant that Dodson was close against the cage at all times. This meant that Johnson had plenty of space to retreat behind him, even on a straight line which would normally be a mistake for a fighter if they didn’t have so much empty ground behind them. Instead of taking angles, Johnson prioritised getting away from Dodson’s lightning-fast combinations whenever he opened up.
John Dodson – The Death of the Dream
Dodson wasn’t going down easy, however. Literally. Whenever Johnson went for a takedown, usually disguising the entry as another shifting right hand, Dodson would simply refuse to be taken down. Using almost preternatural balance, he would get back to the cage and root himself with his free leg.
Johnson’s response was, after some failed takedown attempts, to simply drive Dodson to the cage. He would keep hold of Dodson’s leg with one hand and batter him with the free arm. Amid one barrage of punches and elbows he even bloodied Dodson’s nose.
While Dodson was able to get success off of catching the low kick once again, for the vast majority of the fight Dodson was completely shut out, unable to find a way to get his game going. As the fight wore on Dodson found himself out of options and exhausted, and the gap widened further.
By the end of the fight there were no questions remaining. Johnson’s victory was so complete that it marked the end of Dodson’s flyweight career. The 125 lbs belt now seemingly permanently beyond his reach, Dodson departed to bantamweight instead.
While he initially found success with a lightning KO over Manvel Gamburyan, Dodson would be truly tested at bantamweight by John Lineker. The ferocious bantamweight chased Dodson around the cage the entire fight. Lineker often landed body shots but was rarely able to pin down the elusive Dodson. However a pattern began to emerge.
The decision could – and probably should – have gone to Dodson, with his clean shots and multiple headkicks being overshadowed by Lineker’s relentless but often inaccurate hooks. However, one factor showed that in the move to bantamweight Dodson had shed his greatest advantage. His vaunted power, devastating at flyweight, was absorbed – and ignored- by Lineker again and again. Johnson had been forced to disarm Dodson like a dangerous landmine. Lineker walked through Dodson’s best shots and unloaded his own.
It was to prove the end of John Dodson the knockout artist. After Gamburyan, Dodson would go to decision six fights in a row; two victories, four losses.
John Dodson – The Conclusion
So, what to think of John Dodson? At his height, he was the boogeyman of the flyweight division, combining speed and power to a degree that the UFC had never seen before. There have been very few fighters who left their opponents with such a tiny margin for error as the magician.
Why did he never become champ? Ultimately, the magician had only one trick. Dodson’s good footwork, incredible speed, stellar takedown defence, and most importantly excellent power at flyweight all worked in concert to create a superb southpaw fighter. However, with only one string to his bow, once Johnson discovered how to disarm him there was little Dodson could do to compensate. He could only try to survive.
Even worse, at bantamweight, his power diminished and often undersized, Dodson was stripped of that very weapon as well. Rather than ferocious power, he became known for eking out low-paced decisions. Despite the odd knockdown, it was a far cry from the terror he had once inspired.
That was, until this year when seemingly being fed to a rising prospect in the form of Nathaniel Wood, Dodson dropped him multiple times. It was a messy fight, with a head clash and several low blows. Dodson found himself drawn into exchanges just as he had against Lineker. But this time it was Dodson who would emerge triumphant, sending the prospect crashing to the canvas with a left hook right to the chin.
Perhaps there’s still a little of the old magic still left, after all.
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