Demetrious Johnson Should Be MMA's Isaiah Thomas--But He Can't

Demetrious Johnson Should Be MMA's Isaiah Thomas--But He Can't
Photo: Greg M. Cooper/Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
​By Shawn W. Smith 

At 5'9", Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas is the shortest NBA player among today's elite. Built in the mold of 1990's favorites like Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues and Anthony "Spud" Webb, Thomas has built off the vertically challenged basketball players of yesteryear to become one of the most dominant forces in the game.

A two-time all-star, Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game during the 2016-2017 season, good for third in the league.

Before his rookie season with the NHL's Calgary Flames, Johnny Gaudreau, like Thomas, was considered "too small." Hockey pundits snickered when the Flames took the 5'9" New Jersey native in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

In his rookie season, Gaudreau scored 30 goals and 48 points in 79 games, finishing second in rookie of the year voting.

By this point, you're wondering what I'm talking about. Why is a site focused on mixed martial arts talking about small players in both the NBA and NHL?

In both basketball and hockey, the smaller athletes have been embraced wholeheartedly. After Gaudreau proved speed kills, zipping around the large brutes that have dominated hockey for so long, other teams have followed his lead. In Toronto, a 6'0" phenomenon by the name of Mitch Marner took the city by storm, using elite-level skating and a high hockey IQ to become an instant sensation.

But in combat sports, we refuse to embrace athletes of a certain size. This past weekend, UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson put on another clinical performance, dominating top-ranked Wilson Reis on his way to a stoppage victory. The win makes it 10 straight title defenses for Johnson, securing his spot among the most dominant athletes to ever compete in MMA.

And nobody cares.

Johnson's headlining fight at UFC on FOX 24 set all-time records for low ratings, with a damning 18 percent drop off from the UFC's April 2016 UFC on FOX outing.

Fans don't want to see Johnson fight.

Why is it that in the NBA or NHL, smaller athletes have been able to carve themselves out a spot, but in MMA we refuse to watch one of the finest fighters on the planet compete? UFC on FOX 24 was one of the most talent-filled cards the UFC has put on in 2017, but nobody watched.

NBA ratings don't tank every time Thomas hits the floor and the NHL doesn't bottom out each time Gaudreau takes the ice. Thomas' jersey sales rank 14th in the league according to the NBA's official website.
Somehow, other sports can embrace talent no matter the shape or size. In MMA, we refuse to watch talent below a certain size.

Is it ego? Does the average fan think they could beat up Johnson based on his size? I promise you can't come close. Is it racial? The fanbase has no issue paying to watch Jon Jones, so that doesn't seem to be it either. Is he too dominant? We paid good money to watch Georges St-Pierre crush opponent after opponent without issue.

In the NBA and the NHL, athletes are larger than life. We love Lebron James because he can do things we can't. In the NHL, Connor McDavid dazzles with moves we can only dream about. The appeal of Thomas is that he is competing against the monsters, but physically, he doesn't look considerably different than you or me. The same can be said for Gaudreau; he whizzes through the most menacing of defenseman but is the same size as an average male.

It's David vs. Goliath; these athletes are overcoming something.

We never get that feeling from Johnson. No one wants to watch a 5'3" Goliath. If he moved up to bantamweight, or even featherweight, things could be different.

The nature of mixed martial arts is that Johnson will continue to fight challengers his own size, dominating all comers for the foreseeable future. And we'll continue to complain about it.

In a league of 5'9" players, Thomas would break every record ever, but it wouldn't matter. Gaudreau wouldn't have the same appeal if all his opponents were the same size.

Johnson doesn't have to overcome a size differential--and for that he'll never quite feel like the underdog.
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