Why Did Demetrious Johnson Leave the UFC? (5 Reasons)

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Despite being one of the best MMA fighters in history and easily one of the best UFC fighters at the time, it didn’t stop Demetrious Johnson from leaving the UFC for ONE Championship in a 2018 swap deal with Ben Askren.

In this article, we explore why Demetrious Johnson left the UFC, considered a questionable decision at the time.

Why Did Demetrious Johnson Leave the UFC?

Demetrious Johnson left the UFC because he felt underappreciated and underpaid, he felt stuck in his career and wanted to explore new avenues, and he loved ONE Championship because they were offering a new product of promoting different combat sports in each event.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the reasons.

1. Underpaid

Demetrious Johnson was underpaid by the UFC for many years for a fighter of his caliber.

Demetrious Johnson knew this, but he loved fighting and was a workhorse so he got on with it. However, he was angered when CM Punk joined the UFC and earned $500,000 in his second UFC fight.

CM Punk was a professional wrestler without any amateur MMA experience who was now fighting in the UFC for big money – just because he had a name.

Compare this to Demetrious Johnson, the UFC’s inaugural flyweight champion who went on to secure 12 consecutive title defenses between 2012 and 2017.

Demetrious Johnson revealed how he didn’t receive a higher-earning contract until his 4th title defense, and that he never really earned ‘big’ money and was never paid PPV points.

Here are some of Demetrious Johnson’s UFC earnings (which he spoke about during his Twitch stream):

  • Dominick Cruz – $14,000 to show and $14,000 to win (lost the fight, so he only earned $14,000)
  • Ian McCall – $14,000 to show and $14,000 to win
  • Ian McCall (2nd fight for inaugural flyweight title) $20,000 to show and $20,000 to win
  • Joseph Benavidez – $20,00 to show and $20,000 to win
  • John Moraga – $26,000 to show and $26,000 to win
  • Joseph Benavidez (2nd fight) – $30,000 to show and $30,000 to win
  • Ali Bagautinov – $125,000 to show and $50,000 to win (4th title defense)
  • Henry Cejudo II – $380,000 flat fee (by far his highest)

As can be seen, Demetrious Johnson was hugely underpaid by the UFC. He was earning what lower-tier and new UFC fighters earn in the promotion, not what title-defending champions and legends are supposed to earn.

So, when the opportunity to join ONE Championship arose, DJ snapped at the chance because he knew he’d finally start earning some real money for the quality of fighting he offered.

2. Underappreciated

Demetrious Johnson was underappreciated by the UFC because he wasn’t considered a draw – someone who brought in lots of paying viewers.

One of the best examples is how Demetrious Johnson had only 1 UFC belt, despite being about to fight in his 10th flyweight title defense against Wilson Reis.

Johnson said, “I’m getting pissed off about this. I saw that Daniel Cormier has three damn belts. Dana White, IMG, whoever writes the checks, can you give me eight damn belts please?”.

He won his fight against Reis, and shortly after received another 9 UFC belts, one belt for every title defense, taking his total to 10.

Yes, he received his belts (years late), but the fact he had to ask for the belts he was due shows how underappreciated Demetrious Johnson was, as does his notoriously low UFC payouts.

Another example is how the UFC never promoted his fights to the same degree they did others. They didn’t promote Demetrious Johnson and they didn’t promote his upcoming opponent.

It’s as though the UFC realized quickly that Demetrious Johnson wasn’t a big draw, so they gave up spending time and resources to promote his fights, believing that it wouldn’t make a big difference.

3. Stagnant Career

Demetrious Johnson also left the UFC because he felt stuck and wanted to explore new avenues.

In August 2018 at UFC 227, DJ lost a split decision to Henry Cejudo (their second fight), putting an end to his record-setting 12 consecutive UFC title defenses.

He didn’t want to fight Henry Cejudo a third time, especially at a time when there were talks of disbanding the flyweight division.

4. He Loves ONE Championship and Asian MMA

Demetrious Johnson also left the UFC because ONE Championship was offering what he believed to be a great product.

He wanted to be involved in the different styles, which he proved when he fought Muay Thai superstar, Rodtang. 

They fought in a 4-round mixed rules fight, where the first round was Muay Thai, the second was MMA, and it then repeated.

He also loved how ONE Championship fighters don’t have to cut weight, meaning he could fight at his more natural weight of 135 lbs.

Lastly, he grew up watching PRIDE and was inspired to travel, live, and compete in Asia.

5. Ease of Facilitation

Finally, Demetrious Johnson left the UFC for ONE Championship because his long-time MMA coach, Matt Hume, was the Senior Vice President of ONE Championship (since 2012).

Matt Hume introduced Demetrious Johnson to the ONE Championship owners and made the move extremely easy for him.

Why Did the UFC Let Go of DJ (Demetrious Johnson)?

The UFC let go of Demetrious Johson because he wasn’t the biggest draw and didn’t make them much money via PPV sales. They also wanted Ben Askren to join the UFC from ONE Championship, part of the Demetrious Johnson swap deal.

Let’s take a closer look.

1. Marketability and PPV Sales

While Johnson was a dominant champion, his fights didn’t generate significant pay-per-view (PPV) sales compared to other fighters. 

The UFC always prioritizes fighters who can draw larger audiences and higher revenue. Just look at how they parted ways with USADA and sided with Conor McGregor over his apparent ‘mistreatment’.

Demetrious Johnson’s technical mastery and consistent performance, while respected by hardcore MMA fans, didn’t translate into the mainstream appeal that drives PPV sales.

DJ wasn’t a large personality and he didn’t entice fans to watch his fights. On top of this, fans were generally more interested in larger MMA fighters, because of the higher chance of knockouts and perceived entertainment this brings.

2. Strategic Business Decision

The UFC’s decision to trade Demetrious Johnson for Ben Askren was a strategic move. Askren, known for his outspoken personality, undefeated record, and immense grappling was seen as a potential draw for the UFC audience. 

This trade reflects the UFC’s focus on creating fresh high-profile, marketable matchups that can generate buzz and revenue.

3. Potential Disbandment of Flyweight Division

Around the time of Johnson’s departure in 2018, there were discussions within the UFC about the potential disbandment of the flyweight division. 

The UFC has historically favored heavier divisions, as they tend to draw more fan interest due to the higher knockout potential and the spectacle of larger-than-life athletes.

The flyweight division, despite showcasing high-level technical skill and speed, didn’t receive the same level of promotion or attention as these heavier divisions.

Therefore, letting Demetrious Johnson leave to join ONE Championship wasn’t seen as a huge loss by the UFC.

4. Cost-Benefit Analysis

After his successful title defense against Ray Borg in October 2017, the UFC tried to line up DJ vs. T.J. Dillashaw in 2018. Dillashaw had beaten Cody Garbrandt to remain the UFC bantamweight champion in November 2017.

DJ said of the potential fight, “When they tried to stiff-arm me to fight T.J. Dillashaw, I was like, Yeah, pay me a f***ing million dollars and I’ll do it. This is a super fight, let’s make some super money. They never wanted to do that.”

From a business perspective, the UFC conducted a cost-benefit analysis regarding Johnson’s contract and deemed it not worth it.

Considering his pay demands and the return on investment in terms of audience draw and PPV sales, the UFC concluded that the resources could be better allocated elsewhere.

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