UFC 215: What can Ray Borg do that every other flyweight can’t?

They’ve all tried and failed. Joseph Benavidez tried and failed. Twice. John Dodson tried and failed. Twice. John Moraga, Ali Bagautinov, Chris Cariaso, Kyoji Horiguchi, Henry Cejudo and Tim Elliott all had a go. They, too, failed. Recently, Wilson Reis, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, tried and failed.

Each of the aforementioned flyweights, these victims, attempted to dethrone Demetrious Johnson, the current UFC flyweight champion, and, together, they make up the ten successful defenses you hear about whenever ‘Mighty Mouse’ is mentioned in the same breath as Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva, the former UFC middleweight champion who also boasts ten defenses to his name.

Ray Borg, the next in line, will, on Saturday (September 9) at UFC 215, have his chance to do what the rest were unable to do. He will try to take Demetrious Johnson’s belt. Try to beat him. Try to decipher a language incomprehensible to mere mortals. Try to ruin his party and prevent him breaking a record.

He will try. We will believe.

After all, to generate any kind of anticipation ahead of what appears a mismatch, we must suspend disbelief. And this is mixed martial arts, remember. Anything can happen. Anyone can win on any given night. It’s round one. Before a punch or kick has been thrown in anger, Ray Borg has just as much chance of walking away with the UFC flyweight championship as Demetrious Johnson. They are, in that moment, on that night, equals: two arms, two legs, flesh and bone and blood and water. There’s little between them.

But then the fight starts, and it’s at this point opponents of Demetrious Johnson have a choice. Not many choices, granted, but certainly a choice. They can stay away. They can rush him. They can revert to type. They can try something new. Chances are, Johnson will figure them out regardless, but there’s at least a sense they can pick their poison and somewhat decide their own fate. You see the thought cross their mind, too. Shall I take my licks on the feet and be beaten like a drum with combinations from a man inordinately fast and technical, or shall I hit the deck and succumb to a submission of some description? Whatever the conclusion, time spent in the company of Demetrious Johnson rarely appears to be fun.

 

 

Ray Borg knows this, just as we all know this. We’ve all seen enough evidence by now to know what Demetrious Johnson does well and what he does really well. We’ve seen which fighters have extended him the full five rounds and which ones have been blasted out early. We know he knocks out men who don’t get knocked out – Benavidez and Cejudo, for example – and can also gradually work challengers out and chop them down in the latter stages of fights, as Horiguchi and Moraga discovered. It’s disheartening. It’s scary. You look for signs of weakness, signs he can one day be sussed out and defeated, but they’re hard to find. Indeed, you have to travel all the way back to 2011 to find the last time he lost (to Dominick Cruz) and that was pre-flyweight reign of terror. Since becoming a flyweight, Johnson hasn’t really come close (a draw with Ian McCall and split-decision against Benavidez, both of which were empathically cleared up in rematches, have been the only close shaves).

So, with this in mind, how the hell does Ray Borg, a man whose best win came last time out against Jussier Formiga, achieve something no one else has been able to? What does he have that they didn’t? What makes him so special?

The positive, encouraging stuff first. Borg, at 24, is blessed with an ambition and fearlessness older fighters lack. He has lost – two times, in fact – but never badly (decisions to Dustin Ortiz and Justin Scoggins). He is also young enough to consider a setback a moment from which to rebound and learn, rather than a sign he lacks talent or is on the slide. On the climb, he is filled with positivity rather than negavity. There is no shortage of self-belief and conviction. His win over Formiga, the best on his record, happened in March, so there’s some momentum, too.

Stylistically, Borg can wrestle and box – though, admittedly, does neither exceptionally. His hands are snappy and accurate, he seems to enjoy standing in the pocket and he comes alive in exchanges. His footwork is decent by normal-not-Demetrious-Johnson-standards, and he can work hard for three rounds. On the ground, meanwhile, he’s scrappy and active. He can come out on top in scrambles, a result of his pace and pluckiness, and he loves setting up the rear-naked choke, a move that has ended five of his 12 career wins. In short, Borg is solid enough on the ground, both offensively and defensively, but has yet to show anything – be it standing or otherwise – over the five-round championship distance because it’s a path he has yet to travel.

That’s just one of two obstacles facing Borg on Saturday. The other, of course, is Demetrious Johnson. For if all Borg is able to bring to the table is ‘solid’, there is little hope of him reaching the finish line, much less going home with a belt. Let’s face it, you surely need more than that. More than solid. Johnson is in his prime at 31 and out to make history. To stop him, you’ll need to be more than Ray Borg. You need to be Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson and John Moraga and Ali Bagautinov and Chris Cariaso and Kyoji Horiguchi and Henry Cejudo and Tim Elliott and Wilson Reis. You need to be all of them. You need to take their best qualities and stick them in a blender and then drink from it. Better still, you need them all in the cage with you at the same time. (And I’m still taking Demetrious Johnson for the win.)


 

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