As it pertains to how Demetrious Johnson and Ian McCall go about their business in a mixed martial arts contest, the gap between the flyweight pair is miniscule.
There's no doubt about that after the 125-pounders engaged in another enthralling 15-minute stretch Friday night. That's six very competitive rounds over the last three months, leaving the impression that regardless of how many times they met in a cage, judges would prove the final arbiters -- and they'd have to earn their money. Thankfully, officials assigned to that task in Florida did their job well, sealing Johnson's trip to the UFC's flyweight tournament final against Joseph Benavidez.
Johnson got there by making and, more importantly, implementing changes to the way he approached McCall's physicality. Speed and wrestling, Johnson's fortes, are wonderful attributes to possess, but not if they're stifled by poor timing and distance, which cost the 25-year-old former bantamweight contender a victory in March. Rather than jumping forward and opening opportunities for the 27-year-old Californian to drop levels and get at Johnson's hips, "Mighty Mouse" stood his ground, planted and fired off right hands. He also used footwork to avoid long stretches on the inside with McCall, though when they did battle it out in the clinch Johnson did not appear to fight with the verve that marked his first performance.
Many McCall supporters came into the rematch pointing to his stellar Round 3, a 10-8 period according to some (including me), as the reason he'd advance to face Benavidez. McCall was brutally efficient over that five-minute stretch, especially from top position where he 1.) controlled Johnson and prevented him from standing and 2.) swarmed with strikes from dominant spots on the mat. The sequence started after Johnson rushed at McCall. Since Johnson was disciplined this time around, McCall had few counter chances to take advantage of.
Instead, it was McCall who pressed. He did this in the early going, reaching on punches that ended with him planted on the canvas thanks to a Johnson right hand. And he did this late. The Californian's frustration mounted in the final period, which was when the difference from their first and second contest became clear.
Try as he might, McCall forced takedown attempts rather than flowing into them. That proved to be hugely important to Johnson's ability to stay off his back, which was a must considering how effective McCall was the first time around. That split second shift was all Johnson needed to stop McCall's advances. The fact that McCall was required to work as hard as he did also, understandably, slowed him just enough to ensure that Johnson retained a speed edge throughout the contest. This was notably different than the first encounter, when it seemed McCall was not at all a victim to a faster fighter.
Johnson spoke before the fight of his changed diet, including a hefty dose of carbohydrates. Whether that paid off for him as the fight wound down or whether it was his improved tactics, the fact is Johnson was much more dangerous in the final period tonight than he was on March 3. Much more.