When a fighter chooses to move down a weight class, I’m usually skeptical of how much it will benefit him. It often seems like the physical toll of cutting an extra ten or 15 pounds out-weighs the potential benefits of being the larger fighter. For Demetrious Johnson, the introduction of the UFC flyweight division was exactly what he needed to show just how good he is. Johnson’s ability to control the takedown game has improved dramatically as a flyweight, and so has the consistency with which he’s had his hand raised.
Ali Bagautinov is a tough opponent for Johnson for two reasons. One is that Bagautinov is very good at landing takedowns himself as he’s landed ten in three UFC fights. Consider the fighters Johnson has faced recently. Joseph Benavidez, John Moraga, and John Dodson are not terrific offensive wrestlers. It’s possible that Bagautinov could find success with the takedown where others have failed. If Bagautinov can get out in front of the fight and put Johnson on his back, that would change the dynamic of this fight in a big way.
On the flip side, Johnson is probably capable of taking down Bagautinov as well. Bagautinov was taken down twice in four tries by Tim Elliott; while Elliott is a very good and underrated offensive wrestler, that demonstrates that Bagautinov at least can be taken down. It’s not enough data to draw stronger conclusions than that, but it’s something.
The problem for Bagautinov is simple: if he isn’t able to win the takedown game against Johnson, I have trouble finding an area of the fight where he would have the advantage.
Let’s say for example that Bagautinov finds a way to stuff Johnson’s takedowns consistently. I would have to favor Johnson in the resulting striking match. Bagautinov does have very good knockout power by flyweight standards, but his pace of 2.99 significant strikes landed per minute is closer to average than great. Johnson has an impressive ratio of 3.32 significant strikes landed per minute against 1.90 absorbed for a margin of +1.42 strikes per minute. Bagautinov’s margin is +0.64 against lesser competition.
So if we break down the fight into three states (standing, Johnson with positional advantage on the ground, and Bagautinov with positional advantage on the ground) I would give Johnson the edge in two of those three states, standing and with positional advantage. I would also rank the states as Johnson with positional advantage being most frequent, followed by standing distance, and Bagautinov with positional advantage last. Johnson’s history of consistent excellence against difficult opponents simply trumps Bagautinov’s three good UFC performances in my mind.
That means that yes, I agree with the overwhelming majority that Johnson is the favorite to win this match. At the same time, I think Bagautinov deserves more respect than he’s getting from the betting public. Johnson opened as a -425 favorite to win; that’s already high enough, but betting action has increased that line to a massive -750, with Bagautinov the underdog at +525.
Bagautinov has paths to victory here. A sudden knockout is one path; winning the takedown battle and subsequently winning on points is another. Neither path to victory is particularly likely, but if Bagautinov is +525, those paths don’t need to be likely for there to be betting value on him.
I say that to say this – Johnson is the pick to win and it’s an easy call from my vantage point. However, I think the betting markets have disrespected Bagautinov just a little too much, so my degenerate gambling action will probably be on the underdog here. I don’t feel nearly as good about it as I did when I bet on T.J. Dillashaw, but it at least illustrates that I see this as a somewhat more competitive fight than people think.
Pick: Demetrious Johnson by decision