demetrious-johnson-ufc-174

(This story appears in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)

At the rate he’s going, it won’t be long before UFC flyweight titleholder Demetrious Johnson runs clean out of opponents whom he hasn’t already thumped once or twice before. And then what?

That’s the most pressing question facing the only man to ever wear the UFC’s 125-pound title belt. After a unanimous decision victory over a game, but overmatched, Ali Bagautinov, against whom Johnson pitched a shutout on the scorecards in the main event of UFC 174 in Vancouver, the challenge for the UFC is finding a fresh challenger with something new to offer one of the organization’s most dominant champs.

The trouble is, the sport of mixed martial arts is running a little low on flyweights who don’t already have a loss on their records thanks to Johnson. That means “Mighty Mouse” might eventually have to look beyond the 125-pound class to find a scrap worthy of his abilities, which would put him right back where he came from, only this time with much more to gain than lose.

It won’t happen right away, of course. The UFC brass seems to have targeted former challenger John Dodson as Johnson’s next opponent, which would put the champ in his third rematch in the span of three years.

It doesn’t seem to be anything Johnson is particularly thrilled about, as he made clear in his post-fight remarks urging media members not to forget about the other names in the division.

“Dodson, I overcame him,” Johnson said. “He’s a challenge, but there are plenty of guys. There’s a guy in the division, [Brad Pickett], who has a win over me. There’s [former Bellator bantamweight champion] Zach Makovsky. So I’m just looking for new challenges.”

But the weight class might not be as rich with talent as Johnson would like to believe. At least, not just yet.

Johnson’s already beaten half the fighters in the flyweight top 10, and with a win against Pickett, who took a decision over Johnson back when both men were fighting at 135 pounds, Johnson could easily find himself right back here, with a rotating cast of challengers whom fans aren’t all that eager to see him run through again.

That’s why an eventual move back up to bantamweight, this time in the form of a champion-vs.-champion superfight, might be inevitable for Johnson. It might also be the kind of feat that would finally earn Johnson (20-2-1 MMA, 8-1-1 UFC) the respect he deserves from fans, many of whom went streaming out of Rogers Arena midway through Saturday night’s pay-per-view main event, leaving behind a cavernous silence to greet the announcement that he was still the champ after five full rounds with Bagautinov (13-3 MMA, 3-1 UFC). (Check out the Johnson vs. Bagautinov video highlights.)

Among the purists and the hardcores, there’s no shortage of praise for Johnson. The things he can do inside a cage are truly astounding, and even a little dizzying. They’re also in danger of seeming routine and uninspiring as he cycles back through opponents he’s already beaten.

Unfair? Sure, a little. After all, Johnson had his go at bantamweight, and he found himself unable to win the big one until the UFC created a class that was more his size.

Then again, when the ticket-holders start leaving the circus early, it might be time to consider raising the tightrope and doing away with the safety net.

For complete coverage of UFC 174, stay tuned to the UFC Events section of the site.

* * * *

MMAjunkie’s John Morgan recaps the UFC 174 card, including the biggest surprises and disappointments:

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