Johnston won two UFC fights in the early days of the Octagon. | Photo: Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com
Johnston aspired to return to pro wrestling and even had thoughts of fighting again after the stroke. However, his new reality led to changed perspective: it was not the end of the world if he never fought or performed again. The rush of engaging 70,000 fans alongside Frye -- a fighter that once choked him with an elbow in a live fight -- as a pro wrestler was indescribable. However, the thrill of living life to the fullest with family is ineffable; the deepest of connections must be maintained at all costs. Johnston admits the day his daughter was born softened him.
There can be no more arduous struggle than to go from semi-heroic alpha male to physically limited former fighter in one’s prime. The saving grace for Johnston: he regained enough of his life to become an active father and family man. Kaiya is already aware of her father’s fighting past. Johnston insists she has shown a fighter’s spirit through dance and gymnastics. He wants her to pursue her dreams, just as he pursued his.
“I’d like her in Shooto, but she’s a bit too young,” Johnston said. “Everything is great. When she runs into my bedroom at seven in the morning and yells, ‘Good morning!’ -- it’s hard to be grumpy. Everything she does is monumental; it’s mind-blowing.”
Johnston imagined his post-fight career would involve playing in a band in Japan and traveling all over the world. An avid guitar player, he was his high school choir’s president. The plan was to pursue music, another passion he has dedicated his life to practicing and performing. Johnston stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 220 pounds, 30 pounds down from his peak muscular weight. He is not in fighting shape, but he knows how grateful he should be for every motion that keeps him young.
Despite all that has happened, there is no denying Johnston’s impact on MMA. From his initial cross-training endeavor at the American Kickboxing Academy, Frank Shamrock, Josh Thomson and Bobby Southworth followed, setting the stage for the Cain Velasquez-, Jon Fitch- and Daniel Cormier-led AKA gym of today. He accepts this as his small contribution to a sport crowded by all-time-great titleholders and larger-than-life personalities.
“It’s hard for me to sit there and imagine people remembering me,” Johnston said. “We just used to sign up to fight. I don’t know if I fulfilled my potential, but I know fighting Don was an important part. They came first. I really don’t know what the perception would be of me. I take great pride in all the different guys I had in my life and spent time around.
“[Jumping into] MMA was my idea,” he added. “My mind went that way. I’m not sure what would have happened. My next-door neighbor was Scott Coker, who eventually bought Strikeforce. It was just a natural progression of things from kickboxing to MMA, but by me saying I wanted to do this, it was the spark. I definitely take pride in all the guys that came there [to AKA].”
Professional wrestling was a fun way to make a living; full-contact fighting was something he would do today if he was physically able.
“If I dream, I’m still young,” Johnston said, “getting my ass whipped, still in a fight.”
He has grown beyond such thoughts. Johnston intends to publish his story in a book he has been working on over the last decade.
In addition, his passion for shoot wrestling may manifest itself in a new company. He sees it as a way to display MMA techniques but with the safety of scripted stories and no intention of putting the opposition in the hospital. He believes it is a natural transition to teach MMA fighters how not to break people’s faces.
Johnston has also come to grips with fighting as a positive force in his life, despite the implications it may have had on his health.
“When the stroke happened, I happened to be in the ring when I got hit,” he said. “I could have been playing golf. I could have been shaving or running. I wouldn’t say that fighting [caused the stroke].”
Journeying through the pioneering days of MMA, the traditions of pro wrestling and the toughman lifestyle of any renegade generation, Johnston relishes the idea that he lived the way his spirit desired, with a no-time-wasted philosophy he hopes his daughter someday embraces.
“You have to do what you want to do in life,” Johnston said. “There’s going to be a lot of people pulling you in one direction or another, but you only have one [life]. Luckily, I was able to fight and wrestle. I did what I wanted to do without having to focus on money. I focused on what I wanted. It worked out. I’m glad I did that because I don’t have the opportunity to do those things now.”
Listen to Acosta on the "Acosta KO" Tuesdays (1:30p.m. PST) on Sirius Fight Club (Sirius 92, XM 208). Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend.