A shockwave rippled through the MMA world in late October, when a trade between the Ultimate Fighting Championship and One Championship was finalized. The agreement sent former One welterweight champion Ben Askren to the UFC in return for former UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.
Johnson was open to the idea of joining the One Championship roster, as he had been a fan of the organization for some time.
“I always had a desire to compete in Asia,” Johnson told Sherdog.com. “I grew up watching Asian-based promotions like Dream [and] Pride [Fighting Championships]. At the last [part] of my UFC career, I found myself watching more One Championship than UFC, and it wasn’t for mixed martial arts; it was for high-level muay Thai and the kickboxing.”
Johnson has teammates in the One Championship stable, and longtime trainer Matt Hume serves as a vice president in the organization. With such close ties, he was fully aware of the positive relations the Singapore-based promotion has with its fighters.
“I hear about how the athletes are being treated,” Johnson said, “and I thought it was a great move.”
Fighter relations have been an ongoing concern for current and former members of the UFC roster, including Johnson. He had a much-publicized disagreement with UFC President Dana White in June 2017.
“Obviously, me and Dana White never had the best relationship,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t fantastic. One week you’re the greatest fighter of all-time; the next week your X, Y and Z. His perception changes all the time with fighters, which is fine.”
However, Johnson claims he never took White’s opinions to heart, and the 32-year-old has thus far refused to place blame on the UFC president when asked why he chose to initiate conversations for his release. Like any long-term relationship, situations change. After Johnson lost to Henry Cejudo -- it was his first-ever loss as a flyweight -- at UFC 227, he was ready to start a new chapter in his story.
“I had a great time in the UFC,” he said. “I just felt this was the time for me to go out and do other things in my career.”
With that in mind, Johnson approached manager Malki Kawa and asked if a release was possible for a fighter of his stature. After negotiations with White, One Championship and UFC General Counsel Hunter Campbell concluded, the AMC Pankration rep had a new home. He received a bump in pay, too.
“I’m just going to say I’m a happy man,” Johnson said.
Rumors surrounding the fate of the UFC’s flyweight division helped facilitate his exit. Most believe the promotion plans to shutter its 125-pound weight class in the not-too-distant future.
“Obviously, we’ve had our disagreements with the UFC about how much they promote the flyweight division,” Johnson said, “and, as you can see, now they are ready to scrap it. I think the flyweight division is probably one of the most exciting divisions in the UFC. It’s unfortunate, but I’m not running the business. If the UFC is not making their money back, or they just don’t feel like they want to promote that division, then it is what it is.”
If the surprise deal between the UFC and One Championship had not been brokered, Johnson has no idea what would have been next for him inside the Octagon. He never even pondered it, choosing instead to focus on recovering from a right knee injury he suffered against Cejudo.
“Once I’m done with my fight, all I think about is getting healthy,” Johnson said. “I don’t think about who I’m going to fight next [or] what I want next. I just want to get healthy.”
Once his injury healed, Johnson made it known that a move to the bantamweight division was not an option, not even for a title fight. Why? It all goes back to a conversation he had with former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar’s father-in-law.
“I was coming home -- I think it was from Manila -- and I was in the bus with his father-in-law,” Johnson said. “He told me that when Frankie fought at 155 [pounds], every single time after a fight, he was always in the hospital, and ever since he made the move down to 145, he’s not banged up as much. He’s not in the hospital after fights. Once I heard that story, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy to hear there’s this guy who’s fighting a division up, and every single time he’s done fighting -- even though he wins the fight -- his ass is always in the hospital.’”
In recent years, One instituted hydration testing for fighters in the days before a bout, meaning competitors are not allowed to have large fluctuations in weight before fight night. Johnson appreciates the measure as a flyweight.
“When I fight in the One Championship flyweight division, which [has a limit of] 135 [pounds] hydrated, you’re not going to have guys that cut down from 160, because they won’t be hydrated at that weight,” Johnson said.
The change in scenery has energized Johnson, who believes Asian fans have a greater appreciation for fighters in smaller weight classes.
“Asia is a place where they respect the lighter weight divisions,” said Johnson. “[When] people tell me they are not fans of the flyweights or smaller athletes in combat sports, they just say [it’s] because they’re small. They haven’t given me a specific reason with some type of intelligence.”
One Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong has made a strong impression on Johnson with his genuine appreciation for martial arts as a whole.
“He’s awesome. I’ve never been around somebody who’s so passionate about martial arts. That’s the biggest thing I took away [from our conversations],” Johnson said. “When you have like 144 world champions on the roster, not just in mixed martial arts but in kickboxing, muay Thai [and submission wrestling], it’s just cool to see somebody be so passionate about martial arts, in general, not just mixed martial arts.”
Johnson also likes the connection One Championship appears to have forged with diehard fans.
“I’ve always felt that One was mainstream,” he said. “If you’re looking for true martial arts and looking for all types, then you would have been a big fan of One Championship. The North American fans, all they know is [the] UFC, which is fine, but I’ve always been a big believer that there’s other big fish in the sea.”
Johnson hopes to fight for five more years and expects to be on the One Championship roster for the rest of his career.
“I’ve already fought the best guys in North America,” he said. “Now I’m going to challenge myself against the best guys in Asia. We’ll see what happens.”
Public perception has never been a motivating factor for Johnson.
“Legacy always changes. It’s not about legacy. People are going to say you’re the best, [and then] people are going to say you suck,” he said. “When I got into the sport, it was never to be a world champion, never to be the best in the world. I got into this sport because I love learning about martial arts.”