No Stranger to Adversity

Mighty Mouse

By Yael Grauer Sep 29, 2011
Demetrious Johnson will challenge for the bantamweight title at UFC Live 6. | Photo: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Demetrious Johnson emerged from the woodwork in 2010. The 25-year-old Kentucky native survived a difficult start, as he lost a unanimous decision to American Top Team’s Brad Pickett in his WEC debut and then picked up four consecutive wins against former Ring of Combat champion Nick Pace, Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts standout Damacio Page, 2005 K-1 Hero’s lightweight grand prix winner Norifumi Yamamoto and onetime WEC titleholder champion Miguel Torres.

Before he even registered on the radars of most people, Johnson found himself in line for a title shot against reigning bantamweight king Dominick Cruz. They will meet in the UFC Live 6 main event on Saturday at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

Johnson’s string of victories is made all the more impressive when one considers the odds have always been stacked against him. Not only does he fight in a weight class above the one at which he would naturally want to compete, but his surge to prominence came at a time when he was working 40 hours a week and training for less than 10 at the AMC Pankration gym in Kirkland, Wash.

“It’s pretty crazy. It’s fascinating. Basically, easily, hands down, in the last six years, I would say D.J. was never spending maybe more than eight hours a week total training mixed martial arts,” AMC Pankration coach Brad Kertson tells “He would do some other stuff, like CrossFit, and some other types of gym-type things, but actual MMA-wise, he really has never spent more than eight hours tops a week training MMA.”

It was only after defeating Torres at UFC 130 in May that Johnson decided to quit his full-time job as a utility worker at a manufacturing plant. He has been training around 25 hours a week for his title shot.

“A lot of the stuff that D.J. has done, quite honestly, is just off of natural talent and natural ability,” Kertson says. “He’s got an incredible learning curve; he picks stuff up really quickly, and, so, that’s kind of helped him, but he’s really never been fully dedicated to MMA.”

Johnson’s life was filled with challenges long before MMA. He grew up having never met his father: “I’ve never seen a picture of him, not a glimpse, nothing.” He was raised by his deaf mother and an abusive stepfather.

“He’s just a very light-hearted, easy-going fun guy,” Kertson says. “He really enjoys life. It’s another reason why his background is so crazy, if you put it in perspective, because you would never pick up from having a conversation with D.J. or hanging around him that he’s someone that’s gone through so much.”

Johnson participated in sports in high school, including track and football, but he excelled in wrestling, placing third in the state as a junior and second as a senior. Johnson’s success in mixed martial arts can be traced natural talent, his high school wrestling experience and part-time training.

“When you look at the Miguel Torres fight, it’s actually pretty fascinating, because Torres put D.J. in a lot of different submission attempts and different types of holds, and, quite honestly, D.J. got out those just basically out of his natural feel and the work he’s done in the gym,” Kertson says. “Miguel’s a guy who has a ton of mat experience and a ton of jiu-jitsu experience and, I think, is a really qualified black belt, and I think D.J. was really able to get out of a lot of stuff, quite honestly, just out of pure athleticism and strength and will.

“We work a lot with D.J. and we grapple and we do all those things, but you’re talking about a guy who hasn’t had a lot of mat time going against a guy who has a ton of it,” he adds. “Now that he’s able to train full-time, the sky’s the limit for him. He’s finally able to dedicate himself to the sport and not have to go back and forth between doing other stuff; he’s going to have a real opportunity to really start to train and make a difference.”

Dominick Cruz File Photo

Cruz has won 9 straight bouts.
While preparing for his fight against Torres, Johnson had to juggle more than just work and training. He was also driving his mother to the hospital, as she underwent chemotherapy for bone cancer.

A typical day would entail heading to work, returning home to pick up his mom, transporting her to the hospital, taking her home, going back to work, driving to the gym to train and then returning home for the night.

“It’s one of those things that never comes out. You never know it until I’m talking to him and I’m like, ‘What time do you want to meet to train tonight?’ And he’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go see my mom. She’s at [the University of Washington] hospital right now getting treatment, so maybe we’ll do this time or that,’” Kertson says. “And I’ll just be, like, ‘Man, are you sure?’ And he’ll just be, like, ‘Oh yeah, absolutely.’ He’s just emotionally very strong, and I think that’s also come out in his fights.’”

Johnson broke his leg with the first kick he threw in the second round of his bout against Torres and continued fighting. He also pressed on after breaking his hand in the opening frame of an amateur bout -- he won by submission -- and injured his hand in the beginning of his fight against Brad Pickett, dislocating his thumb and tearing ligaments.

“If anyone’s ever broken their leg or broken their hands fighting, I think they would be the first ones to tell you that you can definitely feel it,” Kertson says. “He has a very fascinating workmen-type mentality with that stuff. I remember when he broke his leg and he came back to the corner and he said, ‘Something’s wrong with my leg,’ and [head trainer] Matt [Hume]’s, like, ‘What’d you do to it?’ And he said, ‘Something’s wrong with it, but I’ll be fine. I gotta go out there and do my job.’”

Finish Reading » “All I can do is gain from this fight. I have nothing to lose. I’m the new kid on the block. I’m going to try to go out there and make a name for myself.”


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