‘Mighty’ Good First Impressions

By Jason Burgos Apr 23, 2019
Demetrious Johnson followed his historic run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship with a successful debut under the One Championship banner on March 31. He has already seen the clear differences between the two promotions, and he wants to clear up the misconceptions about the Singapore-based organization for which he now fights.

Ahead of Johnson’s One Championship flyweight grand prix quarterfinal at “A New Era,” many observers viewed Pancrase veteran Yuya Wakamatsu as a sacrificial lamb. However, Wakamatsu gave “Mighty Mouse” all he could handle in the first round. Johnson was not surprised.

“I knew he was going to be tough,” he told Sherdog.com. “Just because he’s not known in the MMA community over in North America doesn’t mean he’s a lesser opponent.”

Wakamatsu has a reputation as a strong boxer, so Johnson taking the fight to the floor made strategic sense, even for someone who believes he is capable of dominating fights wherever they take place.

“I like to consider myself a specialist in everything,” Johnson said. “If I can outstrike a guy, I’ll do it, but if I need to, I can actually use my wrestling, too.”

Johnson, 32, chose the latter route in the first round. However, Wakamatsu made the act of buying a takedown -- and maintaining it -- quite difficult for the former UFC champion. In fact, Johnson did not exploit his grappling advantages until Round 2, where he secured a guillotine choke and prompted a tapout 2:40 into the frame.

While some fans thought Johnson would run through what they believed to be lesser competition in One Championship, “Mighty Mouse” never expected an easy road. World-class martial artists compete all over the world in various organizations, and others turn down the UFC’s overtures in favor of more lucrative offers. Johnson points to AMC Pankration teammate Bibiano Fernandes as one such example. In 2013, the Brazilian was the Dream bantamweight champion and maintained an interest in fighting closer to home in North America. However, the market did not bear the desired fruit.

“[Bibiano] took a step back, and goes, ‘You know what? That’s not good for my brand,’” Johnson said. “‘I don’t like the way these organizations are going.’ He goes, ‘The pay is s---, too: [$15,000 to show] and [$15,000 to win]? Are you kidding me? I’ve got three children and a wife. You think I care about being a world champion? I’m a five-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion. I’m a Dream champion.’”

Fernandes chose the best fit and has been with One Championship ever since. Johnson also pointed to the unpredictable nature of the sport, even at the elite level, as a reason why he was comfortable leaving the UFC. Unexpected losses are commonplace, and can happen to anyone, anywhere and at any time.

“There’s been athletes who have been very successful in the UFC who go over to Japan and get destroyed by ‘no names,’” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter what organization you fight for. A fight is a fight. You can lose it to anybody.”

Another One Championship selling point for Johnson was its stance on weight cutting, as hydration protocols make for less fluctuation on the scales.

“It just makes people fight at more of a natural weight instead of trying to blow up,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s all to make sure the athlete is healthy.”

One Championship weigh-ins have been shrouded in secrecy in recent years, as they are open to neither the media nor the public. It has led some to question the legitimacy of the process. Johnson claims to have experienced nothing out of the ordinary prior to his debut.

“I went down there at 1 p.m. local time, waited, and they’re like, ‘Demetrious you’re up first. Let’s test your urine to make sure you’re hydrated,’” Johnson said. “Boom. ‘You’re hydrated. Please step on the scale … 61 kilograms. Thank you so much for making weight. We’ll see you tomorrow, 1 p.m. Make sure you’re hydrated and on weight.’ And I went about my business.”

Johnson also believes drug testing was handled in a professional manner.

“People over in North American might think that everyone over in One Championship is on the juice. We get drug tested. I got drug tested two times,” he said. “I got tested Saturday at my last weigh-in, and then I got tested right after the fight. [They] took two samples, just like I did with [United States Anti-Doping Agency], and they took it to the [World Anti-Doping Agency] labs.”

The move to One Championship has forced Johnson to make a number of adjustments, the makeup of his corner chief among them. Longtime head coach Matt Hume serves as a senior vice president for the promotion, creating a conflict of interest within the bounds of competition. As a result, the man who has helped shepherd Johnson’s career for more than a decade no longer corners him. “Mighty Mouse” views the situation through the lens of a martial artist.

“It is definitely different not having him there,” Johnson said. “We’re getting used to it, but it’s an evolution of an athlete [and] martial artist. Matt said to me one time, ‘The student shows up, gets all the knowledge he needs, packs up and goes about his journey,’ so that’s essentially what’s going on now.”

Hume will still coach and strategize during camps, but Johnson’s primary in-fight advice will come from longtime teammates James Yang and Tony Sablan. He has trained with them for years and feels an “unspoken warrior code” connection with both men. Johnson believes they performed admirably in his One Championship debut.

“In the first round, I battled adversity. It’s not the first time,” he said. “I’ve had trouble in my fights before, but I’m strong-willed, got a lot of heart and I’m just going to keep powering through whatever it takes to get it done.”

Johnson finds himself at a different stage of his career, free from the weight of a historic title reign in the UFC. At 32, he has sharpened his purpose.

“I’m in the position now in my career where I’ve done 11 consecutive title defenses. I’ve been a champion for six years. Nothing I do now is ever going to [top] that,” Johnson said. “When I have that reality set in my mind, I’m just focused on going out there [and] putting on amazing fights, going out there and competing and showing I’m one of the best athletes in the world.”

Johnson has enjoyed his experience with One Championship so far and calls the promotion’s founder, Chatri Sityodtong, “a breath of fresh air.” A muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, Sityodtong impressed “Mighty Mouse” at a recent retreat in Thailand, where Johnson was struck by his boss’ commitment to training.

“He understands what it takes to get ready for a fight and what the athletes go through,” Johnson said, “and it’s nice.”

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