‘Mighty’ Moves

By Josh Gross Nov 18, 2020

AMC Pankration in early October partially reopened after COVID-19 lockdowns. For nearly 15 years, this gym near Seattle is where Demetrious Johnson has trained under the watchful eye of Matt Hume.

One of the best mixed martial artists of all-time, Johnson has visited Hume’s spot only a handful of times over the past five weeks. Of course, 2020 has been an experience unlike any other, and Johnson does not expect to fight during a calendar year for the first time since 2006. Without an opponent for whom to prepare until the first half of 2021, he admitted there is little need to make the hour-long drive to AMC Pankration when the local YMCA does the trick.

“Why wouldn’t I take advantage of that?” Johnson asked. “I’m not above anybody. I love this place. I’ve been lifting at the YMCA through all my training, even when I was world champion in the UFC.”

Though it certainly should, Johnson’s photo does not yet hang on a wall inside the Mel Korum Family YMCA in Puyallup, Washington, south of Seattle, and that suits him fine. “They treat me like a normal citizen,” he said. “The only thing that happens is people come up and ask, ‘Why do you train here? You could train anywhere in the world, but why do you train at the local YMCA?’” Johnson’s answer is simple: the weight room, the pool and the proximity to his house.

Following a successful first year with One Championship, “Mighty Mouse” has spent most of 2020 at home with his wife and three young children. Home school and video games top their list of activities. Johnson joined the Singapore-based promotion when the Ultimate Fighting Championship agreed to swap him for welterweight Ben Askren in 2018. One acquired a fighter whose peers often name check as the best in the game. The former UFC flyweight champion—who lost his belt by split decision to Henry Cejudo—went 3-0 on the way to winning the 2019 One Flyweight Grand Prix. Askren generated a level of buzz for fights in the Octagon that “Mighty Mouse” never approached, but the Missouri wrestler was vanquished and has since retired.

Johnson, 34, comfortably sits on the short list of the greatest MMA fighters in the game right now. His 11 UFC title defenses remain unmatched in the record book, one better than Anderson Silva.

Because constant improvement is how competitors like Johnson thrive, he has embraced the downtime brought on by COVID-19 by working on ways to get better where he can. Always a tinkerer, Johnson focused on refining his mental approach and all-around game. In September, that led “Mighty Mouse” to catch his first glimpse of Muhammad Ali. Told to watch Ali’s 1974 classic with George Foreman, Johnson sat down to see the first GOAT—the man who invented the title for himself—with the critical eye through which he usually observes combat sports. Thus far, the Rumble in the Jungle, defined by Ali’s famous rope-a-dope, remains the only Ali fight that Johnson has seen and processed.

“I was mostly focused on what he was doing,” Johnson said. “I didn’t care who he was fighting.”

Even though the flyweight great lacked appreciation for what he was settling in to watch, Johnson quickly recognized the traits of a legendary fighter.

“I was like, damn, Muhammad Ali is actually really f------ good,” Johnson said. “His footwork, the way he went about hitting people, his combinations and how he would just control the game.”

Johnson sent a tweet to memorialize the moment by observing that Ali was “ahead of his time,” causing people to fairly wonder how one of the best fighters in the world had not watched Ali before. Johnson grew up with a single mother, and they did not watch sports at home. He had seen a couple Mike Tyson fights in his life, but it was not until 2013, the then-UFC flyweight champion’s sixth year as a pro, that Hume asked him to critically analyze boxing. “Sugar” Ray Leonard’s rematch with Roberto Duran in 1980 became homework in preparation for Johnson’s second bout against Joseph Benavidez.

“That was my very, very first time being exposed to boxing,” Johnson said, “like literally sitting down and watching boxing.”

Johnson (30-3-1) quickly appreciated how the best boxers utilized game plans, especially over 12 rounds, which aligned with another one of his strengths: dismantling opponents from the start through the finish of 25-minute championship contests.

“I know a lot of athletes were pretty shocked that I didn’t watch a lot of Muhammad Ali,” Johnson said. “When I post like that, it’s legit and I’m honest. I don’t just post s--- to get notoriety or clout. That was literally my first time watching Muhammad Ali box.”

An unceremonious end to the boxer’s career came more than four years before Johnson—like Ali, a native son of Kentucky—was born in the summer of 1986. Johnson admitted his knowledge of the Louisville fighter is limited to the most basic facts of the man’s life. “If I said I know Muhammad Ali did X, Y, Z, I’d be kind of lying,” said Johnson, who nevertheless understands that the GOAT title will always be connected to Ali, even if others like Floyd Mayweather Jr. lay claim to that throne.

For MMA purposes, ownership of the GOAT tag has been debated down to a fine dust. Johnson has his share of support, particularly from his peers, not that he has ever let it sink in. Asked if key aspects of his success come from the way he perceives fighting—the movements, angles, spaces, timing and flow that so often determine outcomes—Johnson admitted the ability has played a key part in his success.

“I think that’s probably one of my best attributes,” Johnson said. “I sit back and I look at things at a detailed level. When I’m at home, I don’t watch mixed martial arts or fighting at all because I can’t sit there and enjoy it as a fan. I sit there and start analyzing s---. My mind wanders about what a fighter could have done better.

“The last fight that I watched where I was like, ‘Ooh, here we go,’ was [Israel Adesanya] versus Paulo Costa,” he added. “Izzy shut him down, and I was like, aww, s---, that’s right. I actually smiled. He shut him down, and I was like, ‘How did I miss it?’”

Johnson believes Adesanya’s win in September was the result of tremendous footwork and range management that eliminated any chance of taking a big shot from the heavy-fisted Brazilian. It was not the rope-a-dope, but Adesanya’s effort was in the same spirit as what Ali did to Foreman: contain, trap, expose and dispose.

“I was like, ‘Good for you Izzy,’” Johnson said. “‘Good for you.’”

Sincerely, one great to another.

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