"I’m just happy with what I have accomplished in this sport, but I would love to have the belt for the next twenty fights, and go out of this sport a champion." - Demetrious Johnson
UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson is used to hearing the same old complaints about the UFC’s newest men’s division since winning the belt just over two years ago.
“We don’t draw big numbers, we don’t knock people out,” Johnson says. “I’ve heard them all. It doesn’t really bother me.”
Johnson will put his belt on the line for the fifth time against Chris “Kamikaze” Cariaso on September 27th in Las Vegas, Nevada. Contrary to popular wisdom, both fighters have knockout wins in the division, and the matchup promises to be a stylistic war.
“I’m not knocking out everyone left and right,” Johnson says, and the 28-year-old Washington State product doesn’t expect to either.
“In the lighter divisions guys move around a lot. When I knocked out Joseph Benavidez we were both standing still and not moving, and we both threw at the same time and whoever was going to land first was going to get the knockout, and mine just happened to land first. Don’t forget, every time I fight I’m fighting the best guy in the world who earned his shot at the belt, so knocking guys out is the furthest thing from my mind. I’m worried about what I’m going to do to win, to execute what I worked on in camp with my coaches, stuff like that. Cariaso knocked out Iliarde Santos, so it happens in the flyweight division, just not as much as in the heavyweight division.”
> Watch: Demetrious Johnson vs. Joseph Benavidez II
Against “Kamikaze,” Johnson faces a dangerous veteran who has fought some of the best fighters in the world, including Takeya Mizugaki, whom he beat, and John Moraga, whom he lost to.
“He throws a lot of body kicks and likes to fight at a distance to set up his stand-up and dictate the pace of the fight,” Johnson says of the 33-year-old Cariaso. “He’s tough and he’s fought some great fighters, and he’s got really good cardio. I’m just excited to go in there and fight him and defend my belt.”
Most champions are excited to actually fight, for a change. When one reaches the pinnacle of one’s division, there’s a lot of waiting as fighters jockey for their shot at the title, and a lot of media time that takes away from family and from training.
Johnson is no different. A UFC film crew has just wrapped up a UFC Countdown shoot as Johnson picks up the phone to talk to me.
> Watch: Countdown to UFC 178 - Johnson vs. Cariaso
“It cuts into my family life but it only happens a few times every year, because when I’m not fighting I’m complete radio silence. Media obligations cut into training, and training comes before interviews. I am not into this to be a media darling or talk my way into more fans. I am here to train and to hopefully defend my belt twenty more times, so I can retire on top. I want my family and my trainers, especially Matt Hume, to be proud of me when my tenure is up. To me, having my life together is as much a part of being the champion as having the belt. My son just celebrated his first birthday, and my wife is doing great, so to me that’s the kind of thing I would rather be doing when I’m not training, but I don’t mind it. It’s all part of the job.”
Johnson is a humble champion, and as he tells it, it’s the way he’s been since high school, when he was a two-time place winner as both a wrestler and a track and field competitor.
> Watch: Demetrious Johnson in the Submission of the Week
“When I jumped into MMA it wasn’t to become a champion,” he says. “When I was a junior in high school I went to states in wrestling, and I had no idea I had the talent to be on that level, and when I won my first match my coach said to me, ‘Can you do that again?’ And when I won my second match he said ‘can you do it again.’ And I had no idea if I could but I just took it one match at a time and when I was going into the finals I was like, ‘Yeah.’ When I won the UFC belt I was excited but I don’t gloat about it or wear it everywhere. I’m just happy with what I have accomplished in this sport, but I would love to have the belt for the next twenty fights, and go out of this sport a champion. I want to be healthy and I want my family to be proud of me.”
As champion, Johnson finds his name being mentioned when younger fighters talk about which fighter inspires their own style of fighting; however, it was a heavyweight from Belarus who inspired Johnson’s own fast-paced methodology inside the ring.
> Watch: UFC Breakthrough - Demetrious Johnson
“When I first started watching MMA, I loved watching Andrei Arlovski. His footwork and his head movement were beautiful. He had a boxing coach, a jiu-jitsu coach, and he had a style that I tried to emulate. When I started training full-time I tried to always keep an Arlovski rhythm when I moved. Then there was Matt Hughes. The way he would wrestle and the pressure he would give was also an inspiration for me. That’s where I picked up level changes and constantly keeping my opponent guessing and wondering when the takedown was coming, but then maybe I would switch it up to an overhand right. And finally, for working out, I tried to be like Sean Sherk. If people are looking at my style for inspiration, they can look to those three guys too, because that’s the way I developed my style,” he says.
But perhaps no other MMA fighter has had such an impact on the champion than Matt Hume, his primary trainer, whom Johnson credits for one of the most important lessons in any fighter’s career.
“One of the biggest things I've learned from competing at a high level is that your body catches up to you,” he says. “Matt’s always told me it’s better to train smarter than harder, so it's important to listen to my body, and listen to my coach. When he says I've done what I need to do, I can go home knowing I trained smart today. Some people will say, 'The other guy is doing ten times more than you,' and yeah that's all fine, but it's about the quality of training not the amount of training that is important to me. I still go hard but I'm also smart about it.”