Lightweight division, you had your chance. As Michael Johnson made it to the top five of the 155-pound weight class, it looked like he went out of his way to hit every pothole on the way to the big show.
Whether it was starting out with a 4-3 pro record, falling short of making The Ultimate Fighter on more than one occasion before getting a spot for season 12, or generally learning on the job, “The Menace” appeared destined to not get to where he sits today. Now it may be too late for his peers to catch up.
“I’ve had a long road,” Johnson said. “I tried out for The Ultimate Fighter several times, I didn’t have the best record coming into the UFC, and I had a lot of bumps and bruises, but I suffered my losses early and I learned my lessons earlier in my career, so now it’s at a point where I’m ready to take that next step. I know exactly what it takes to win and everything is just clicking.”
Four wins without a loss since August of 2013 prove his point. To do it in the stacked lightweight division makes that run even more impressive. Yet despite beating a qualityGleison Tibau in their lightweight bout during the UFC 168 event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 28, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)" align="right" /> quartet of foes and doing so in dominant fashion, he still feels the world hasn’t hopped on his bandwagon yet.
“It definitely feels like I’m getting close, but I still, personally, don’t think I’m getting the credit or respect I deserve, especially with the caliber of my last four opponents,” he said. “To me, I’m still being underrated, which is completely fine. I have no problem being the underdog my whole career and people will keep doubting me, so I’ll keep disappointing them. Everybody will see eventually when they look up and all of a sudden I’ve got the lightweight title around my waist and people are still doubting me. They can do that my whole career.”
Johnson, whose last four wins have come over Joe Lauzon, Gleison Tibau, Melvin Guillard and Edson Barboza, says these things don’t bother him, and though most in his situation would sound like they’re just putting on a brave public face, you get the impression that Johnson is truly unconcerned with any negativity. Why? Simply because he knows his fists will get the last word on fight night. But why wouldn’t fans and the media get on board with a talented fighter with a great story and charisma?
“I have no idea,” he laughs. “I really wish I knew. I feel like I don’t really get the recognition I deserve, and I don’t get the stage or the platform. I haven’t been on a main Pay-Per-View card ever since The Ultimate Fighter, and that’s going on five years now. But I’ve been putting in the time, putting in the work, and I’m stacking up wins. I had two losses in a row and it looked like I was getting cut, but I stormed back and now I’m ranked number five in the world, and I’m still being overlooked. So I don’t know. I know I’m not getting any crazy finishes, but I’ve been pretty dominant in all my performances.”
Those two losses to Myles Jury and Reza Madadi both came over two years ago, but Johnson believes they still haunt him in terms of public perception. Yet the most telling part of the St. Louis native’s recollection of that time was that he thought he was going to get cut if he lost to Lauzon in August of 2013.
“Absolutely, especially because they were two losses in a row and I was expected to win,” he said. “I suffered those losses and I was given Joe Lauzon in his hometown, and I think that was a fight where they’re like ‘okay, we’re going to give Joe him and he’s probably gonna lose and then we’re gonna cut him.’ But I think I rocked the boat a little bit and stirred the pot up. I don’t think I was expected to win that one at all.”
He did though, putting together perhaps his most impressive performance in shutting Lauzon out over three rounds. He didn’t get the finish that night, but if there were Performance of the Night bonuses back then, he most certainly earned one. The victory kickstarted his current run up the lightweight ranks, and while getting cut probably wasn’t going to happen if he lost that bout, Johnson says having that kind of “back against the wall” motivation can be quite the fuel.
“I don’t have to have it, but it definitely helps,” he said. “And now, I’m in a position where I’m fighting to take respect UFC Fight Night London event at the O2 Arena on March 8, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)" align="right" />from people. I’ll tell you what, you guys don’t want to give me my respect that I deserve, then I’m gonna take it out on this guy and then I’m gonna show you exactly why I feel like I’m the best lightweight in the world. At the end of a fight, whether I win in 30 seconds, a minute, two minutes, or it goes to a decision, I want my opponent to rethink his decision about fighting me. That’s a job well-done for me.”
Saturday, he’ll look to make it five for five when he faces up and comer Beneil Dariush in the co-main event of Fight Night Nashville. It’s a tough fight against a talented opponent, one so talented that some are picking against “The Menace,” which is only another jab that the southpaw plans on deflecting before firing back with a fight-ending right hook.
“People are still picking a number 12 guy over a number five guy, and that disappoints me a lot,” he said. “I don’t care about my record, I don’t care about the other guy’s record; the only thing that matters is what happens that night, and I’ll just keep moving on.”
And what will happen in Nashville this weekend?
“As long as I keep my game plan, there’s nobody on this planet that’s gonna beat me in that cage.”