The look on Michael Johnson’s face said it all. After nine minutes and 48 seconds of some of the most hellacious action you will see in a prizefight, he had left it all in the Octagon against Justin Gaethje, and it was something to be proud of.
Not yet, though. First, Johnson had to deal with the second-round TKO loss he suffered against Gaethje in Las Vegas on July 7, and he wasn’t ready for that yet. That was a fighter’s pride talking, so he didn’t even realize that he was one-half of the best fight of 2017.
“I had no idea we were putting on a Fight of the Year performance,” Johnson said of the bout. “All the credit to Justin, he came in and fought an incredible fight and he had a great game plan. I made some mistakes, I led with my head too much and caught some accidental headbutts and it really switched my momentum in the fight. I’m never a guy to fight on my heels, and I fought on my heels that whole fight. I was half-knocked out, so I get to the back and everybody’s like, ‘Man, that was a great fight, it was probably Fight of the Year.’ And I’m looking at them like, ‘What, really? I thought we were just in there fighting.’ (Laughs) So it was incredible to get that response from everybody afterwards, especially after taking a loss.”
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The defeat left Johnson with a 1-4 mark in his last five bouts, a deceptive slate considering that he was competing against Gaethje, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Dustin Poirier, Nate Diaz and Beneil Dariush, but again, guys like Johnson don’t take one loss well, let alone four. It was the recipe for anyone to lock themselves in a room and brood, but “The Menace” didn’t need that long.
“It’s crazy, but I only took a week off,” he said. “I needed my leg to heal (from Gaethje’s assault of kicks). After that, I went to the gym and I didn’t wear gloves for two weeks. All I did was kick and move because that’s where I got beat in that fight – him kicking my legs and me not moving as much. So I went back to the gym and worked on the details, and I started getting stronger, started getting my weight down, and then the fight got brought to me and of course we took it and we’re ready to go.”
This Sunday, Johnson makes his first start since the Gaethje fight when he faces Darren Elkins in a UFC Fight Night bout. It’s a major event for the 31-year-old in a lot of ways, mainly being that he’s fighting at home in St. Louis and that he’s making his featherweight debut. And while being at home with family and friends is nice, especially since his favorite pizza spot, Imo’s, is catering his after party, it’s the whole move to 145 thing that has garnered the most attention, and Johnson is fine with talking about it.
“It’s been incredible,” he said. “It’s been life-changing and definitely career-changing and I really think this is gonna solidify how dominant I can actually be. And not saying it’s because of the opponent, but because I have to dedicate myself more to get off the extra 10 to 12 pounds. I’ve been extremely motivated, working a lot harder than ever, my diet has been clean, no cheat meals ever – I don’t think I’ve had a piece of bread in almost two months. (Laughs) So it’s really been life changing for me.”
And in true Michael Johnson fashion, he didn’t ask to dip his toes in the shallow end of the featherweight pool. Instead, he’s agreed to fight one of the toughest outs in the division in Elkins.
“It is the perfect fight for me and I’m extremely excited about it,” Johnson said. “I asked for the toughest featherweight – I want the baddest guy, the toughest guy at the top. I didn’t get the very top, but I got close to it. He (Elkins) is a grinder. It’s really hard to put him away, he’s a veteran, been in the game for some time – so ask and you shall receive. I’ve got a tough fight ahead of me and that’s what I strive for. I got in the business to fight the toughest guys, and I got one my first time out.”
It’s not only an admirable stance, but a smart one, as a win over the No. 10-ranked Elkins will immediately put Johnson in the 145-pound top 15, and with a couple more victories over ranked foes, he could be looking at a title shot. That’s the plan, he says, and then he’s got some other business to tend to.
“I’m looking at this opportunity as two fights and I should be fighting whoever has that belt,” he said. “I fought everybody at ’55 pretty much, and now it’s new blood and new faces. I’m not trying to fight the whole list of ‘45ers before I get up to a title shot, and as long as I go in there and get dominant wins, they can’t hold me back from fighting for the title.
“And it’s always been my plan to hold two titles,” Johnson continues. “Before Conor (McGregor) came in and did it, that was always the plan in my head, to take the ’45 and ’55 titles. It was just a matter of which one was gonna come first and how the tides rolled in. So this is my chance. I’m definitely keeping my eye on ’55, and if any opportunity comes up for a big fight, I’m easily gonna put my name in the hat, like I always do.”
And he always will.
There’s only a handful of guys like myself left in this sport and I truly believe that
“There’s only a handful of guys like myself left in this sport and I truly believe that,” he said. “I think the sport has been watered down and saturated with guys that like to pick and choose fights. They don’t want to fight the toughest guys, they want to fight here and there and take some time off and tread lightly. But after a fight, I want to be in there, working on my mistakes and get the toughest guy possible. For me, if I’m not striving to be the best, then what am I doing this for? I’m not doing this to be mediocre and just be there – I’m doing this to become a legend and solidify my name in history.”