“A win over Edson is huge for me,” Johnson says. “I think it should catapult me into the top five, and hopefully put me in a title fight by the end of the year. I look at the 155-pound division, and not a lot of people stand out except for the champ. So if I go out there and win in impressive fashion, I can’t see how they can deny me a title shot by the end of the year.”
Johnson has a strong argument, coming off three huge wins over the likes of Joe Lauzon, Gleison Tibau and Melvin Guillard in his last three outings. And while it’s been nearly a year since his last fight due to some personal issues, don’t expect “The Menace” to be rusty when he touches gloves with Barboza.
“Training camp is going really well. I’m feeling great,” he says.
Training camp is in Boca Raton, Florida, where Johnson trains with The Blackzilians, and the mood in the Sunshine State is upbeat right now after a victory for teammate Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in a title elimination bout versus Alexander Gustaffson last month.
“It motivates the hell out of me,” he said. “Anthony Johnson went from being in the UFC, to fighting in front of about one thousand people in World Series of Fighting - and here he is a year later fighting for a shot at the UFC world title in front of 30,000 people in a sold out arena in Sweden. I mean, how can you not be motivated by that? And to see him seize his moment the way he did, in hostile territory; man that’s a hard act to follow. I’m training extremely hard to follow up with a big statement just like he did. Everyone on our team is so pumped right now. We’re firing on all cylinders.”
Motivated or not, Johnson will be facing a tough Edson Barboza in his home country of Brazil, where let’s just say the crowd won’t be as polite to visiting challengers as the Swedes were to his teammate. After all, this is where “Junior” began his professional fighting career.
He went 25-3 as a Muay Thai fighter, with 22 of those wins coming via knockout, and seventeen of those KOs coming in the first round. Inside the Octagon, he’s only lost twice, most recently to the surging Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, and in somewhat of an upset against Jamie Varner nearly three years ago.
“All the guys he’s fought have completely different styles than I do,” Johnson says. “I think I’m a bigger puncher than most of the guys he’s faced. He got knocked out by Varner, and Danny Castillo had him hurt really badly. But Cowboy rocked him with a jab. So what does that tell you? His chin is definitely suspect, that’s what. I watched his fight with Evan Dunham a bunch of times because Evan is a southpaw, but as far as a blueprint on how to beat him, I am just going to go out there and fight my fight, do my thing, and not try to mimic anyone who has beaten him before.”
Barboza’s Muay Thai credentials are practically unmatched in the lightweight division, so standing and banging may not be the most practical game plan for Johnson. However, he has his own ideas on how to handle the impressive striker.
“I think he’s great,” he said. “He has excellent stand-up and his takedown defense has come a long way, and that comes from working with Frankie Edgar and those guys in New Jersey, (coaches) Mark Henry and Ricardo Almeida. They do a great job of mixing things up really well. But, in my opinion, Edson doesn’t like pressure. He likes to point spar and make everything look pretty. I don’t think he’s a true fighter at heart. I think when the heat is on he’s looking for a quick way out. He doesn’t like to mix it up too much.”
Although questioning your opponent’s heart would be fighting words coming from most people, Johnson is quick to make sure Edson doesn’t misconstrue the line.
“Don’t get me wrong, we get along very well,” he said. “There is no reason for fighters to hate each other just because we train at different camps. We all work together. It’s our job to go out there and get our jobs done. We are guys who train really hard and we should all respect one another. Eddie Alvarez has a lot of friends in Edson’s camp and we have nothing but respect for the coaches and they have respect for us too. This is our job. But come fight night we are there to put on a not only a great fight, but a great show. It’s what we’re paid to do. And for me, it’s my time to make a run for that title.”