“I think he’ll find that I can match him in speed or maybe even be
faster than he is. We’re both explosive so it’ll be fireworks when we’re
in there together.”
Demetrious Johnson is beginning to stand out in the UFC bantamweight division and it’s not just because of the uncommon spelling of his first name or his cartoon character alias. The Matt Hume protégé dealt New York’s Nick Pace the first loss of his career, and followed that up by stunning red-hot Damacio Page. At UFC 126 the speedy 24-year-old will try to play spoiler once again when he collides with Japanese sensation Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto (18-3, 1 NC), arguably Asia’s most popular mixed martial artist.
It’s hard to imagine this matchup being anything other than fast-paced and action-packed. MMA fans have waited years for the ultra-explosive Yamamoto to showcase his sizzling skill set in the U.S., particularly inside of the Octagon, home of the world’s premier 135- and 145-pound fighters. While February 5 will be a monumental day for Yamamoto, it will also harbor the greatest opportunity of Johnson’s three-year career.
“He’s one of the biggest stars in Japan. He’s like the Manny Pacquiao of Japan,” Johnson, a.k.a. “Mighty Mouse,” said of his fiery opponent, a knockout artist who has triumphed over the likes of Genki Sudo, Royler Gracie, Rani Yahya, Caol Uno, Jeff Curran and Bibiano Fernandes, among others. “He’s a good striker, very athletic. Everybody sees him as a legend of the sport – which he is – and I want to test myself against him.”
Other than a nine-year age gap (Kid is 33, Johnson is 24), there’s an abundance of similarities between the two fighters. Yamamoto is 5’4”, a mere inch taller than Johnson. Both are relatively undersized bantamweights with impressive wrestling credentials. Yamamoto is the son of an Olympic wrestler, won multiple state titles in high school wrestling and has competed in world-class wrestling competitions. Johnson finished state runner-up in high school. One of the most interesting subplots of their battle involves speed. Yamamoto is super-quick and has used that superior speed to devastate and abuse the opposition, sometimes with punches and kicks, other times with breathtaking slams. Johnson, 12-1, is exceptionally fast himself.
“I’ll probably be the quickest person he’s ever come up against because he usually fights up a weight class at 145 or 155,” Johnson said. “I think he’ll find that I can match him in speed or maybe even be faster than he is. We’re both explosive so it’ll be fireworks when we’re in there together.”
His trainer, Matt Hume, went a step further, billing the bout as a contest between “the two fastest fighters in the world.”
“At the end of the day I think people are going to decide that the fastest fighter in the world is Demetrious Johnson and Kid Yamamoto is the second fastest,” Hume said. “It’s going to be different for Kid in that he doesn’t have the speed (advantage) to exploit in this fight.”
When he upended highly-ranked Damacio Page last month, Johnson’s wrestling proved the difference. Adding to the feat, the Washington state fighter had accepted the fight on only three weeks’ notice.
“It was a great victory for me.”
This time around, Johnson will have the benefit of a full training camp. There is much to be gained, but Hume is advising his fighter to keep it all in perspective.
“This fight is huge and just another day at the same time,” Hume said. “It’s like the old adage in football: You’ve been in the end zone before, so when you score a touchdown act like you’ve been there before. We expect Demetrious to win the fight and keep moving forward in the UFC. But it would be an incredible accomplishment because Kid was at one point considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world by a lot of people. He is definitely the most popular fighter in Japan, maybe the most popular fighter in Asia. So it would be a huge win for D.J., but at the same time we just expect to go take care of business.”
Johnson declined to offer a prediction, and said he wants victory for its own sake, not for the money and notoriety it might bring.
“I’ll just go out there and do my best,” he said. “I love to fight. When I fight I don’t go in there for a paycheck, I go in there to have fun and just do my thing. I’m still just Joe Schmoe out on the streets just like everybody else and I like it like that.”