"I really hope to go out there and perform. I hope they always match me up against tough people.” - Jonathan Brookins
Last December, prior to The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale, Jonathan Brookins mentioned he was preparing mentally and physically for both his opponent, Michael Johnson, as well as a long growing process in the UFC. Brookins was speaking about the journey of his own evolution as a professional fighter, one that wouldn’t peak at the finale, but that would be a nationally televised starting point for things to come. Some journeys are best mapped by clarifying the goal, then working backwards, and Brookins believes he has done just that.
“In all honesty, I do see greatness,” Brookins asserts. “In all respects of the word. I think that's an obtainable task for me. No matter how I come about learning how to accomplish that, I think that is ultimately what is going to happen. It is just a matter of how and when.”
On the outside, the first step on that road was unanimously positive, as Brookins defeated Johnson to become the TUF winner at lightweight, but Brookins sees negatives. “I think what the fans learned and what I learned in that fight is that I'm resilient and I have so much to learn,” Brookins says of his three round decision victory. “I think that fight really exposed me as a really young fighter. I’m not as well-rounded as I would like to be. I was happy to come out with the win, but I know that Michael really took it to me.”
The 26-year old is famously known for his self-effacing humility, but there’s no arguing that Johnson had Brookins on the ropes in that first round.
“He really did his job and beat up on me for quite a while,” admits Brookins, who was tagged with several hard shots in the opening frame. Brookins gives all the credit to Johnson’s own evolution as a fighter for this early onslaught.
“When we were in the house, we had a lot of time sparring together and I never really felt in the house, the six weeks we were together, that he ever really got the best of me sparring. I was really surprised he was doing so much better than me in the standup, and it was a real testament to the type of power he has. He looks to be continuing to grow a lot in this sport and I'm real proud of Mike.”
The first round undoubtedly went to Johnson, but the following two rounds went to Brookins. “I knew I had to get it to the ground and I knew that he was going to be ready for me to get it there and take him down,” explains Brookins, who understood he had some rough sledding ahead of him to bring the fight into his strength, but once he did, the fight was his. “He wasn't easy to take down in practice, so I knew taking him down now was going to be tough. I had to grit my teeth and keep coming forward and keep on trying until I got it. Once I took him down, I knew I could do some damage there.”
Since the finale win, the 13-3 Brookins’ journey has been very positive, as he trained at several different MMA camps, but he did hit a bad speed bump in the form of a sidelining injury in June. Originally, Brookins was scheduled to face the power punching of Jeremy Stephens at the TUF 13 finale. Two and half weeks out from the fight, Brookins broke the bottom floor of his orbital socket when his face crashed into a knee while practicing takedowns at The Pit Elevated. Minus that hiccup, Brookins found kindred spirits amongst his fellow cagefighters in Orem, Utah.
“They've got some of the greatest vibes ever,” tells Brookins. “Their head coach, Jason Mertlich, has all these great guys over there and they're all down to Earth and very mellow. Court McGee really kind of leads the way with his incredible work ethic and incredible drive. All the personalities are great there and it's got one of the best training facilities I've ever seen in all of the United States. To me, it seems like it will be a hot bed for where guys go to train. It seems like the hidden gem. Utah is one of the most beautiful places you'll ever go visit. It's high elevation and it's just a beautiful place with really good vibes out there.”
Some may assume all UFC fighters know each other or maybe there’s a fraternity for former TUF winners that led Brookins to travel from his home in Orlando, Florida west to Utah. Hopefully, one day that will be true, but it was actually a six degrees of separation between one of Brookins’ old friends that extended the invite. A friend Brookins made when he was a two-time high school state champion wrestler in Oregon and was an NAIA college wrestler at Lindenwood University in Missouri.
“I wrestled with a friend of mine in high school,” says Brookins. “Me and that kid also went to college together and wrestled on the same team. We both left that college. When I left I went to Florida to pursue fighting. He went to Utah Valley University to wrestle and his best friend there became Ramsey Nijem. Ultimately, Ramsey started training with Court. The next season after mine, Ramsey was on the TUF finals. My friend was telling me that he knows these guys and he lives out there and maybe I should come out there. I took him up on that offer and stayed at his house and he introduced me to Court and Ramsey. From then on they have been some of the greatest people I have ever met.”
Now, Brookins is healthy and ready to meet his next challenge head on in the Octagon: Erik “New Breed” Koch. On September 17th at UFC Fight Night in New Orleans, Brookins will make his UFC start in his previous division, featherweight, against one of the fastest rising stars of the lighter weights. The Roufusport product has a stellar 12-1 record with back-to-back highlight reel “Knockout of the Night” bonuses. From Stephens to Koch, the UFC is certainly expecting a lot from Brookins with these tough matchups, and that’s what Brookins wants.
“I think he's a great opponent,” states Brookins. “I've heard nothing, but great things about him. He's got a lot of good reports behind him and I think that's really cool they matched me up against a guy who’s got a lot of steam behind him right now. I like that they're putting me up against tough people. I think that's really nice of them and real cool. I really hope to go out there and perform. I hope they always match me up against tough people.”
For this training camp, Brookins has mostly kept to the Sunshine State and the people who raised him as a fighter: Gracie Barra Orlando. “They've got really, really strong Brazilian jiu-jitsu out here,” reports Brookins, a dangerous purple belt in BJJ with eight of his 13 pro wins coming by submission, which doesn’t count his two sub wins in the TUF house. “Their jiu-jitsu comes from guys who are straight from Brazil who could have been here a couple months or a couple years. I like putting on the gi and growing in that aspect. To me, that is one of the reasons I stick around here, because I have so much further to go in my jiu-jitsu and that's one piece of the puzzle that I can hone and perfect and it will take a lot of time, but I have the place to focus on it, so I like to take advantage of it.”
This weekend, the next section of Brookins’ journey takes place in the Octagon in New Orleans against the dynamic “New Breed” Koch. After five years of being in MMA, Brookins will be entering the cage with a new mindset as a UFC fighter. It has been a roller-coaster that has led Brookins to this point, but now the journey to greatness can begin, which should be enjoyable for all to see. If the fans are ready to follow, Brookins is ready to lead.
“There are times when you're completely consumed by what you want, and there are other times when you feel completely lost in the world,” expresses Brookins. “It has been that type of journey. I would say that where I'm at right now is probably the tail end of confusion. I'm figuring out how much of significance and how much of an honor it is to be fighting in the UFC and working for this company. I didn't quite grasp that as much as I should. I was really disappointed that appreciation didn't hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been grinding away for so long at this sport, it was never a question in my mind whether I was going to fight in the WEC again or the UFC. I knew that I would. But the way that it happened, it happened so fast and so sudden, I'm trying to catch up mentally to that. That's where I'm at right now, so this will be a real interesting fight for me. The fact that the perfection is still so far off into the distance that you have to keep working towards it, that keeps me motivated and keeps me going.”