Mixed-Martial Arts Superstar Talks About Being a Smaller Fighter in a Combat Sport Ruled by Giants

by Michael Dillard
Photography By Patrick Sternkopf
Event photos Courtesy of ONE FC


At first glance, most people — most martial artists, even — will zero in on the smaller person in any fight and deem him or her to be at a distinct disadvantage. It's a natural tendency to draw this conclusion based on obvious attributes such as height, weight and reach. However, that tendency does not always lead to accurate conclusions.

This should not come as a complete surprise given the underlying premise of the martial arts, which were created to overcome inherent physical advantages bestowed at birth. Some fighters have capitalized on this aspect of the arts and gone one step beyond — by learning how to use their smaller stature as an advantage. This encompasses not just using the speed advantage that's enjoyed by fighters with smaller physiques but also altering the techniques themselves to make them more functional against a taller foe.

Demetrious Johnson is a master of these tactics. The 12-time flyweight world champion has built his combat career on being a smaller fighter who isn't slowed down by size. At 5 feet 3 inches, the 125-pound Johnson — who goes by the nickname “Mighty Mouse" — holds the record for the most UFC title defenses (11 in a row) and is considered by many to be the best pound-for-pound fighter on Earth. Many regard Johnson as the first lightweight superstar to emerge in the sport of mixed martial arts.

Black Belt recently had the chance to sit down with Mighty Mouse and learn about his views on being a winning fighter who's never hampered by size.

Fighting Style Johnson attributes much of his success to his background in pankration and wrestling, a foundation he laid before he embarked on a career in MMA. Both styles emphasize the strategic use of leverage, which makes them ideal for smaller fighters.
“I try to find my opponent's weakness and exploit that," Johnson said. “Being well-versed and competing in several types of martial arts in my amateur career allows me to find that weakness, take [my opponents] there and then put them in that realm where they can't survive — and beat them there!"

This strategy, inspired by the teachings of pankration and wrestling, has proved a viable solution for Johnson time after time. In fact, it's his proficiency in both systems that's enabled him to excel in MMA. Consider the following:

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Kenneth Baillie: TKD has changed over the years. WTF changed to traditional TKD at our school because our chief instructor didn't like the Olympic status. He said the sport detracts from the tradition. We had a certain rivalry even back then with ITF. The two can merge, I believe. There are differences but anything can be achieved. Positives are easy to find here!

Boston George Legaria: I'm not a TKD practitioner but I've been in martial arts for 26 years (kyokushin, muay Thai and krav maga), and from what I can see, a solution is for those two organizations to come together and reform the art so it can stay relevant. In combat sports, a lot of people leave TKD in favor of BJJ or muay Thai, while in self-defense people leave TKD for styles like Russian sambo, krav maga or Keysi Method. As for a business model, they need to leave the black belt mill because even though that gets parents interested so they can show their little one's "progress" on FB, in the long run, TKD loses its credibility when people see a 6 year old "master."

Michael Watson: Follow grandmaster Hee Il Cho's lead — he does both styles and without the negative of the Olympic sport aspect. I studied ITF growing up, but I also researched a lot on grandmaster Cho and I love his way.

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