Talks About Being a Smaller Fighter in a Combat Sport Ruled by Giants

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:

Any observer of the fight sport will tell you that plenty of practitioners are proficient in one discipline, which they often augment by cross-training in techniques extracted from other styles that are believed to help them round out their skill set. These fighters tend to lean on their adopted techniques for setups and fakes designed to engage their opponents. Unfortunately, when fatigue sets in, they frequently fall back on their primary skill set in an effort to gain the upper hand — or, in some cases, just to survive.

This isn't the case for Johnson. He represents a new breed of combat athlete who's gained extensive experience in a variety of fighting disciplines. Being well-versed at executing a mass of moves, fighters like him need not rely on their primary martial art, which winds up making them more adaptable and unpredictable in a match.

Johnson's record of 30-3-1 offers tangible proof of his ability to exploit his opponents' weaknesses. Those 30 wins consist of 12 submissions and five knockouts via punches, head kicks and knee strikes, a testament to his proficiency in all the ranges of combat.

​BODY JAB TO HOOK PUNCH TO HEAD KICK

After squaring off against his opponent, Demetrious Johnson (right) uses his lower stance to launch a jab to the man's exposed abdomen (1).

TAKEDOWN TO ARMBAR

He finishes by thrusting his hips upward to hyperextend the arm (7)

Technique Alteration

Alteration With the right coaching, almost any basic martial arts move can be altered to make it work better for a shorter fighter, Johnson said. He brought his point to life as he walked through setups for his combinations and takedowns designed to fell taller opponents during his Black Belt photo shoot. He started his explanation with the simplest punch of all.

"When a jab is thrown from someone at a lower angle, you can fit it between [the opponent's] arms and into this wide-open gap to the body," Johnson said. "[The opening] just isn't there with guys the same height as you."

He went on to say that this observation can allow you to elicit reactions from your opponent as he defends himself. That, in turn, can open other areas for you to target.

The same logic, Johnson noted, applies to takedowns. Here's how: Against a taller opponent, the conventional double- and single-leg takedown normally do the job. A shorter fighter's size, however, enables him to shoot in at a lower level, which makes the techniques harder to defend against and the shooter harder to grab. Furthermore, the shorter person's often-superior speed permits him to transition to a follow-up grappling technique before the pair even hits the ground.

"By grabbing the right spot on the wrist during a single-leg or starting to climb up their body as they fall during a double-leg, you can put yourself in the right position," Johnson said. An expert at such tweaks, he noted that advanced concepts like this have allowed him to dominate in the cage despite disadvantages in height and reach.

New Challenges

New Challenges Johnson's decision to join ONE Championship in late 2018 means that his previous success as a flyweight in other fight franchises may be in jeopardy.

That's because the Singapore-based promotion touts a strict "no weight cutting" policy that will force the American to take on heavier opponents in his normal 135-pound weight class.

The new challenge is nothing he can't handle, Johnson said confidently, because he's well-versed in using his size to his advantage. On top of that, he has years of experience on the North American MMA circuit to back up his skill set.

Nevertheless, Johnson admitted that a fight is a fight and therefore unpredictable, and that his opponents from the Far East will not be easily conquered. In fact, because ONE is based in a part of the world where fighters tend to be smaller than in the West, he likely will have his work cut out for him.

"I'm fighting guys who are a lot taller," Johnson said regarding his ONE Championship opponents. "In my last fight, I fought [Tatsumitsu Wada], who is 5 feet 9 inches tall, and when he took my back, he was able to get a triangle on my body so easily." That feat, he added, is rarely accomplished on a person who is equal in stature.

Johnson's solution? When preparing to take on a taller opponent, he likes to abandon the "fighting tall" mentality that's so common in his sport. It revolves around the urge to strike the taller person's face while squaring off. That tactic is simply not an option in such situations, Johnson said.

Instead, you need to focus on your strengths as a smaller fighter, he said. Get low and use your leverage for offense and defense. Take advantage of the gaps that exist in the taller person's stance. When you strike, do so with intent. Get in, execute and get out. Don't get caught in between, taking your time — because sooner or later that mistake will catch up with you

Future Fights

Whenever you're the first person to gain fame for achieving something, it means you have to pave your own road to success. When Johnson entered the martial arts in 2007, he found no prominent examples of smaller fighters who consistently saw success in the cage. Consequently, there was no one he could turn to for inspiration.

"When I jumped into martial arts, there was no avenue for me to go," Johnson explained. "[I was] sitting there as a kid, watching these guys who were all heavyweights in boxing and MMA. With me weighing a buck twenty-five, I never thought those were the professional athletes I wanted to be like."

The fight sport is different now. As Johnson enters his 13th year as a professional mixed martial artist, he serves as an exemplary lightweight role model — precisely the kind of person he failed to find early in his career.

As scores of smaller martial artists scramble to follow in his footsteps, Johnson has inadvertently secured the future of his weight division on the global stage. For an athlete as disciplined as Johnson, the notion carries no added burden.

"I'm at a point in my career where I'm just focused on the grind of putting on great performances," he said. "That way, when I'm done with this sport, that's it. I'm good. I can be done with it and with no regrets."

SIDE CONTROL TO MOUNT TO ARMBAR

Demetrious Johnson begins in the side-control position (1).

2019 MMA Fighter of the Year

When he hit the MMA circuit in 2007, Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson was a human tsunami. An immediate force to be reckoned with, he dominated the bantamweight and featherweight divisions of the sport thanks to his lightning-fast fists and his arsenal of grappling techniques. Like a true martial artist, he hasn't let his success go to his head.

"I am very happy with where I'm at in my career," Johnson stated. "The martial arts have given me and my family a wonderful life. If I were to stop fighting today, I'd be satisfied with the way everything has turned out."

That said, Johnson has no plans of bowing out of the ring anytime soon. In fact, he's gearing up for his next big fight, which will have taken place in Japan before this issue of Black Belt hits newsstands.

"I'm training for the World Grand Prix — ONE: CENTURY in October,2019" Johnson said. "It's a big event! This is the 100th time [it] has been held, and I'm very excited to be part of it. I grew up watching Japanese MMA, and now I get a chance to win one. It's awesome!"

From the moment Johnson first came to grips with an opponent in the cage, it was apparent that he was a rising star. Now, with a string of victories under his belt and numerous awards and honors bestowed on him, he's been dubbed one of the greatest mixed martial artists in the world. In a sport abundant with talent, Johnson has achieved rock-star status with legions of fans glued to his every move.

Why are they so devoted? A glimpse into Mighty Mouse's makeup comes from one of his most-talked-about fights in which he squared off against Miguel Torres. After breaking his fibula when he checked a leg kick in the second round, Johnson continued to wage war. He ignored the pain and concentrated on his grappling skills to survive. In the end, he won a unanimous decision.

"The key to winning, and sometimes the key to surviving in order to win, is having the ability to stay focused and take care of the task at hand," Johnson said. "That is how I approach my fights and my personal life. I know what I really want out of life, and I stay focused on that task — whether it's winning a fight or taking care of my family. My wife Destiny and my three children are the most important things in my life."

Because of his past accomplishments, his bright future and his pervasive martial mindset, Black Belt is pleased to make Demetrious Johnson its 2019 MMA Fighter of the Year.

— Terry L. Wilson
Photography By Patrick Sternkopf
Event photos Courtesy of ONE FC

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