ONE Championship Athlete Demetrious Johnson Has Been Called the Best MMA Fighter on the Planet — Find Out Why!
Interview by Robert W. Young
Photos Courtesy of ONE Championship
If you're a casual watcher of MMA, you might not have heard of Demetrious Johnson. Although the Kirkland, Washington–based mixed martial artist, who now competes for ONE Championship, is respected as perhaps the most skilled technician in the sport, flyweights don't garner as much press as heavyweights. Some have argued that if Johnson weighed a little more than his 125 pounds and stood a little taller than his 5 feet 3 inches, the man who's nicknamed “Mighty Mouse" would be as much of a household name as Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Rickson Gracie. He certainly has the right attitude — as you will see.
For our readers who aren't familiar with you, could you briefly explain your background?
In middle school, I went out for wrestling and did very well that year. I loved the sport. But after I got out of high school, there was no path, no financial reason to pursue wrestling in college or wrestling in the Olympics. There was just no money, so I worked multiple jobs. Then I found mixed martial arts when I was home one day and saw Rashad Evans on Spike TV. I thought, I think I can do that. So I went to the gym and started hitting the bag. I was asked, “You know how to fight?" I was like, “Just like Jean-Claude Van Damme!" Then I started training in mixed martial arts.
Do you think so many wrestlers get into MMA because there are so few ways to make a living in wrestling or because they believe wrestling is the best base for MMA success?
I think it's a little bit of both. If you're very good at basketball, you can go to the NBA. If you're good at football, you can go to the NFL; at hockey, to the NHL. There's not really a place for collegiate-style or folkstyle or freestyle wrestlers unless they go to the WWE. Kurt Angle came from a wrestling background [to the WWE]. Ronda Rousey came from a judo background, then went to mixed martial arts and now the WWE. And Ken Shamrock and Brock Lesnar — a couple of guys do that and it works out. But if you think about how many wrestlers are in the world and how many have made that transition, it's a very small percentage.
What advantages has wrestling given you as a mixed martial artist?
Wrestling is the hardest sport in the world. I remember going to practice and wrestling for two hours and not even getting a water break. As an adult, I look back and I'm like, “That's stupid! You're going to dehydrate your athletes. They're going to pull a muscle or get cramps." But it builds mentally tough [athletes]. That's a great mindset to have when you switch to mixed martial arts.
You've talked about the logistics of being a smaller person in MMA. What about being a smaller person in self-defense?
To be honest, you should never put yourself in that [kind of] situation. The only time you're going to find yourself throwing down with another person is if you're at a bar or if you're getting into a confrontation on the street. And I would say walk away from those.
[But] you have to make sure you're very versatile in your skill set. For me, I have wrestling. Wrestling means you can dictate what happens in a fight — you can take the fight to the ground or you can close the distance very fast.
So you already had the wrestling base when you started MMA. What did you add to it for striking, for kicking and for submissions?
I added everything. I started training at AMC [Kickboxing &] Pankration. Pankration is [the Greek] word for “all powers." My coach Matt Hume made me keep repeating every single aspect of martial arts: I've done kickboxing fights, muay Thai fights, shootboxing fights, jiu-jitsu grappling tournaments, even a boxing fight. And I've done a lot of MMA fights. Basically, he put me in every single aspect of martial arts. That's what built my foundation.
If somebody walked in here and tried to start a fight with you and you couldn't avoid it, do you think you would fall back on your wrestling? Or have you done enough in the striking styles and the other arts to be able to use them reflexively?
I like to think I'd be able to, but it's never happened to me before. Like I said, I don't put myself in situations where I have to use my martial arts. When I was growing up, wrestling was for that. But as an adult, I just don't foresee someone walking in here and [doing that]. I'd be like, “What do you want? We're doing an interview. Can you show some respect?" And then they're like, “I'm not leaving," and I'm like, “OK, I'm going to call security."
Now if I'm at a bus stop and some guy tries to come from behind, grab me and lift me up, I'm going to break his base with my wrestling, catch my foot behind him, drop it down, get my hips down, try to reverse him, and then get some distance and start throwing some hands to keep the distance. But even then, once I disengaged, I'd be like, “What the hell are you doing?" I'm not going to go right after him and attack.
Say a 20-year-old wants to get into MMA competition, and the person is basically a wrestler. Would you say, “You have to start training in muay Thai and boxing …"?
I would say find a gym where you feel the most comfortable growing and learning. That's the most important thing. If you had a mindset like, “I'm going to go learn mixed martial arts, so I'm gonna find a kickboxing gym," and you go to the gym and don't like the vibe, you don't like the instructor, but you force yourself to stay just because you want to learn kickboxing, you're not going to grow.
But let's say you find a gym and you love that atmosphere, the people, the instructor. You can grow as a martial artist with that gym. I was lucky to be able to find AMC Pankration, which had every single thing — kickboxing, muay Thai, they did it at all.
Do the components of MMA need to be taught specifically for MMA, or can they be taught on their own? In other words, if I want to become an MMA fighter, can I learn BJJ here, kickboxing there and wrestling over there? Or should I get them all from an MMA gym where they're integrated?
It all depends on the athlete. I learned how to do it all at once. So when I transition from jiu-jitsu to muay Thai or wrestling, [it's easier because] I learned it all under one umbrella. So I know how to be fluid.
If you go to a boxing gym, they might not know how to throw a cross and load your hips to be able to deliver a kick. If you go to a kickboxing gym, they can teach you how to throw a cross and load your hips, but they're not going to tell you how to drop your elevation and shoot in for a double-leg takedown.
If you find a gym that's able to package it all, you get those fundamentals and those mechanics worked in.
You mentioned pankration, the historical Greek mixed martial art. How is the pankration you do for MMA related to that?
In pankration, two combatants would come together and compete, and the person who was well-versed in pankration would basically take away the advantages his opponent had. For example, if the person was a southpaw, the pankration guy knew that the left hand was his strong suit, so he would purposely circle away from his strong side to put his opponent at a disadvantage.
So you try to neutralize your opponent's abilities and exploit any openings you see.
Yes. That's also in pankration.
Could you talk about the role of speed in combat?
It's not about speed; it's about technique. Look at NASCAR. They're all driving very fast cars. I could jump in one of those cars and drive super fast, but I don't have the technique to be able to turn the corners all day long. Those guys have the technique, they have the reps, they have the practice, they have the experience. It's not about the speed. It's about the technique and the repetition — and learning the fundamentals.
With that said, speed does come into play when it enables you to overwhelm people and put yourself in position to hit. A lot of people, when they compete against me, say they've never felt my speed with transitions and techniques. When Dominick Cruz and I fought, the first thing he did [afterward] was say, “I've never felt somebody who's this fast." But he was able to use his footwork and his length to give me problems. He was able to take me down and hold me there. But a lot of people, when they feel speed for the first time, they're almost shell shocked.
It's got to be great to know that you have that kind of speed when you're going into a fight.
Yes, but there's somebody out there who's faster.
How do you feel when people call you the greatest MMA fighter ever?
Sometimes it puts pressure on me, but I try not to let it because that's just their personal opinion. I just try to do the best I can. I don't know everything about martial arts, and I'm still learning. With that being said, I take it as a compliment.
What do you still have to learn?
Stand-up, timing, footwork, being in the right spot to hit somebody, grappling, submissions, setting them up — I'm always working on different things. That's the unfortunate thing about competing: When you compete all the time, you don't have time to get better. You're always getting ready for your next fight, working on what the guy's going to do and trying to exploit his weaknesses.
Matt Hume says he got a lot better when he stopped competing, when he stopped worrying about his next opponent. When I'm done competing, that's when I'm going to get even better.
What do you see yourself doing after your competitive career is over?
I might be a coach for my teammates. Other than that, I want to spend time with my family. I've been very smart with my money, so when I finally retire, I'll make sure everything's been paid off. After my first big fight in the big leagues, I was like, “I'm going to buy me a car!" Matt Hume turned around and went, “You're going to buy a house. That's what you're going to buy." That's when I knew Matt was legit.
[After I retire], I want to make sure I can just wake up and do what I want to do. Then I'm going to dedicate the rest of my life to my kids, my wife and me. And if I can't stay healthy in the martial arts, I'll be very disappointed in myself. The martial arts gave me this lifestyle, to be able to travel the world, compete in front of millions of people and basically have an outlet to express myself.
You seem very happy with where you are in life.
Absolutely. If you're not happy, what are you doing it for?