Demetrious Johnson has already cemented himself one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time, but he’s not ready to rest on his laurels. After a record-setting reign as the UFC flyweight champion, he is now zeroing in on a new title in ONE Championship.
Johnson’s road to ONE Championship gold leads through the perilous ONE Flyweight World Grand Prix. The former UFC champion has already advanced to the tournament’s second round, having submitted Yuya Wakamatsu in Tokyo in March, and he’s now looking ahead to a yet unscheduled semifinal showdown with former DEEP flyweight champion Tatsumitsu Wada.
In the earlier phases of his career, Johnson spent most of his time in the gym, developing his skills. Yet today, when he is the owner of one of the most extensive and lethal arsenals in MMA, he says he approaches training differently.
He still spends plenty of time in the gym, often helping his teammates prepare for their upcoming challenges, but his priority outside of camp is staying healthy and being a good father to his three children.
Only when his next fight is scheduled will he plunge into another all-consuming training camp.
“I’m training, helping other guys getting ready for their fights,” Johnson told BJPenn.com, deftly juggling an interview and his children’s bedtime routine. “Back in the day, when I was 18, 19, that’s when I was spending four or five days a week in the gym, crafting my skills, learning all of my submissions, doing my kickboxing and Muay Thai. Now It’s about preserving my body and making sure I’m sharp, so when it’s time for training camp — the hardcore training camp — I’m ready to go.
“As far as am I healthy, am I in good shape? Yeah, I’m in great shape. My weight’s good. I’m just waiting for the date [for the Wada bout]. Once I get the date, I’ll plan eight weeks out from that. Then I’ll set up for wherever the fight’s going to [happen], make sure I get acclimated to that time zone, and get after it.”
In his upcoming foe Wada, Demetrious Johnson will meet a clever veteran with a well-rounded skillset and recent victories over foes like Yuki Motoya, Kai Kara-France, Eugene Toquero and Gustavo Balart. Yet the former UFC champ says he no longer tailors his fight camps to specific opponents. Instead, his camps are about sharpening his weapons and assuring they’re in pristine condition on fight night.
“I don’t try to get myself ready for a certain opponent because that opponent could fall out,” he said. “I need to make sure I can go out and be the best Demetrious Johnson I can be that night.”
Over the course of his 32-bout MMA career, Johnson has grown well accustomed to the uncertainty intrinsic to this sport. As a result, he is reluctant to offer predictions for his contests — his bout with Wada being no exception. As long as he exits the cage with a victory and no injuries, he’s happy.
“As long as I don’t take any injuries, that’s all I care about,” he said. “I want to come out [of the Wada fight] with the victory and no injuries, because I’ve got another round to go. After that, if I’m successful this round and I win the Grand Prix, then I’m going to take a little time off, give my body a little time to relax, then get refreshed and challenge for the belt.”
Before Demetrious Johnson can challenge for the ONE Flyweight World Title, he’ll need to get through Wada, and the winner of the tournament’s other semifinal bout, which will pit the former champion Kairat Akhmetov against the once-beaten Danny Kingad. As he suggests, however, the belt is already on his mind.
He looks at a ONE Championship title reign as a fitting final chapter for his legendary story.
“I’d be ecstatic [to win the ONE flyweight title], it’d be another notch on my legacy,” he said. “My mindset right now is staying healthy and putting on amazing fights for ONE Championship. You know, I was the champion [in the UFC] for six years, I defended the title 11 times consecutively, pulled off some amazing submissions, pulled off some amazing fights. So for me, it’s a cherry on top.”
Johnson’s intention, as he’s previously stated, is to end his career in ONE Championship — ideally with the flyweight title wrapped round his waist. That means we’re unlikely to see him back in the UFC’s Octagon. It also means we’re unlikely to see him rematch the streaking Kyoji Horiguchi, the bantamweight titleholder in ONE Championship’s next door neighbour RIZIN Fighting Federation.
“No I don’t think [I’d fight Horiguchi again],” Johnson said. “I have my sights set on winning the ONE World Grand Prix and winning the belt. I think he’s more focused on going to Bellator and I’m more focused on keeping on competing here. And at the end of the day, I won the last fight [with Horiguchi], so there’s no reason I would seek out another fight with somebody I already beat. I’m looking to accomplish things I haven’t been able to accomplish yet.
“I love ONE Championship, I love what they do, I love what they stand for as a company, the way they treat their athletes,” he added. “It’s an amazing company and I look forward to finishing off my career with them.”
While Demetrious Johnson says his final fights will occur under the ONE Championship banner, he doesn’t anticipate that’s where his involvement with the organization will end.
The flyweight legend is already working as an ambassador for ONE Championship’s burgeoning Esports league, and he can envision himself continuing in that role long after he’s done fighting — so long as this function doesn’t eat into his time with his kids.
“100% [I’d continue to work with ONE], as long as I’m able to do it and be a part of my children’s lives,” he said, speaking less like one of history’s great prize fighters and more like any busy Dad who wishes he could spend more time with his children. “When I retire from mixed martial arts, then most of my time is going to go towards catering to my family. I spend so much time away from them when I’m getting ready for the fights. It wouldn’t be fair of me if I was like ‘ok now I’m going to the second part of my career, and I’m leaving you guys for a long time.’ At the end of the day, I will be a part of ONE Championship and Esports, but I will be a part of my children’s lives.”
There are still plenty of high-stakes contests ahead for Demetrious Johnson. Yet with an increasing longing to be around his family, it’s clear that the flyweight champion is already thinking about life after fighting.
He hopes that when all is said and done, he’ll be remembered as the man behind one of the most amazing runs in MMA history; a run that featured title wins in two major organizations.
“I want to walk away from this sport like ‘I had an amazing run, thank you guys, thank you all my fans,'” the flyweight legend said shortly before hanging up the phone and tucking his kids into bed.
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 5/27/2019.