Demetrious Johnson no longer calls the UFC’s Octagon home. After a legendary, 18-fight stint with the Las Vegas promotion, the long-time UFC flyweight champion was traded to Singapore-based martial arts promotion ONE Championship in exchange for top welterweight talent Ben Askren.
Several weeks after this unprecedented swap was made official, Demetrious Johnson boarded a plane to Singapore to meet the ONE Championship team and take in the stacked ONE: Heart of the Lion card.
Ahead of this transpacific journey, the former champion had heard plenty about ONE Championship from his head coach Matt Hume, who serves as the promotion’s Vice President of Operations. Based on what he’d heard from his coach, Johnson’s expectations were understandably quite high, yet he says his first encounters with the ONE Championship team lived up to those expectations.
“My head coach, Matt Hume, he’s always in Singapore working out there and traveling around in Asia,” Johnson said on episode of 105 of BJPENN Radio. “It was everything he said it would be, and the people who run ONE Championship are awesome. Getting to meet everyone, seeing that they’re all down to earth — even the athletes I’ve met are all very humble and down to earth.
“It was a great experience,” he continued. “It was just fantastic. [They were] very respectful.”
Yet it wasn’t just the team behind ONE Championship that impressed Demetrious Johnson — the fruits of the team’s labor did too.
Johnson was cage-side for the ONE: Heart of the Lion card and was dazzled by the whole experience, from the crowd, to the production, to the fights themselves.
“The biggest thing that I loved about the event was it was almost like an event,” he emphasized. “They have the old-school presentation with the fireworks, the big Jumbotron telling the story [of the fighters], showing the fighters come out, walking out, and then the entrance. They have a new [announcer] woman who does the “Introducing!” She was pretty cool. I loved the energy of everybody around.”
Behind each of ONE Championship’s impressive live events is Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong. Sityodtong is a shrewd businessman, but he’s also a lifelong martial artist, and his values as a martial artist are a major force in the way he runs ONE Championship.
The ONE boss assures that his goal extends far beyond simply promoting fights. He speaks often of his mission to create heroes for ONE Championship fans. He wants posters of ONE Championship stars on the bedroom walls of young people all over Asia, and he wants their parents to approve of those posters, knowing their children look up to positive role models.
Demetrious Johnson says he’s been very impressed by Sityodtong’s mission, and the energy with which the ONE CEO is undertaking that mission.
“Being around Chatri, his energy and his passion, not just for mixed martial arts, but just for martial arts in general, it was pretty cool,” Johnson explained. “He’s focused on telling the stories of the athletes.
“He wants to build heroes in different countries, so they travel around to Myanmar, Jakarta, The Philippines, they’re gonna go to Japan, they’re always in Singapore, and they’re building heroes for the locals to look up to, and that’s what he’s focused on.”
One of the biggest homegrown heroes on the ONE Championship roster is Myanmar’s Aung La N Sang, who currently guards the promotion’s middleweight and light heavyweight titles. Although “The Burmese Python” currently calls Florida his headquarters, he’s become a national celebrity in his homeland of Myanmar.
Without any exaggeration, his fights inside Yangon’s Thuwunna Stadium produce an atmosphere unlike any other in combat sports.
“When I watched Aung La N Sang fight, and it was in his hometown and he defended his belt, the whole crowd was so moved by his performance, and I had never seen a crowd get behind their hometown hero like they had,” Johnson explained. “Just to see how people were moved by it and how the kids over there are like, ‘I wanna be like Aung La N Sang.’ He came from poverty. He took care of his family, he’s taking care of his children now, and he’s such a great role model.”
While athletes like Aung La N Sang have become ONE Championship superstars based on their ability and the way they comport themselves outside the cage, that’s often not enough in the North American market.
Having spent the majority of his career fighting on North American soil, Demetrious Johnson has come to understand what the majority of Western fans crave. They want drama, saber-rattling and trash talk — and these are things that he’s just not hardwired to give them.
Luckily, these are also things that ONE Championship happens to actively discourage.
“You know, Khabib Nurmagomedov he’s out there doing a great deal of fixing well-water for people in Nigeria” Johnson said, referencing the recent aid work of the UFC lightweight champion. “If somebody was out there and they did something bad or whatnot, that would have blown up way [more]… that would have created way more controversy than [Nurmagomedov] out there doing good, so that’s just the North American market.”
“[I had fans in] North America telling me, ‘Dude, if you talk so much more shit, you’d get paid a lot more.’ And I was like, ‘That’s not who I am.’ Even if I didn’t like somebody, I’m still not going to talk crap about them. So for me, always being true to my morals and values, it kind of pays off in the end. Now I’m with a company where they’re more… they uphold my values a lot more. We share the same values.”
Needless to say, Demetrious Johnson believes he’ll be well-received by ONE Championship fans in Asia.
“I think I’ll get that the Asian fans appreciate my skillset a lot more,” he said. “I mean they grew up, all their athletes over there are, like the average athlete is my size. And they have guys like [Norifumi] ‘Kid’ Yamamoto, [Masakazu] Imanari is over there, so there’s a lot of guys that are my size.”
While Demetrious Johnson is feeling very content as a member of the ONE family, he understands that there are significant challenges for him on the horizon.
Waiting for him on the Asian continent is a dangerous lineup of ONE Championship flyweights, such as reigning champion Geje Eustaquio, former champions Adriano Moraes and Kairat Akhmetov, and rising contender Danny Kingad.
Of course, these flyweights are going to look a bit different than the ones Johnson is used to fighting. ONE Championship has banned extreme weight-cutting and made adjustments to its weight classes so that athletes compete closer to their walk-around weights. The promotion’s flyweight division, for example, has a 135-pound limit rather than a 125-pound limit.
“They got a lot of killers over there, and it’s going to look different,” Johnson said of his new division. “I’m going to be fighting at my hydrated weight which should be 135 [pounds].
“So it’s going to be fun, I’m looking forward to it,” he added. “A fresh new challenge, and fresh new blood.”
While Johnson admits that he hasn’t given the ONE flyweight roster a particularly thorough look just yet, he knows that he’ll get very familiar with his new rivals in early 2019, as he’s set to compete in the promotion’s anticipated Flyweight Grand Prix.
Johnson is hoping this tournament will lead him to the ONE flyweight belt — but he’s not expecting an easy road.
“I want to be a champion,” he said. “I know it’s not going to be easy. It’s probably going to be the hardest story I have, to become a champion. The reason that I say that [is] now, I’m a lot older. [I’ve] got to take care of my body. I have a lot more travel, I have a lot more fresh competition.
“Everybody in the world is like, ‘Oh, he’s going to come over [to ONE] and clean the whole division out. He’s going to destroy everybody,'” he continued. “I’m going to have some wars. It’s going to be in a lot of battles. Obviously I would love for them to be — I would go on there and not get injured, but I’m not going to say it’s going to be an easy walk. I know these guys over here are tough. And I know they’re ready for me. I know they’re ready to beat me to make a name for themselves. So, I’m looking forward to the challenge and to see what happens.”
Despite the perilous road ahead, Demetrious Jonson assures his motivation is high — perhaps even higher than it was when he made his UFC debut
“When I came into the UFC, I had no ambition to be champion,” he said. “I was working a full-time job, I was just doing it for fun, and seeing where the ball goes. But now that I’m in the groove, I’m a professional athlete, I’ve been a champion before. Now I’m more motivated.
“Let’s see if I can come in here, look around the block, and let’s see how my skillset does over here.”
Ultimately, Demetrious Johnson’s move to ONE Championship represents an opportunity to close out his legendary career on a high note: as a talented, classy, and of course, financially successful prize fighter.
“As far as my legacy, you don’t get to pick and choose what your legacy is,” he said. “The public, the fans, they’re the ones that get to pick and choose your legacy. But for me, the biggest thing I want to make sure I’m going at is, after I’m done, I’m done. I can retire. I can spend the rest of my life being in my kid’s lives. Helping out. Helping people, if they need help when it comes to learning certain things, or helping them get through hard times. Just talk to them and tell them my story.”
“Because mixed martial arts is a tough, long road.”
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 11/25/2018.