Image: Mike Kane

At just five-foot-three, Demetrious Johnson may not look all that intimidating at first glance. But then the 26-year-old native of the Tacoma area starts bouncing on the balls of his feet, bobbing his head, cutting the air with a blur of jabs, and he’s danger in the flesh. In his six-year career as a professional mixed martial artist, Johnson has lost just twice, and last year he bloodied Joseph Benavidez to become the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s flyweight champion of the world. This July he returns home to step into the octagon with John Moraga and defend the title at KeyArena. Confidential to Moraga: Underestimate Johnson at your own risk. 

 

No one ever said to me, “You want to be a professional fighter? This is what you need to do, Demetrious Johnson.” Nobody laid out a path for me. I said, “I’m going to go do this and see where it goes.”

Back in high school, my friends would do drugs, they would party, they would smoke weed, pop pills. I was never down with that. I would be there, but I wouldn’t take it. I got high once, and that was the last of that. The other day, one of them sent me a message on Facebook. He goes, “Dude, I give you mad props because you never fell into those traps. You always did your own thing. You didn’t care what nobody said.” 

I have a hard time telling my friends that I accomplished something in my career because I feel that they might see it as me coming off as bigheaded. I’m the champ of the world and I get worked by guys I train with all the time. There’s a humility that comes with that. I’m only as good as my body will allow me to be. 

When I get in there to fight, sometimes I think to myself that everybody’s there to watch me lose. I have a weird way of looking at things.

I don’t have to hate the other fighter. I just think, It’s time to get paid. When I touch gloves, I’m like, Okay, it’s go time, motherfucker. This is how I pay my bills.

It’s always good to make your money when you’re not getting punched in the face. In other words, it’s nice when you can go off and do an appearance and make some money. But here’s the thing: I hardly get hit in the face even when I’m fighting.

The face is all bone and flesh. That will heal. I love punching and kneeing people in the body. You get hit in the diaphragm or the kidney or the liver, those are the ones that hurt. Those are the ones you want to avoid. So when you land one of those shots you can just hear the disruption in their body. Their breathing gets labored. You know you’re messing up the machine. 

One of my coaches gave me the nickname Mighty Mouse. I was the smallest guy at the gym, and I would spar with anyone. Plus, I’ve got the ears. I liked the name Black Ice, but it didn’t stick.

It doesn’t bother me when people call me little. I am a little guy. I’ll go out and do autograph signings and guys will be like, “Holy shit, you’re little.” What were you expecting when you heard I was five-three? 

I’ve only been in one fight outside of the octagon in my entire life, and that was in middle school. I just don’t put myself in situations where I might have to fight. I don’t go out to bars. I don’t go to the clubs. When I go to the mall, I’m in and I’m out. When I was younger, earlier in my career before I was a professional, yeah, I’d go to the club. And I’d tell my friends, “Hey, I’m going to go take a piss. If I’m not back in five minutes, send the fucking cavalry, bro, because I’m in there doing work.” But I don’t do that anymore. It’s just not worth it, and there’s no time for it.

Our sport’s not big like the NFL or NBA. But I appreciate that right now, because I can get into places and get out. It’s almost like I’m hidden. I can go to the grocery store and nobody knows who I am. Kobe Bryant can’t do that.

I own some rental units, and at first my tenants didn’t even know I fought. I’m just like you. I wake up and put my pants on just like you. I’ve got people calling me saying, “Hey, you need to pay these bills.” But when it’s time to go fight and be aggressive and be deadly or whatever you want to call it, I just do it. So there’s a switch that goes on. 

People give up sometimes. I’m not saying they don’t have heart, but they just give up. They couldn’t find an answer to the problem. 

My wife has been with me since my second amateur fight. Obviously she doesn’t like it when I get hit, but she hates it when I have to get surgery. I’ve had multiple broken bones in this sport. But at the same time she likes it because I can’t train and she gets to spend time with me.

I’ve always been scared to fight in my hometown. Everybody’s there. But I’m looking forward to it. It’s time in my career where I’m mature enough to understand that I might get my ass kicked in front of my friends and family or I might put on a spectacular show for them. So it’s okay. Plus, I don’t have to travel. 

It’s the shots you don’t see coming that knock you out.


Published: July 2013