So far, through ten UFC fights, Michael Johnson has been a little hard to predict. He beats the guys who are built to give him trouble (Joe Lauzon and most recently Gleison Tibau) but slips in fights where he’s projected to do well in (Myles Jury and Reza Madadi). Vegas oddsmakers never know what to do with him, while bettors find themselves flipping coins.
Johnson has speed, athleticism, movement and power. He also has a knack of dropping those things at the exact moment we take them for granted.
And that sort of inconsistency in the fight game leaves "The Menace" in dreaded territory. With the flashes of what he’s capable of on any given night mixing with the odd disappointments here and there, Johnson is right now living in a state of "potential." Potential, when being hung around veteran’s necks, usually errs to the side of "unmet." Potential is one of those things that people stop holding their breath for.
Johnson doesn’t want to fall into that rabbit hole.
At 27 years old, and with a good head of steam after victories over Lauzon (whom he turned the trick of making look boring) and Tibau (whom he knocked clean out), Johnson is perhaps emerging on the other side of it. He’s realizing his potential. And if the Blackzilians' standout is ever to round the corner towards contendership, he needs to start knocking down the tall trees that stand between him and the lightweight belt.
The first one is Nate Diaz. As we enter the new year, Johnson’s been calling out Diaz, a former No. 1 contender who is coming off his own impressive victory over Gray Maynard. From Johnson’s perspective, this is the time to shed all "prospect" labels. And there’s not a finer catapult towards contention than the mean-mugger from the 209.
"It’s just a fight I’ve wanted," Johnson told MMA Fighting. "I’ve always wanted to fight Nate and I feel like he’s one of the best guys in the division. And that’s where I’m trying to be so I got to fight those guys to get to that goal, you know?"
Diaz is currently -- as of Friday, Jan. 3, at 7:22pm Eastern Time -- without an opponent. So is Jim Miller, who just ran roughshod through Fabricio Camoes at UFC 168. And so is Khabib Nurmagomedov and Gilbert Melendez, who were slated to fight at UFC 170 on Feb. 22, but aren’t.
Realistically, these are all the tall trees that are obstructing Johnson’s view to a title. And all of them are the bump up in competition to give him a proper gauge as to how far he’s come from the guy who got choked out by Reza Madadi back in April, on his forgettable trip to Stockholm, Sweden.
Today’s Johnson looks like the one that had rattled off three wins in a row against Shane Roller, Tony Ferguson and Danny Castillo, the latter of whom he obliterated with a barrage of punches.
So, what’s been the difference in his resurgence? And is this version better than the one who last made the radar bleep?
"I’m just putting it all together finally," he says. "After that three-fight win streak, I kind of started feeling a little -- I wouldn’t say unbeatable -- but I started getting ahead of myself thinking I was a lot better than I was. I got a little full of myself, and it took me two losses to really get back to basics, what I did best, bringing out what I know and using it.
"It’s a combination of things. Plus, the team atmosphere [at Blackzilians] right now couldn’t be any better. The coaches couldn’t be working any better than what they are. We have a great mix, and it’s all working out."
Asked if he’d be willing to take on Nurmagomedov, who wants to fight as soon as possible (and hopes to remain on the UFC 170 card even without Melendez), Johnson says bring it on.
"Yeah, of course, I would have took the fight no problem," he says. "I don’t know how soon it would have been, but yeah, that’s another opponent I wouldn’t mind fighting.
"But really, whoever’s in front of me [in the rankings]. I mean, Jim Miller’s possible. Any guy in front of me who’s not booked. And right now, Nate [Diaz] doesn’t have any fights coming up."
Hard to fault Johnson for checking in on fighter availability here, as well as their statuses. Johnson has been a cusp top-ten fighter at 155 before, and not all that long ago. If 2014 is his year, he might as well call his shots and swing big. He’s dealing in more carefully managed urgency than he was before.
And whomever it is he fights next, it’ll be telling. All week in Las Vegas for UFC 168 Johnson appeared to have a kind of resolve that can only come from previous experience in squandering. It’s no surprise that he called out Diaz after seeing his demeanor last week. He’s hungry to make his move.
The question is consistency. Can Johnson burst into the top ten, a thing that has played with our hunches since he came off The Ultimate Fighter assembly line in 2010? Can he realize his potential and make a title run?
"I’ve been putting in a lot of work, and a few years ago I thought I should be a lot further than what I was -- and that’s me getting over myself," he says. "Now it’s like finally coming out, I’m familiar with everything, I’m getting the hang of everything, I’m starting to love what I’m doing. I’ve learned everything right, right back to the basics the things I need to do to succeed in this division. It’s my time. I need to move forward, I need to make my run for it."