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Demetrious Johnson Hopes Risk Equals Reward of First UFC Flyweight Title

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

TORONTO -- It wasn't long ago when Demetrious Johnson was concerned enough about his future that he refused to give up his full-time job. Even when Johnson signed to fight for a UFC championship, he was still employed at Caraustar, a recycling company, as a forklift operator.

Johnson was spreading himself thin, working long hours at the plant, then hustling over to workout sessions at various places before his his coach Matt Hume gave him an unexpected order.

"I had to convince him. I basically had to put the hammer down," Hume said. "I told him, 'You need to quit your job now. And I'm not asking. You need to quit your job now.'"

Johnson listened to his coach and resigned, though he did give formal notice and spent two weeks of his Dominick Cruz camp moonlighting between his two careers. But you can't necessarily blame Johnson for his reluctance to give up his guaranteed paycheck. Even though he was doing extremely well in his mixed martial arts endeavors, things weren't perfect.

Most notably, Johnson, who is just 5-foot-3, was fighting out of his division. He had begun his amateur career as a flyweight, but in order to compete at the highest level, he was forced to fight up a division. As a result, he was often facing men that were naturally much larger than he was.

"The game plan had to be different because I'm shorter, and trying to punch a guy up here, you expose your hips," Johnson says, moving his hand above his head. "You expose everything. It's part of the game. I'm not complaining about it, but at 135, guys were big."

His decision was soon validated with the UFC's addition of a flyweight class, and his inclusion in a tournament to crown its first-ever champion.

Johnson and fellow tournament finalist Joseph Benavidez were originally scheduled to be the UFC 152 main event, but when light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones was added to the card, they were effectively demoted to the co-main event. Johnson, however, views it as a blessing in disguise.

Not only are there expected to be more fans drawn to the show with Jones involved, but the flyweights are sandwiched in between his fight and an anticipated middleweight matchup with Michael Bisping and Brian Stann.

"I think more eyes will be on us," he said.

The ability to find the bright side is a Johnson trademark, according to Hume, who says he's "a very happy, high-energy guy." Even when his mother Karen was diagnosed with bone cancer, Johnson dutifully took time in the middle of work to bring her to her chemotherapy sessions, and still, he continued to faithfully and positively train.

"All kinds of stuff was going on around him, and I never saw the guy once without a smile on his face," he said.

Johnson's mom is still fighting the disease, and that is one of many experiences that give him the proper perspective on the importance of becoming the first flyweight champion. Sure, it's a goal, and sure it would be a thrill, but there are other, more things that take more precedence.

"I don't want to say [it's] everything in life," he said. "Health is my No. 1 thing. Obviously, right now in my mixed martial arts career, it is my ultimate goal. Outside of that, I want to be a great husband, I want to be a great father. In my mind, there's more to life than just fighting. That's just how I am."

It was only a few years ago when Johnson first walked into an MMA gym for the first time. Back then, he was only looking for a good workout and a way to stay in shape, but he never left. Eighteen fights later, Johnson is on the precipice of making history. While Johnson is considered the faster fighter -- his opponent candidly says Johnson is "the fastest guy in MMA, for sure" -- Benavidez is believed to have the edge in power.

That is cause for zero concern from Hume, who said that in training, Johnson frequently spars with much larger men like Rich Franklin and Tim Boetsch, and that neither of them have ever hurt him.

That could make UFC 152's co-main event a classic matchup of power vs. speed. But Johnson says he is mentally and physically a different fighter than he was even just a few months ago. The changes that came with dedicating himself fully to MMA are not glaring ones, but sharpness and technique pay dividends.

Less than one year after giving up his full-time job for the chance to win a championship, Johnson has a chance to do just that, in a division where he was always supposed to be.

"We both know what’s riding on this," Hume said. "Our job is to not focus on it and not think about it, but of course, we’ve known all along that this is what we want."