In the short documented history of mixed martial arts, age has always been a strange thing. Randy Couture was 43 years old when he beat Tim Sylvia at UFC 68, laughing in the face of those who believed him to be a holdover from the age of Pankration. Vitor Belfort at 37 is still known as "The Phenom," because he did crazy things when he first entered the sport at 19. The UFC as a whole won’t turn 21 until next month. The greatest MMA promotion is going global in 2014 and yet it isn’t even old enough to drink.
Looked at like that, John Johnston’s current run to wherever his old legs will take him isn’t that remarkable. Johnston is the CES heavyweight champion. He defended his title Friday night against Keith Bell, who traveled from North Carolina to Rhode Island for the privilege of getting TKO'd by a 43-year-old barge of a man known locally as "Big John."
Johnston, a Massachusetts native and longtime student of Mark DellaGrotte, is now 7-0 in MMA, with all of his victories coming via knockout. He turns 44 on Oct. 30, and when he blows out all those birthday candles he’ll be wishing for one thing -- to one day compete on the big stage. Ideally, to fight in an eight-sided cage, where an evangelist named Bruce will shout out his name in introduction, and the aphrodisiacs will circle with big happy rounds cards wearing classy white tennies.
Then again, he’s also wise enough to know that that’s not going to happen.
"I would love to be on a big stage like the UFC," he says. "Unfortunately we’ve been in talks with the UFC, and they’re not willing to sign me because of my age.
"People like Mark Hunt and Randy Couture, those guys that are in their forties, they were signed before that. They were signed while in their thirties, and it’s one of those things that when they turned 40 it was kind of grandfathered in. Them signing me right now, they don’t know how many fights I have left. It also comes down the commissions, too -- a lot of commissions aren’t necessarily going to license me. I’m screwed at both ends."
Maybe not so much screwed as hindered.
Johnston took his first pro MMA fight at 40 years old. Everybody who has stood in front of him at CES has been his junior, including 38-year-old wrestler Josh Hendricks, whom he knocked out to win the title against. Johnston realizes that his career is getting started right as other people his age are experiencing joint pain. But that’s just the way it worked out. One day he hit a fork in the road and decided it was time to punch people in the face.
For 17 years, Johnston was a dog trainer in Raynham, Mass. In the early 2000s, a client came in with his dog for some obedience training and fell into a conversation about muay Thai. The man said he owned a muay Thai academy in nearby Somerville, if Johnston wanted to come in and check it out.
That man happened to be DellaGrotte, who has coached the likes of John Howard, Kenny Florian, Stephan Bonnar, Patrick Cote and many others at his gym, Sityodtong Boston. Johnston, who trained in Tang Soo Do under Richard Byrne all the way back in the 1980s, showed up shortly thereafter, and began his late voyage into the fight game.
At first it was in the art of eight limbs, muay Thai, where he racked up a 3-0 record and got good enough to begin coaching in it. But at 6-foot-4 and weighing in north of 250 pounds, there weren’t a lot of options available to him.
"It was hard to get muay Thai fights because of my size, and so I started going into MMA," he says. "At first Kru Mark didn’t want me to fight. He wanted me to continue my career as a trainer and so forth, but I kept bugging him and then finally June 17, 2011, I was 40 years old, and I took my first pro MMA fight."
He won that fight at Summer Brawl 2 via knockout.
Now, nearly four years later, the old dog trainer could be headed to the other big stage. The Scott Coker-led Bellator has been bold in bringing in a slew of new intrigues, everyone from Royce Gracie to Melvin Manhoef to Johnston’s one-time training partner, Stephan Bonnar. From the sounds of it, "Big John" could be next.
"They’re having a card at Mohegan Sun in February, so hopefully I can get on that," he says. "My goal is to fight as long as I can. I’d obviously love to get into Bellator. My manager asked me if I get into Bellator who I’d want to fight, and I told him, even if it’s somebody like Cheick Kongo, I don’t care. I’ll fight the top guy in Bellator my first fight in, because I want to make a statement."
For a man in his midlife who has spent nearly 13 years in the gym to become a prospect at the age of 44, well, it’s…it’s the kind of trajectory that you don’t come into contact with everyday. "Big" John Johnston has become a part of the New England lore; the old dog trainer who one day just started pummeling guys in the prize ring.
"I feel fortunate that I have the ability to do it at my age," he says. "You look at other guys my age, and you’re like, wow…I guess that’s what 44 really looks like.
"But as far as I train and the way that I fight, I train with all the younger guys. I’ve put in just as much time and just as much work. Obviously I’m looking out for injuries, because at my age I may not recover like I did in my early-thirties. I just hate the fact that because of my age I’m being held back from things."
Held back from everything but going ahead and doing it anyway.