Demetrious Johnson had just about done it all in his run with the UFC. So it didn’t make a lot of sense to him to try and do it all again.
A new set of challenges awaits the longtime flyweight king, who was recently announced as one half of a historic trade between the UFC and ONE Championship a little less than three months after losing the 125-pound title in a rematch with rival Henry Cejudo. Having been champion for six years and broken the record for most successful consecutive title defenses at 11, it seemed reasonable that Johnson would consider battling Cejudo a third time for the chance to regain his title.
However, with the news of Johnson being moved to ONE in exchange for welterweight champion Ben Askren, that trilogy bout won’t be happening anytime soon and Johnson is just fine with that. “Mighty Mouse” and his team were in agreement that it was time for him to turn the page.
“I think for me going back and trying to regain my title there was nothing there for me, because if I look at it as the standpoint as a martial artist, it was something that I’ve already beaten Henry Cejudo and I truly felt that I’ve been beaten a lot worse,” Johnson said on a conference call Sunday. “When I fought Dominick Cruz (for the 135-pound title on Oct. 1, 2011), I felt like I truly was the smaller guy. I mean, he suplexed me three times for God’s sakes. So with that I thought if I went back and fought (Cejudo), who knows how the fight could have went?
“I could have won it the third time, or I could have lost again, and I took a step back and I was like, ‘Okay, what do I truly want? Like ask yourself that, DJ, what do you truly want?’ And I was like, I wanted something different. I wanted to mix it up. I wanted to do something different. I want to be able to walk out to the cage and feel butterflies, or if it’s the ring, I want to face a different type of competition and I knew if I went back and I would have won that belt again, then I knew that I would be staying in the exact same organization, fighting the exact same athletes — which, they are phenomenal athletes — but I’ve beaten pretty much everybody on that roster so far and so I felt this was a perfect opportunity to me. I wasn’t held by being the champion anymore.”
It wasn’t just apathy over his competitive options that convinced Johnson he needed to make a change either. During Johnson’s lengthy run at the top, he failed to click with a wider audience despite receiving almost universal acclaim from his peers and the media. Whether it was because the smallest men’s division in the UFC was somehow inherently unappealing to the average viewer, or Johnson’s own reluctance to develop a hyperbolic persona, or Johnson becoming a victim of his own success, his in-cage accomplishments never led to significant mainstream recognition.
Johnson understands that after seeing him reign for so long, fans may have become restless for a changing of the guard.
“For the longest time, a lot of people in North America wanted a new champion,” Johnson said. “They see they can really push that pay-per-view model, they really didn’t care about how my skill set was. They really wanted somebody who is going to be brash, who is going to disrespect — and not that Henry Cejudo did that — but they wanted somebody else.
“I feel like they wanted somebody else, and when I say somebody else, not the UFC, I felt like the public wanted somebody else to try to take that mantle to somewhere I couldn’t. Like, for numbers, or bringing notoriety or whatever. So I felt like, this is my perfect time for me to go pursue something I want to pursue and let those guys handle that.”
Over in Asia, where ONE primarily operates, Johnson expects to receive a different reception. For one, he’s an avid gamer, another aspect of his life that he feels will resonate more overseas than it did in North America, and he also thinks the optics of fighting in one of the smaller weight classes won’t affect his popularity as much.
“For me, I’m not the smallest guy in the organization anymore. … In America, everybody always looked at me as ‘a child’ as you could say, and I won’t have that issue when I’m in Asia competing,” Johnson said.
He also sees Asia as having a different idea of what constitutes effective fight buildup. As indomitable as Johnson won in the UFC, he was greatly overshadowed by fighters who could stir up controversy like Conor McGregor, Jon Jones, and Michael Bisping. He saw an epidemic of fighters attempting to emulate that model, which led to much public sniping on social media.
That’s a trend that Johnson has no interest in bringing with him to ONE.
“I was never the biggest fan of the way people went about promoting their fights over in North America,” Johnson said. “I saw some athletes use it as a way of bullying, a way of trying to gain followers.
“When an athlete says on Twitter, ‘Why haven’t you signed the contract yet?’ to another athlete, for me I see that as a form of bullying because all that’s going to do is stir people to go to that person’s Twitter or social media and say, ‘You’re scared, you don’t want this, you’re a chicken,’ and when I see professional athletes doing that, that are trying to embody the spirit of martial artists, it just puts a bad taste in my mouth.”
Johnson was certainly not going to trash talk his former bosses at the UFC, who he gave credit for making the deal with ONE work out. He flatly denied the suggestion that past issues with the UFC over his compensation or how they marketed him had any impact on his decision to change promotions.
If he has any regrets, it’s that his departure could play a part in the possible shuttering of the flyweight division. Johnson is one of the most dominant fighters in the history of the sport and if he couldn’t become a draw in North America, what chance does the remaining 125-pound roster have? Should the worst-case scenario happen for the UFC’s flyweights, Johnson believes they should at least consider following in his footsteps.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” Johnson said when asked to address rumors of the UFC flyweight division’s demise. “I think the flyweight division in North America and in the UFC is a fantastic division. I think as me being an athlete and a martial artist, I think it’s not always about ‘Does this division make money?’ I think they should keep that division, my personal opinion. They have a new champion, a lot of new fresh matchups they can try to sell. They can work it out.
“And that’s up to the athletes. If the athletes want to follow, they all have their own passions and their own goals that they want to pursue and there’s many organizations out there. But I truly believe that ONE Championship is the best one for all those guys because it embodies martial artists.”