Moving to ONE Championship has led to significant changes for Demetrious Johnson.
Travel to places like the Philippines and Japan has put a few more frequent flyer miles on his card. Fans have to get up a lot earlier (or stay up a lot later) to catch his fights live. And though the competition is stiff, the name recognition of his opponents isn’t what it was during his eight-year run under the Zuffa banner.
One thing hasn’t changed: Johnson keeps winning.
Yes, his time in the UFC ended in a narrow split decision loss to Henry Cejudo, but that was the lone blemish for “Mighty Mouse” as he otherwise ran roughshod over the promotion’s flyweight division (including a TKO win over Cejudo in their first meeting), recording 11 consecutive successful world title defenses and marking himself as arguably the pound-for-pound greatest fighter on the planet.
He was traded for ONE welterweight star Ben Askren in October of last year and was immediately booked for a flyweight (135-pound) Grand Prix, which has seen him defeat top Japanese fighters Tatsumitsu Wada and Yuya Wakamatsu to advance to the finals at the ONE Championship: Century event this weekend against Danny Kingad.
In the meantime, he’s also become more involved in the esports scene as part of ONE’s initiative to branch off into competitive gaming. All in all, the Demetrious Johnson business has been rolling and he sounded satisfied when asked to rate his year with ONE so far.
“A 10,” Johnson told MMA Fighting. “I would say so. I’m pretty active, being an athlete at the age of 33 years old, to compete as much as possible is very important, because we have a short window of opportunity to make as much money as possible.
“So I’m already fighting again, my third fight of the year, I’m excited and I’m healthy and I’m going to go out there and try to win this tournament.”
Winning the grand prix has been no cake walk, especially compared to the expectations of fans who might not know much about the flyweight scene over on the other side of the planet. In both of his tournament bouts so far, Johnson has faced adversity before coming back to pick up convincing victories.
If anyone expected Johnson’s UFC credentials to carry him past the hungry contenders at ONE, they were mistaken. Johnson, for his part, echoed the sentiments of fellow former UFC champion-turned-ONE representative Eddie Alvarez as far as making it clear that Asia’s best fighters are not to be overlooked.
“There’s always going to be tough competition wherever it’s at in the world. I think a lot of athletes have shown that,” Johnson said. “They came from PFL to UFC, UFC to Rizin, Rizin to wherever. There’s just tough competition everywhere. Obviously, traveling over to Asia’s a little bit different.
“Yuya Wakamatsu and Tatsumitsu Wada, those guys are legit athletes. Just because they haven’t had the chance to compete in American soil, to have the American following, and have the prom vote, it doesn’t mean they suck. I wasn’t surprised that the fights were tough and I knew that the move over there would be legit and I knew I was going to face tough competition.”
Johnson’s past two fights have taken place in Tokyo and Pasay, Philippines, and he’ll return to Tokyo for his upcoming meeting with Kingad. Despite having headlined major shows in the past, Johnson called his walkout in the Philippines “one of the best entrances I ever had in my life.”
The tournament format has also served Johnson well as he feels he’s had plenty of time to rest and, just as importantly, maintain an organized schedule since he knows for the most part where and when his next fight is going to be. He has no issue with ONE flyweight champion Adriano Moraes sitting out until the grand prix is resolved and is looking forward to defeating Kingad, leaving no doubt that he is the No. 1 contender, and eventually claiming Moraes’s title for himself.
Should all that come to fruition, it could be the start of another long reign for Johnson, though he wouldn’t commit to entering another tournament and defending a title throughout a la Bellator’s recent welterweight and featherweight grand prixs, which have thrown active champions into the field.
“It all depends. The one thing about the tournament format is it’s a lot of training,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in training camp since January. Back-to-back, back-to-back. It’s nice because I’m being active, but at the same time, I don’t know if I could do it if I was the champion, putting my belt line. Is it three rounds, is it five rounds, all that stuff comes into play because when you’re getting ready for a three-round fight, your training isn’t as—It’s still intense, but the duration isn’t as long.
“Being the champion these six years in a row in North America, my training camps would be so damn long just to get ready for a five-round fight because I don’t want to get tired in the five rounds. So it would be long training sessions. It all depends where I’m at, if I want to, if I was in the mood for it, it all depends, I just can’t say, ‘Yes, I would do it.’”