Johnny Walker knows he has a tough test ahead of him on Saturday when he faces Thiago Santos in the main event of UFC Vegas 38. But he also sees the challenge for what it is: A rare chance to shortcut the line to title contention in the UFC light heavyweight division.
“I’m going to beat the guy who beat the champion already, so this one means a lot for me,” Walker said Wednesday on The MMA Hour.
“After this fight I hope I can get a top-10 guy, maybe Jiri Prochazka, because Thiago is going to be a really good test for me. He’s going to show if I’m ready or not for the top-5 guys. If I’m ready, boom, Jiri Prochazka [next] — then depending on my performance after my next fight, I can talk about a title shot or something, or maybe [after] one more. I don’t really care, I come here to smash all of these guys and show that I’m here to be a champion.”
Walker, 29, is catching his Brazilian countryman at the right time. The 37-year-old Santos was riding high two years ago when he knocked out Jan Blachowicz to earn a title shot then came within one judge’s scorecard of upsetting Jon Jones to capture the UFC belt. But the road has not been kind to Santos since. He enters Saturday’s main event on a three-fight losing skid after dropping bouts to Jones, Glover Teixeira, and Aleksandar Rakic.
Despite that, Santos remains a top-5 ranked UFC light heavyweight and is firmly within the top 8 of MMA Fighting’s global rankings, the latter of which has Walker unranked.
So Walker is well aware that if he manages to defeat Santos on Saturday, he’ll vault up his division’s ladder and sit just a hair’s breadth away from challenging Blachowicz. And if that happens, Walker likes his chances against the reigning UFC champion.
“Jan, he’s tough, he’s good, he’s the champion — but I can beat him, 100 percent,” Walker said.
“Not really,” Walker added when asked if he was impressed with Blachowicz. “He’s not really skillful. He’s strong, he’s tough. I respect him. He’s the champion, right? He beat [Israel] Adesanya, he kept the belt, he’s doing great. But I can do better.”
Much like Santos, Walker has been forced to overcome his own struggles in recent years. After starting his UFC career with a trio of highlight-reel first-round knockouts, two of which ended in less than 37 seconds, Walker came crashing back down to earth with back-to-back defeats he suffered at the hands of Corey Anderson and Nikita Krylov.
He’s since found a sense of stability in his career though. After bouncing around gyms early in his UFC tenure, Walker has stuck on with SBG Ireland and its head coach John Kavanagh. He also rediscovered his winning ways with a first-round knockout of Ryan Spann last September. The culmination of those efforts have Walker plotting a two-division run in the UFC and declaring that he’s entering his fighting prime — and he’s ready to showcase the fruits of his labor on Saturday when he takes on Santos as a betting underdog.
“I was in hell in this camp in training,” Walker said.
“They were really bringing me to hell. I hope Thiago brings me to hell, because I want to feel at home. Because hell was my home. I’ve been there many times and I want him [to take me] out of my comfort zone. If he brings me there, I’m going to be [saying], ‘Thank you, my friend,’ because I am ready for this, because I need it. I trained so hard and I’m really ready for this, so I don’t want to finish the fight so quickly. I hope I can show a really good show for the people, show my heart, my technique and everything. ... I hope we can do a really great show and [have] the Fight of the Night, maybe a Fight of the Year.
“I want to fight. I want to feel the blood in my mouth.”