Demetrious Johnson says The Ultimate Fighter played a role in his eventual departure from the UFC.
Johnson is one of the most accomplished fighters in UFC history, holding the record for most title defenses in history at 11. But despite his many accolades with the promotion, Johnson finished his UFC career somewhat at odds with the company, traded to ONE Championship following his split-decision loss to Henry Cejudo at UFC 227. The trade came after Johnson’s relationship with the UFC had taken a turn , one that “Mighty Mouse” says started with The Ultimate Fighter: Tournament of Champions, where the UFC brought in 16 flyweight champions from around the world to compete for a shot at Johnson’s flyweight title.
“It was when I was streaming on Twitch,” Johnson said on The MMA Hour when asked when things changed for him. “I’m playing a game — and when I started streaming on Twitch, I started being more vocal — and somebody in the Twitch chat goes, ‘Hey man, did you hear about The Ultimate Fighter? What they’re going to do next?’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ and he goes, ‘They’re going to do The Ultimate Fighter, it’s going to be all the champions and they’re going fight you and the winner gets to fight [for the belt].’ And I go, ‘Well that’s f****** stupid.’ And then I was like, ‘What about the guys on a five-fight win streak? What about Joseph Benavidez? They’re just going to skip the line?’ I said that and the next day I got a phone call from Dana White.
“Dana White never called me when I was in the UFC. He called and he goes, ‘You dumbass! You just ruined this whole thing we’re trying to set up for you! Blah, blah, blah.’ And I was like, ‘Well I just found out online from a random dude on Twitch and I gave him an honest opinion.’ And then he goes, ‘Sean Shelby didn’t call you?’ ‘No, he didn’t call me.’ And he goes, ‘Alright. Bye.’ He hangs up and the next day I get a call from Sean Shelby, ‘Hey, yeah bro —’ Too late! Too late dude.”
“Matt [Hume] was saying, ‘Dude, just take fault.’ No, f*** that. I’m not taking fault,” Johnson continued. “I didn’t do anything wrong here. That was my natural reaction to news that was broken to me on the spot, by a fan. I have to hide my feelings?... I’m not in trouble for this. And after that it was kind of like, off she went. Slowly, slowly I just started being more me and that’s where I’m at now.”
Johnson went on to successfully defend his title against that season’s winner, Tim Elliott. He then defended his belt again a few months later, but that’s when his relationship with the UFC really took a turn. For his record-setting eleventh title defense, the UFC wanted to book Johnson against bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, who would be making his flyweight debut for the occasion. Negotiations were difficult though and White routinely threw his champion under the bus, ultimately leading to Johnson issuing his own public statement about the “mistreatment and bullying” he received at the hands of the UFC. That’s when, according to Johnson, he truly realized the power dynamics of his relationship with the UFC.
“They wanted us to fight T.J. Dillashaw and I said we’ll fight him for $1 million,” Johnson recalled. “Then the thing was, I knew T.J. couldn’t make 125 healthy. I knew that and so did Matt. We knew that because he’s already shredded at 135... So Matt wanted to put it in the contract saying if T.J. Dillashaw does not make weight at 125, we fight him for his belt, and they said no. ‘We’re not doing that.’ Okay then, well, what’s going to happen and that’s when they were like, ‘We’re going to close the division.’ So I said I’ll fight T.J. for $1 million. It’s a superfight! Let’s make it happen.’ But they wouldn’t do that and that’s when they were like, ‘We’re going to close the division.’ Well, close the motherf****** division then!’ They didn’t do it and that’s when I came out with the letter and it was like, what do I have to do?
“Everything that a champion — one of the things that I want to have happen when I’m done fighting is I want Matt to be like, ‘Out of all the people I’ve ever worked with and trained, Demetrious was the easiest person I’ve trained. He always showed up on time, never had a problem with cutting weight, no problems.’ I wanted to be the easiest champion, athlete to work with. I show up, ‘Who do you want me to fight? I’ll fight the next guy.’ But once they started to murky this stuff — ‘Oh, you’re going to fight this champion.’ Okay, let’s add some more money. Let’s add $1 million. ‘No, that can’t happen.’ Okay, well then if he doesn’t make weight, let’s fight for his belt. ‘No, can’t do that either.’ Okay, so where do I have leverage here? Where’s my power in being a champion?”
The answer was ultimately very little. Johnson did end up defending his title for the eleventh time, submitting Ray Borg with one of the most incredible moves in UFC history, and then lost his title in a rematch with Henry Cejudo. He was traded to ONE Championship shortly afterwards. But it wasn’t all bad for Johnson in the UFC. Looking back, he still speaks highly of his time in the organization.
“It was a crazy time,” Johnson said. “And I’m super grateful for the opportunity that I had, because if they wouldn’t have made a 125-pound division, then I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. 11 consecutive title defenses, the Ray Borg armbar, it was a great platform to be on and I took advantage of it and made the best of it. I might not have sold 4.1 million pay-per-view buys, but when it came time to come out there and put on a show and f****** fight, I did my thing.”
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