A ONE Championship’s matchmaker recently asked Demetrious Johnson whom he’d like to fight next. Johnson’s first answer was UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling.
“Well, that’ll never happen,” was the matchmaker’s response.
It’s been five years since Johnson was traded to ONE in exchange for Ben Askren. The possibility is near zero he will be traded back. And then there’s the question of whether the ex-UFC flyweight kingpin even wants to go back. At 37, he’s thinking more about grappling competitions and his burgeoning content business than fighting in a cage again. He hasn’t sparred since April.
“I don’t know if MMA has been exciting me lately,” Johnson said Wednesday on The MMA Hour.
If the chance was there, however, “Mighty Mouse” would make an exception for Sterling, who on Saturday defends his title against Sean O’Malley in the main event UFC 292.
“There’s a complexity to his game that I feel like I can solve it, and he’s the big dog over here in America,” Johnson said. “I’m the big dog over in Asia.
“If that was brought to me as an opportunity, it would be like, ‘OK, that’s a problem I can solve that I would love to solve.’ I would put myself through a training camp for that fight.”
Sterling provided some extra motivation to Johnson recently during a gym Q&A in which he was asked about the prospect of a fight between them. The UFC champ called Johnson “too little” and implied he could dominate the action using his size; Sterling is known to trim in excess of 40 pounds and may move up to featherweight in his next fight out of physical necessity.
“I think father time has passed him a little bit,” Sterling said. “If he wants this work, try to get some revenge for Henry [Cejudo], I can beat your boy too.”
Johnson now shares a friendship and working relationship with former two-division UFC champ Cejudo, who in 2018 ended his record-breaking title run in the octagon. The two trained together prior to Cejudo’s comeback fight against Sterling at UFC 288. Johnson tried to give his two-time foe the inside track on how to defeat the UFC bantamweight champ.
“I’ve been trying to help Henry develop his clinch game,” Johnson said. “If Henry had a better clinch game in that fight, and if Henry was more savvy and grappled more...when Aljo did that shot, and he failed the shot attempt, and he stayed down as a grounded opponent and Henry hit his head head there, I said, ‘Henry, you circle around that motherf***** and you make him get up, you put your hooks in, you start to grappling exchange...you’ve got to grapple.”
Given the chance to put his advice into practice, Johnson predicted Sterling would, politely put, struggle to use the smothering wrestling that’s confounded so many opponents.
“I feel his weakness is he has no clinch game,” Johnson said. “Like, I would eat his ass up for breakfast in the clinch game. I feel like rhythm wise, I move way better than he does in the feet. [In] grappling, he is longer, so I would never let him get my f****** back, because he’ll lock them f****** ‘Funk Master’ legs in a body triangle like he did at Peter Yan, and they’ll have to survive him doing that.
“The one thing he does that helps to my advantage is that he crosses a distance for me, right? He, he does this [jabs the air], and a funky-ass kick, and I’m like, ‘Perfect. Come here, I wanna show you a thing called Muay Thai clinch.’ I just feel like I’ll eat him alive in a clinch.”
To be clear, Johnson doesn’t believe the fight would be a walk through. Good as he is at dealing with bigger opponents, Sterling’s size would present difficulties. The UFC champ’s grappling is a huge problem. But it’s not an insurmountable task.
Johnson doesn’t need an official bout agreement to test himself against Sterling. They can do it in the gym.
“Let’s play spar,” he said. “Come spar, and I would love to grapple you. I love that. Just move and see how you just do your thing.”