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Demetrious Johnson undergoes surgery Thursday; hopes for mid-June return

Esther Lin

There was no single, sudden moment in the gym when Demetrious Johnson realized he wasn't going to be able to make his April 13 UFC flyweight title defense against John Moraga. He wasn't on the wrong end of an errant elbow in training, nor did he feel something pop during a wrestling drill.

Rather, the torn labrum in his shoulder, which will require surgery and keep him from headlining The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale in Las Vegas, was one of those gradual things.

"Basically, we were getting ready for the training camp, and we signed the contract, and we thought everything was good to go," Johnson said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "My shoulder was still bugging me after the Dodson fight, and I started training and I was starting to work out and pull on the rope, which is one of our conditioning [drills], and I couldn't pull on the rope.

"And I was like ‘well, I'm not doing that exercise, time to work on something else,'" he continued. And then they noticed 'Hey, you already did that exercise, can you go on the rope?' and I was like, ‘Hey, I can't, that hurts.' And it was like, 'Well that's not good,' and you know, the way it is, we go hard."

So Johnson, who lives in the Seattle area and trains at Matt Hume's AMC Pankration gym, went to get an MRI, which revealed the depth of his shoulder woes.

"I was like, I don't want to get an MRI," said Johnson, who has fought nine times since since Sept. 2010. "You never want to know what's wrong with your body, you think you're invincible. Sure enough, I get the MRI and it was like "Yep, you've got a partially torn labrum, and I was like, ‘Ahh, damnit.' That's when we got the news."

Johnson will undergo surgery Thursday at Seattle's Swedish Hospital. Since the procedure is minimally invasive, if all goes well, the champ hopes to be back in action by mid-June.

"The doctor said I'll be in a sling for 3-4 days, after that just rehabbing," he said. "With rehab and a full training camp, you'll be ready to fight 100 percent in 8-12 weeks. ...

"You only get one body. It just so happens, Matt told me, ‘Your fights are not as hard as your training camps. Your training camps are the hardest things you can do for a fight.’ When I’m in training camp, I push my body to where I just get sore, and when I get into a fight, it shows, I never get tired. That’s why Matt made me do the surgery. He said, you could probably do this fight against John Moraga and you could possibly win it, or you could possibly lose it. I don’t want to take that risk. I want to have a full training camp going into a championship fight. This is not a joke, we take this very seriously. That’s why we decided to get the surgery. If things go well, I’m going to push for June 15."

The setback comes at an inopportune time for Johnson, who is expecting the birth of his first son in July and is just starting to break through to the masses. Flyweight fighters were subjected to a ridiculous amount of online criticism after Johnson's title-winning effort over Joseph Benavidez was booed by fans Toronto on Sept. 22. But Johnson's first title defense, a unanimous-decision win over John Dodson in the main event of UFC on FOX 6 on Jan. 26, was a ratings success.

"I saw [ratings were] up 13 percent up from UFC on FOX 5, so that made me happy," Johnson said. "I think the UFC did a fantastic job of advertising it on Sundays during the football games. Millions of people watch football on Sunday, it was great to be a part of that. I got some of those fans to tune in to UFC on FOX 6. It was awesome, I'm glad I could be part of that. ... I'm excited that me and John Dodson went out and put on a great fight and had all those viewers and they said ‘damn, those guys can fight, and they're small," so it was good, it just worked out. The pieces were just lined up perfectly."

Johnson's opponent, Moraga, trains at Arizona's MMA Lab, home of UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson, and boasts a 13-1 record. But since he's only fought twice in the UFC -- on Facebook prelims, at that -- he's not as well known with the fans as some of his other opponents.

Johnson, though, isn't going to underestimate his opponent due to a simple lack of notoriety.

"He's a great competitor and he's done great things," Johnson said. "So far in the sport, he has two finishes in the UFC and he's done a good job. Nobody knows who he is, I have people in my gym who train and are pretty involved in mixed martial arts and they say ‘Who's this guy?' and I explained to them who it is, and I just leave it at that.

"If you look at it from a business standpoint it could be a lose/lose because if I beat him, everyone's like, ‘You're expected to beat him,' Johnson said. "If I lose to him, it is what it is. At the same time, a fight is a fight and that's what i love about this flyweight division, it's not about who's very popular. He deserves his shot, he has two good wins in a row, I beat Joseph, John Dodson, Ian McCall, and he's the new blood in the division."

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