It’s difficult to see what else Demetrious Johnson could have achieved in the west. He successfully defended his UFC flyweight title a record 11 times and established himself as number one on most people’s pound for pound list.
To say that his career was going well is an understatement. ‘D.J.’ was in the process of establishing himself as the best of all time but there was a black cloud on the otherwise bright horizon.
Fighters with a fraction of Johnson’s ability were getting a far bigger promotional push. His greatness was not always appreciated by fans with the mentality that bigger is better, and therefore flyweight fights must be dull.
And so the stage was set for the biggest trade in MMA history. Undefeated ONE Championship welterweight title holder Ben Askren signed for the UFC with Johnson moving in the opposite direction.
It was a brave move for a fighter who had only ever competed outside of the U.S. and Canada once in his career. But Johnson’s ambition burns bright,
“I’ve achieved a lot of great things in my career, I’m looking to build the legacy over here in Asia,” he said.
The Japanese flyweight really tested D.J. before succumbing to a second round submission and the 32 year old admits he was short of his best,
“I was a little bit tight. It’s a big stage, and it was a big fight for myself. I was coming off a loss (but) It was a great experience and I look forward to my next one in Manila.”
A few eyebrows were raised when Wakamatsu started strongly against Johnson. People who had stated that the former UFC champion was going to be far too good for ONE Championship’s flyweights were forced to make some sudden reassessments.
But while Johnson had to weather an early storm he never really felt like he was going to lose the fight,
“Wakamatsu was a game opponent, a very great striker with great movement. I knew it was going to take a little bit for me to get my hands on him (but) once the fight got going I was able to impose my will in the grappling department.”
Next up is a bout against Tatsumitsu Wada at ONE: ‘Dawn of Heroes’ in Manila next Friday night. It will serve as the semi final of the flyweight Grand Prix and D.J. is excited about the prospect of booking his spot in the final,
“Wada is a great opponent who has that Japanese samurai spirit. It’s the second round of the ONE Flyweight World Grand Prix (so) there’s something to get excited about.”
No easy fights
When Johnson signed with ONE Championship it was seen as a foregone conclusion that he would go on to become the promotion’s flyweight champion. But pundits were making the same prediction about Eddie Alvarez and his debut didn’t exactly go to plan.
However D.J. is definitely not underestimating anyone and says that at this stage of his career there is no such thing as an easy fight,
“They’re always tough, so people can think ‘Demetrious Johnson is going to blow through everybody’ but I’m not thinking like that. Every athlete I compete against is going to try to make a name off me,” he said.
Looking back on the Wakamatsu fight Johnson feels that it was his aggressive style which allowed the Japanese fighter to have his moments,
“I wanted to put some pressure on him. When you put pressure on people you leave yourself open for counter shots and that happened.”
A spot in the Grand Prix finals might be at stake but Johnson has no intention of employing a safety first strategy against Wada, who is four inches taller than him,
“It will come down to who is tougher, who wants it more, and who is in better condition. I’m confident because I’m putting in the hours in training to make sure that I go out there and I can be the best athlete that I can be that night.”
Awaiting the winner is a spot on the ONE: ‘Century’ card. It is set for the Ryōgoku Kokugikan on October 13th and Johnson has fond memories of his last fight in the venue,
“I was honestly scared at the beginning of my career to go overseas and fight but my first time ever competing in ONE Championship was amazing. It exceeded my expectations.”
Asian MMA fans are getting a thrill from seeing arguably the best mixed martial artist on the planet in his prime. If all goes according to plan Johnson will fight three times in the space of eight months this year.
But the feeling is entirely mutual. The former UFC champion has found a new lease on life in Asia and his first impressions of being a ONE Championship fighter are very positive,
“I’m just blown away. I never thought in a million years I’d be over here competing.”