When Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson was brought to the national stage 17 months ago by World Extreme Cagefighting matchmaker Sean Shelby, the idea was to get the undersized bantamweight television exposure and prepare him for when the company would unveil its flyweight (125-pound) division.
The Kirkland, Wash., native, listed at what might be a slightly exaggerated 5-foot-3, may be the shortest fighter on the company’s roster. With his speed, explosiveness and versatility, he was expected to be have exciting fights.
In his WEC debut against Brad Pickett on April 24, 2010, he lived up to the prognostication. It was an exciting up-and-down fight, with Johnson giving Pickett a tough go in a hard-fought bout before losing the decision, largely because he gave up so much size.
When the WEC was merged into UFC late last year, the flyweight division was put on the back burner. But Johnson (14-1) isn’t going to wait for a new division to be added for his benefit. Since the Pickett loss, he’s earned four straight victories and a bantamweight title shot at Dominick Cruz (18-1) in a fight that takes place Saturday night at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. The bout, which headlines UFC’s final live televised event on Versus, will be the first UFC championship fight on basic cable in four years.
Johnson got the chance after winning a decision that was not without controversy over former champion Miguel Angel Torres on May 28. That followed a victory over Japanese legend Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto. The fight established that Johnson had a high level of MMA wrestling, as he continually took down Yamamoto, who is not only from a legendary Japanese freestyle wrestling family, but was himself an Olympic hopeful in the sport.
Throughout his career, Johnson has always worked a full-time construction job, which has meant he hasn’t had the ability to train full-time and recuperate like most of his recent high-level foes.
"Before I wasn’t training full-time," he said. "I was working in construction and at the recycling plant where I would go in the morning like at 7 a.m., or sometimes at 5 a.m., depending on the day. I’d go in there, run the machines, drive a forklift, dump scrap, carry construction to the process warehouse. I mean, it was basically a labor job and I did it for all my fights. Brad Pickett, Miguel Torres and all those fights."
The hazards of this approach were best shown after his most recent fight. He scored his biggest career win, upsetting a former top ten pound-for-pound fighter, and was back to work on Monday.
"After I’d end up fighting those guys, I’d get home on Sunday, it wasn’t like, 'Whoo, let’s go out and party,' " Johnson said. "I had to wake up and get up and go to work the next morning on Monday at 6 a.m. when I broke my leg against Miguel Torres. I was at work that Monday with a half-broken leg."
He remembers that day well.
"I’m walking around and everybody was like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with your leg?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, I think it’s broke.’ And they’re like, `You might want to get that checked out,’ and I was like, ‘No, no, it’s fine. I need to get this order out for the customer.’"
This fight will be the first time in Johnson's career that he competes on a level playing field in terms of training, and he expects it to make a big difference.
"I’m not working full-time anymore," said Johnson, who is a 5-to-1 underdog on most sportsbooks. "I gave that up once I got the call that I was going to be fighting Dominick. I thought, 'It’s a title fight and Dominick’s on a different level than anybody else.' I thought I owed it to the fans and myself, my family and all my training partners to train full-time.”
Johnson feels he will surprise people who are judging his fighting style based on his previous fights, in which he was only training part-time.
"I’m hoping to say [after the fight] it made a huge difference," he said. "When I fought the previous times, I came out. I never got tired, but when I was working during the week, I barely got any rest. I mean, I got off work at 3 p.m. and I’d be at the gym by like 4, and worked out until like 6:30 p.m. and then went home, and then woke up and did it all over again.
"Now I’m waking up and going to the gym, getting in my swimming, my running and my lifting and going home, chilling, going back to the gym, then going to the AMC Gym [in Seattle], training there, and then going home and doing that consistently for eight weeks straight instead of, I wouldn’t call it half-assing it, but just getting by back in the day.
"So I feel a huge improvement," he said. "My speed is a lot faster. My weight hasn’t gone up, but my strength has gotten a lot higher, and I feel good all-around. I feel a call of confidence and I’m just ready to go out there and see if it really pays off."
Johnson will need all that against Cruz, who has one of the most difficult styles in the sport to solve. Cruz has great conditioning, as exemplified by going five hard rounds in a fight-of-the-year candidate in his last title defense against Urijah Faber on July 2. His style is constant standing movement, making him hard to catch. He also has top-level takedown defense. Neither Faber nor Scott Jorgensen, both standout Division I college wrestlers, were able to implement any kind of a wrestling game on him. While Cruz is difficult to catch, it is not impossible to hit him, as Faber knocked him down three times. But his recuperative powers are strong, because he popped up after every knockdown, seemingly none the worse for wear.
Cruz can look at what Johnson has been doing and relate. Early in his career, including when he challenged Faber for the featherweight title four years ago in his only career loss, he was the one in the disadvantageous position of working full-time and not having time to train like his opponents could.
"He’s considered an underdog and I know how that feels," said the champion, who doesn’t have the adversarial relationship with Johnson that he did with Faber. "I came up very similar as him early in my career where I was working a full-time job and trying to juggle that at the same time as my fight career. And then you have all these naysayers that say you can’t do it, you can’t beat so-and-so. I went out there and did it. So I know what kind of light it is to put the fire under your butt."