LAS VEGAS – Jonathan Brookins' biggest claim to fame before he joined the cast of Season 12 on "The Ultimate Fighter" was losing a fight in 2008 to Jose Aldo.
Aldo is a sensational fighter, among the three or four best in the world, and losing to him is hardly a shame. Brookins may never put Aldo completely behind him, but after grinding out a unanimous-decision victory Saturday over Michael Johnson at the Palms Casino, Brookins may be known for something other than a loss.
He won the TUF championship by surviving a first-round onslaught and then methodically using his wrestling to wear down his good buddy, claiming a 29-28 decision on all three cards.
"Not many days go by without someone bringing that up. I'm still the guy who fought Jose Aldo," Brookins said after completing his unlikely journey to the TUF title. "It's an honor, I guess, but I don't even know what to say about it. He's got to be tired of hearing that. He's got to be saying to himself, 'I already beat that kid down. How is he still around?' "
Johnson had to be asking how Brookins was still around after the first round. Johnson's standup was the difference in the fight in the first round, and at times in the opening five minutes, it seemed like he was outclassing Brookins. He landed a counter left early that dropped Brookins and had the potential to end the fight.
Johnson hesitated in going for the kill for a split second, and it may have wound up costing him the title. He lamented the fact afterward, knowing he'd given away his best opportunity.
"I hit him with some big shots and I looked up and I noticed I dropped him a little bit late," Johnson said. "I said, 'I guess I lost my time to finish.' He did a great job of recovering. I just made a mistake and took a back step just a little too much. I let him recover from that knockdown. I really don't know what happened between the first and second round."
What happened was that Brookins remembered his game plan and stuck to it religiously after the first. Even though his heroes are legendary boxers Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and "Sugar" Ray Robinson, he's not going to outslug anyone, particularly someone with fast hands like Johnson. Brookins needed to get the fight to the ground and begin to maul Johnson, the way he did to Ran Weathers, Sevak Magakian, Sako Chivitchian and Kyle Watson during the filming of the reality series.
Brookins took Johnson down repeatedly over the final two rounds and held Johnson down for long stretches. He never again got the idea of standing and trading blows with Johnson.
He felt the power of Johnson, who calls his fighting alter ego "The Menace," and knew he wasn't going to get anywhere by slugging with a slugger.
"He's definitely done a lot of improving since the last time we've sparred," Brookins said of Johnson. "I remember him saying, 'When you get in the cage with 'The Menace,' it's a different story.' I wondered what 'The Menace' was like in the cage because I only knew Michael. I didn't know 'The Menace,' but 'The Menace' is legit, man. It was serious. It was a lot of fun.
"I just think it was the same game plan. I kept on sticking to it. I knew I was having trouble getting the takedowns in the first round, but I knew the ground area was more my game. He had done more improving in the standup than I did during our time in the house. I still have a lot of improving to do in that area. I just tried to maintain focus and get it to my area, where I felt more comfortable."
Johnson seemed like he was unprepared for what Brookins might attempt, appearing as if he didn't have an answer when the fight would go to the ground.
But appearances can be deceiving. Johnson was plenty ready for Brookins' ground game. Brookins was just better than he thought.
"From here on out, it's jiu-jitsu, day in and day out," Johnson said. "I have to get better off my back. That's the weak part of my game."
And it's why Brookins, and not Johnson, is the TUF 12 champion. And now Brookins has a talking point whenever anyone brings up his Aldo fight.
But their business is probably not over. Brookins said he's interested in going back to fight again at featherweight and, perhaps, getting another shot at Aldo.
"It's been a goal of mine since I lost that fight [to fight him again]," Brookins said. "I made the decision not too long after I lost that fight to make the best of it. It only took a couple of hours and I realized it was a great learning experience and I needed to go forward and make it a positive.
"It's turned out to be a positive. I wouldn't even have made it on the show if it wasn't for people saying, 'Hey, that's the kid who fought Jose Aldo.' It's ironic how things work. It's been an interesting chain of events. I'm happy that I haven't shaken that stigma yet, because he is such a great fighter. I don't go into many fights without thinking of that learning lesson. He taught me so many lessons. I thought I was the best fighter in the world. I thought there wasn't a 145-er who could touch me and he humbled me. I learned so many lessons from him."
He applied those lessons Saturday in his fight with Johnson.
The kid who lost to Jose Aldo proved by winning the TUF championship that not all losses are the same. That was a defeat that changed a man's life.