Ignorant fans devalue fighters in the lower weight divisions like Demetrious Johnson
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Demetrious Johnson gained the nickname 'Mighty Mouse' when he was a teenager. He was likened to a mouse because, in his own words, he is short (160cm) with big ears.
The more important part of the moniker, however, is the first word: 'Mighty'. Fighting at 57kg, the inaugural UFC flyweight champion boasts strength, stamina, flexibility and blinding speed. Widely regarded as the fastest fighter in the sport, he makes his first title defence on January 26 (US time) against cheeky Ultimate Fighter alumnus John Dodson.
Johnson and Dodson have a lot in common. They are identical in height and weight. Both men starred in high school wrestling. Both were creditable distance runners as youths. Both have quicksilver hands, and footwork that would make Fred Astaire gasp. Both fighters had to slug away against bigger men as bantamweights before the UFC installed the 125-pound class.
When BigPond Sport catches up with Johnson, he is in the bleachers watching his wife Destiny's little brother Tony wrestling. It isn't every 12-year-old who has a world champ cheering him on from the stands.
Typical of one of the sport’s gentlemen, he does not have a bad word to say about Dodson. "The same as with all of my opponents; I'm looking for a great fight," he says. "Any fight that I finish healthy without getting hurt is a good fight for me. I always train for a five-round fight. You never know, it could end in the first round or the third round, but one of my strengths is cardio and I always train hard.
"He (Dodson) is super-athletic, he likes to fight and people know he is fast, but it’s not all about the speed." Johnson accepts that they seem closely matched in hand- and foot-speed, but "I'm not sure about his wrestling – we'll have to find out."
What Dodson has and Johnson lacks is knockout power. Only three of Demetrious's 16 wins have come via KO or TKO, whereas Dodson has twice as many knockout victories. Neither man has ever been stopped, so it is valid to consider that Johnson will have a good chance of taking Dodson's power, especially since he took everything heavy-handed Damacio Page threw at him in their slugfest two years ago. Johnson has also proved that he has five-round endurance, and his pressure is relentless.
Dodson is on record as saying, "Demetrious might be a little bit faster than me, but I can cancel that out with the power I possess. Me and Mighty Mouse are going to put on a tremendous show."
The last point is interesting: the UFC is backing its smallest fighters by making the title fight the headline act of UFC on Fox. The card includes big names like Rampage Jackson, Clay Guida and Ryan Bader, and a much-anticipated fight between Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis, but Johnson-Dodson tops the bill. This is a necessary corrective to the ignorance of those fans who devalue fighters in the lowest weight divisions, and the reason why the combatants are aware of needing to not just win, but to do so in spectacular fashion.
Johnson is a smart operator who pays microscopic attention to diet and preparation. Unlike many fighters, he believes in brutally hard conditioning work, but is not a fan of hard sparring. "You have to spar smart, not spar hard," he says. "It’s about doing the right thing by your body and being focussed. Some fighters train very hard and incur injuries in training camp. There is no way you can train easier, but you can train smarter."
Just being in the octagon means Johnson has triumphed over heavy odds. He was born prematurely and brought up in a poor area of Washington State. He has never known who his father is. His stepfather was a brute who beat him and made him stand in the corner with his arms in the air for hours on end as a punishment. His mother, who is deaf, moved her children away when DJ was seven. Even when he took up fighting, he worked 40 hours a week at a construction/recycling plant, then trained three hours a night on top of that. This regimen continued until he fought Dominick Cruz for the UFC Bantamweight strap just over a year ago.
Now he is a full-time fighter, guided by celebrated coach Matt Hume in the gym and supported by Destiny at home. "For me, my upbringing is part of life," he tells us. "I’m not ashamed of it, I’m just proud that I came out okay and I’m doing well with my life now."
The man who defeated Miguel Torres despite fighting the last two rounds with a broken leg; the guy who started running laps of the school at Grade Two until he logged 100 miles in lunchtime efforts; the guy who has been knocked for being too small – his life is great now, and will only get better with each title match. You sense that he views John Dodson as another stepping stone on a long quest to be the best he can be.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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