ALBUQUERQUE -- The happiest fighter at Jackson/Winkeljohn's MMA is the one who grew up in a single-parent home in a neighborhood called War Zone, rejected his first offer to join a gang by the fourth grade, found himself with a rope around his neck, hogtied by teammates unsure of what to make of the half Black-half Filipino kid who arrived at their country school on the outskirts of Albuquerque.
And yet, John Dodson is, as Jackson/Winkeljohn coach Chris Luttrell notes, "I've never seen him have a bad day."
Standing just 5-feet-3 inches tall, Dodson's oversized personality emerges in everything from his Cookie Monster pajama pants paired with the Super Grover T-shirt he wears in public, to his video game and Japanese anime obsessions; to his marathon training sessions in the cage. "Watching him is like drinking six Red Bulls," Coach Mike Winkeljohn remarked recently as he watched a Dodson wrestling session. He is a walking, flipping, grappling, striking testament to the notion that happiness is not a byproduct of one's circumstances but a choice in each of them.
It's an attitude that's helped propel Dodson (14-5-0) to his Jan. 26 flyweight championship bout in Chicago against Washington's Demetrious Johnson (16-2-1). The contest pits a fighter nicknamed Mighty Mouse (Johnson) against a former Chuck E. Cheese (Dodson) and features the two fastest athletes in the UFC. "We're mirror images of each other," says Dodson, 28. Like Johnson did when he won the inaugural flyweight belt last September, Dodson capitalizes on his dominating speed to toy with opponents. He's ripped through the contender circuit for a title shot with just three fights to his credit, including his victory in The Ultimate Fighter Season 14 finale. The speed of Dodson's reflexes are matched only by the rate of his ascent.
The notion that Dodson rose through the ranks at breakneck speed, however, overlooks Dodson's lengthy and impressive record as a self-described "bully-beater-upper" while growing up in Albuquerque's War Zone -- a neighborhood beset by high rates of violence and drug and low rates of pay and education. The streets outside of The Continental apartment complex where John and his younger brother, Eric, lived with their mother, Esperanza, had been claimed by gangs like the Surenos and the 30s.
Each gang patrolled the streets, looking for new members. John and Eric seemed like ideal recruits. The boys often came home to an empty apartment because Esperanza shuttled from her job managing a McDonald's and a Sizzler restaurant to working shifts at a nearby convenience store, trying to provide for her family. The boys left scuffmarks on the family's kitchen counters when they climbed atop them to reach the kitchen counters for dishes to make themselves HotPockets or other fine fare. Though Esperanza might not have been able to give her boys as much time as she wanted, she gave them all the structure they needed.
In her absence, her boys played soccer, the perfect athletic showcase for their speed, agility and heart. Neighborhood gangbangers, often on the sidelines supporting children in their own families, recognized the hallmarks of an ideal pledge in John. After a soccer game, older brothers and cousins of a teammate approached him with a proposition: Join our gang and we'll offer you family. Dodson was no older than 10.
"I remember constantly telling everyone no because I had other things to do," says Dodson. "I had to make sure I had food cooked. Make sure that my brother and I were good, well off. And I had to make sure all my homework was done. Those were the things that were more important to me cause I wanted my mom to sit there and be happy and proud."
But gangbangers handle rejection about as well as Lance Armstrong handles truth. Dodson's friends soon found themselves bruised and bloodied because of John's refusals, prompting John and Eric to tag-team as the neighborhood "bully-beater-uppers," roughing up those who hurt John's friends. The fights didn't escape Esperanza's attention. While they concerned her, she was terrified by instances like when a guy showed up at her door trying to sell a gun to her kids, or the time the neighbors lit their apartment on fire, or the occasions when the guy downstairs seemed a little too interested in hanging out with her boys. With little money but plenty of resolve, Esperanza moved her boys out of the city to Edgewood, a town 40 miles east of the city that might as well have been a world away.
Moriarty High serves rural communities like Edgewood and places like it, where plenty of the student population still bales hay on family ranches, wears Wranglers and cowboy boots, and rounds up steer before homeroom. Many of them, as John discovered in his first days as the new kid in school, are also adept at lassoing.
While in class one day, Dodson felt his neck whip backwards, then the force and prickle of a rope tightening around his airway. One of the senior members of the football team was holding the other end of the rope, and dragging Dodson backwards. The senior then hogtied his freshman teammate and left him on the floor for everyone to see.
Dodson would be trashcanned and shot at with paintballs on a regular basis for reasons that became apparent the day Eric sat at the edge of a wrestling mat watching his brother. A teammate's parent took a shoelace and fashioned a noose. The father swung it in front of Eric, saying, "This is how we used to deal with them darkies."
"The first semester was the worst semester of my life," Dodson says. "It was all those cowboys and stuff they didn't like me too much because of my personality. When they first see me, they always think I'm too energetic or that I'm fake because I'm always happy."
But, in typical Dodson fashion, he could take a punch."Just because they hate me wasn't going to make me change my personality because they don't like me. Just because they don't understand."
He bonded with classmate Ryan Gomez over video games, and midway through his freshman wrestling season, convinced his teammates that "I wasn't this d-bag from the city." His tormentors-turned-teammates stopped seeing him as a skin color or threat to them on the depth chart and began seeing his seemingly-unlimited athletic abilities. He won two consecutive wrestling state titles and helped the Moriarty Pintos to a state title in track. By graduation, Dodson earned a bounty of scholarship offers in football, wrestling and track.
Dodson, however, told all the coaches calling the same thing he'd told the bangers recruiting him for their gangs: No. "I didn't want to have my scholarship based on my athletic performances," he says. Plus, he says, he was in a hurry to be an adult.
For Dodson, adulthood began, in all places, at a Chuck E. Cheese. While studying for his computer science and engineering degree at the University of New Mexico, Dodson worked at the themed-restaurant as everything from the manager to dressing up to Chuck E. himself, doing backflips in the mouse suit to entertain his pint-sized customers. But on a Saturday nine years ago, Dodson worked as a birthday party host for a four-year-old named Jack Luttrell, whose father, Chris, worked as both a police officer and coach at Jackson/Winkeljohn's MMA.
As Dodson brought out pizzas to Jack's guests, some state police officers who stopped by Moriarty High on quiet nights to watch athletic events, recognized the birthday host. When the cops asked Dodson at which college he was wrestling, Dodson told them nowhere. The cops then yanked Chris to their table and told them of Dodson's past.
Dodson noticed Luttrell's cauliflower ears -- a product of the cop's past as a wrestler at the University of New Mexico -- while Luttrell took note of Dodson's still-muscular frame. What started as a conversation about their wrestling histories ended with a discussion about Dodson's future and invitation from Luttrell to visit Jackson's gym.
Dodson hesitated. Cagefighting didn't exactly seem like the quickest path to earning what he wanted most: his mother's pride. But Luttrell stated his case. "If you don't like it you can go ahead and do whatever you want with your life and go back to your normal things," Luttrell told him. "And if you do, we've got a spot for you on the team."
The following Saturday Dodson arrives at Jackson/Winkeljohn's looking for the coach whom Lutrell described as a bald-headed white guy. In the gym's cage, he saw a man fitting Lutrell's description, shadow sparing, a massive man with a thick, blonde goatee. Dodson stood staring, transfixed. "That must be the coach and if I ever spar with him, he's going to beat me up," he said to himself. But as he stood and stared, a shorter, bald-headed white guy rounded the corner with a genial smile and a welcoming, "Hi boss, Chris Lutrell says great things about you." Dodson exhaled. The giant shadow sparer, the real Greg Jackson told him, was none other than Keith Jardine.
From the first practice, Dodson demonstrated his speed and strength, earning a spot on the team. "He has just this incredible training session," Luttrell says, remembering Dodson showing up for both the morning and evening training sessions at the gym. He soon added striking and juijitsu to his already strong wrestling base.
By November 2004, Dodson and Luttrell were on a plane bound for Japan for Dodson's professional debut. "I was brought in to lose," Dodson says. He tangled with a much more seasoned Yasuhiro Urishitani and knocked him out. When the judges returned the scores, Urishitani's hand was raised, yet Lutrell couldn't have been more proud. "It was just amazing," Luttrell says. "I remember coming home and telling Greg this kid is something special. He's going to be a champion. . . John kept his composure like a veteran."
When they returned stateside, Dodson doubled down on his training and Luttrell discovered he'd have to double down on his coaching, too. During strength and conditioning workouts, Luttrell says, "I have to handicap him. I might give them extra weight. He's so athletic. It's kinda crazy coaching him. I'm a conditioning coach for the fighters and I have to handicap him. He's so strong and so athletic that I might give the other guys 10 reps but I have to put extra weight on him and have him do 20 reps."
Dodson will be counting on that level of conditioning when he jumps into the cage against Johnson, his fastest opponent to date. Dodson's sparing partner Nick Urso has felt Dodson's growth as a fighter firsthand. "He punched me in the torso and I bruised right away," he says with pride.
A win against Johnson would be a major step towards Dodson's ultimate goal: Holding a title in three different weight classes. Despite the goals, fighting is still very much about the process for Dodson. "Every time I'm fighting, I feel happy and excited like nothing else matters to me at that point in time," he says. "Just them hitting me, me hitting them, going back and forth, that's when I feel alive. It doesn't matter what's going on, who's winning, who's losing. I'm just happy." That attitude, of course, is why, in many respects, Dodson has already won his biggest fight of all: Life.