'Mighty Mouse' looks to become first UFC flyweight champion
Demetrious Johnson was pondering his career path when the call came.
The Seattle-area fighter known as "Mighty Mouse" went on an impressive run in the UFC's bantamweight division, which culminated last October in a title shot against champion Dominick Cruz.
At 5-foot-3, Johnson was a natural flyweight who had given his all against bigger fighters, but he was mentally preparing to get back in line after coming out on the wrong end of a unanimous decision against the champ.
Then his phone lit up with a call from his boss.
"Dana White called and told me they were adding a flyweight division, they were having a tournament, and Joseph [Benavidez] and I were in it with the other names to be added later," Johnson said in a phone interview Wednesday. "And I said 'Cool. It's on.' I'm 5-3, now I don't have to fight guys who are 5-11 anymore."
Like that, Johnson had a new direction, a path which leads to a bout with Benavidez to crown the UFC's first 125-pound champion. The fight will be the co-feature at UFC 152 in Toronto, which is headlined by Jon Jones' light heavyweight title defense against Vitor Belfort.
"It was like, OK, I'll just keep on fighting and make another run at the title," Johnson said. "That's what I do."
If it seems like you've seen a lot of "Mighty Mouse," you have. Since Sept. 30, 2010, when he defeated Nick Pace in a WEC bantamweight bout, Johnson has fought seven times. The Benavidez match will mark his eighth fight in just under two years.
While we haven't combed over every fighter on the Zuffa roster in that span, if Johnson isn't the company's single most active fighter, he's got to be close to it. And that's precisely how he wants it.
"I think it's two things, man," said Johnson, who quit his job as a warehouse forklift operator a year ago to pursue MMA full-time. "One, that's the way I like it. And two, it's just sort of worked out that way."
"I'm 26 years old," he continued. "I can recover faster when I'm young, so it's good to get four fights a year in now. I'm able to get financially stable early. The older you get, the longer it takes to recover, so when I'm 36 years old and I can only fight two fights a year, I won't be grinding away trying to make ends meet."
Those are the benefits outside of competition. Then there's the unmistakable improvement Johnson has shown in the cage. The 2010 victory over Pace in suburban Denver was the show's curtain-jerker; now he's getting ready for a chance to leave his mark on UFC history. Johnson is 5-1-1 over the past two years, with his only loss coming to Cruz.
"The more time you get in the octagon, the more comfortable you're going to be in there," he said. "I hate the canvas of the octagon. I wish it had a wrestling mat on there, where you can grip more. Nothing prepares you for that. The more time you're in a fight in there, the more used to it you get. Look at [Michael] Bisping, how much time he's spent in the octagon and how he's way more comfortable than I'll ever be."
Those fight minutes logged have benefited Johnson in another way. "Mighty Mouse" had to fight an extra bout in the UFC's bantamweight tourney. Originally slated to be a four-man, single-elimination tournament, Johnson was announced a decision winner over Ian McCall in a semifinal matchup on March 3, only to later find out there was a scoring error and the bout was in fact a draw. That necessitated a rematch on June 8, which Johnson won via unanimous decision.
The upside? This gave Johnson (15-2-1) another chance to get the cut to 125 pounds down pat. For the first McCall fight, Johnson went on a carb-free diet and noticeably slowed in the third round. The second time out, Johnson was smarter about eating complex carbs, and says it showed when he caught his second wind in the final round and sealed a clear-cut decision victory.
"There's always room for improvement, I mean, the body isn't supposed to operate like this, you know?" said Johnson, who said he was at a well-hydrated 140 pounds with 17 days left before the fight. "But having that extra chance to get used to the process was a side benefit, especially when you're facing a guy like Joseph."
In Benavidez (16-2), Johnson will face another fighter tailor-made for 125 pounds. Like Johnson, Benavidez thrived against bigger men when competing at 135. His two career losses also came to champion Cruz. In their first bout, Benavidez came one round away on two scorecards from lifting Cruz's then-WEC title, the closest anyone has come to dethroning the champ.
It's an interesting stylistic matchup. Benavidez is a more powerful wrestler, but Johnson has more speed and has relentlessly drilled his wrestling. Johnson is a more polished striker, but Benavidez showed power in knocking out Yasuhiro Urushitani in his flyweight tourney semifinal bout on March 3.
Johnson acknowledged the bout is something of a stylistic Rubik's Cube.
"We're both equally good," said Johnson. "It's like when I fought Ian McCall. There's no distinct advantage. I've just focused on hardcore training more than on any one aspect of the game. He's a high-caliber guy and there's no one thing either of us can point to and claim a clear-cut advantage. I'm just looking to go into this mentally prepared and strong."
The spoils for the winner includes not just the championship, but a place in mixed martial arts history. Whoever takes the gold also gets his name etched as the first flyweight champion, forever a trivia question alongside the likes of debut heavyweight champion Mark Coleman and first lightweight kingpin Jens Pulver.
But Johnson claims he isn't thinking about such things at the moment. When you've fought eight times in two years, it starts blurring together.
"I mean, sometimes I catch myself thinking about it, but not too often," he said. "Regardless of the circumstances and regardless of the outcome, it's just another fight. The same thing happens in this fight which happens every time out. If I said to myself, 'Oh God, this is the biggest fight of my life,' I'm going to go in all jittery and nervous. If I treat it like just another fight, I'm going to go in smooth and fluid. You'll see on Sept. 22."