Demetrious Johnson, UFC's top pound-for-pound fighter, talks about life, his job and more
- A quest for a $1 million payday keeps Demetrious Johnson motivated as he pursues a record for successful title defenses.
Ronda Rousey may or may not fight again. Conor McGregor may or may not get in a ring with Floyd Mayweather. The light heavyweight fight between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier may or may not live up to the billing and the bile.
But here’s a UFC topic that triggers little debate: the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game is Demetrious Johnson. The flyweight champ has defended his belt 10 times, and counting. When Johnson fights next—potentially this summer in Seattle, his base of operations—it will be to break Anderson Silva’s UFC record of successful title defenses.
An actual UFC belt weights roughly 15 pounds, which means that Johnson’s eleven accessories outweigh the fighter himself. And this can be problematic. As in boxing, in MMA, the lighter the fighter, the lighter the celebrity. It doesn’t help that Johnson doesn’t have the look-at-me gene. He won’t gratuitously trash opponents. He doesn’t get arrested. You won’t catch him in a kilt or wearing a ridiculous wool hat. Even his nickname is shaky: “Mighty Mouse” was conferred more because of his prominent ears than his superhero powers.
Johnson, though, offers plenty. There’s his peerlessly versatile fighting and his footwork. He has a standout backstory, as the son of a deaf mother, an absentee father and a highly austere stepfather, who persevered. He’s smart and savvy and a relentlessly straight shooter. As champion, he doesn’t need attention. He just wants to be paid, dammit.
With some light editing for clarity, herewith some outtakes from a recent sparring session:
JW: What does this title defense—and the record that would come with it—mean to you realistically? There's the right answer and...
Demetrious Johnson: ...there's a wrong answer. Wrong answer: it doesn't mean everything, because I could lose. But I do want this really bad 'cause I want to have the most. So that means a lot. I hope it's my biggest payout. I've been satisfied myself when I see a big check.
I want this super bad. But in reality I could lose. I could get knocked out, I could get finished. So I can't really express my feelings on how much it will mean to me.
JW: That's an interesting way to look at it. If you say it means the world to you, are you setting yourself up for potential disappointment or abject failure?
DJ: Yeah, absolutely. You know, people say, I visualize myself at this point. I visualize myself losing most of the time just because I've seen so many champions lose, and they don't know how to take it. Their whole world is upside down Oh, my God, what am I going to do?
You look at Ronda Rousey. You got your ass beat, grow the f--- up. It happens. It's mixed martial arts. I don't want to be like that. If I lose, I'll be like, I lost.
JW: With Ronda, someone should just sit her down and say, “Look, everyone in the sport has tasted defeat.”
DJ: Yeah, everybody has. Everybody f---ing loses. It's part of the sport. Grow up. Look, Ronda, you lost two f---ing fights in a row, and you made more f---ing money than the women's roster. You'll be fine, don't worry about it.
JW: For you, it's been, what—
DJ: Five or six and a half years, yeah, when I lost.
JW: People say, I'm never forgetting the feeling of losing. Do you have a relationship with defeat?
DJ: I've had that. When I had that feeling is when I fought Brad Pickett, and I never thought I could ever lose. That was back in 2010 when I broke my hand and I lost. I cried and I cried. Then I was like, I'm never going to feel that again. Then when I lost to [Dominick Cruz], I cried a little bit. I was like, It's part of life, you're going to f---ing lose, I'm over it. I came home and nothing changed. Nothing changed. Nobody said, You f---ing suck, blah, blah, blah. When I started to win, nothing still changed. The only thing that changed is people started to recognize me more. So now that's my mindset. Somebody came to me and told me:
“You know what I love about you?”
“The outcome of your fights never dictates the person you are.”
JW: How big a deal is going up one weight class?
DJ: It's not a big deal. But every single time I've had injuries, it's always been at 135. I've broken my leg at 135, broken my rib at 135, broke my hand at 135. Had labrum surgery after all my fights at 135. It's not a big deal, but it's the principle. Everybody said, “You need to go do a super-fight.” I'm not looking for an extra $100,000, $200,000. I want a seven-figure payday guaranteed.
DJ: Pay-Per-View is run by drama. It is. It's true. I've done the research for myself. You look at Jon Jones. When Jon Jones fought Machida, probably did about $200,000, $300,000. When he fought Cormier, they made, like, $875,000.
JW: That's because they're beefing?
DJ: It's drama. They're beefing. Pay-Per-View buys, it's nice, don't get me wrong. If you get Conor or Ronda you're going to hit at least a million buys, you're going to cash out. But those guys aren't fighting as often as I do. They don't need to because they make that type of money.
JW: This is not your constitution, it's not your personality?
DJ: It's not. It never has been. It never will be. I talk trash on video games. I'm going to beat you at this game. That's it. I don't like to disrespect people or my opponents. Anything can happen.
JW: You ever fought with personal animus?
DJ: No, never have.
JW: What is your origin story? I'm always interested about how people land in this sport.
DJ: Wrestled in high school. And after my state competition as a senior, I didn't even do track. I was like, I'm done. I have no desire to do track. I wasn't going to go to college and wrestle because there was no money in it. I don't see any collegiate wrestlers making thousands of dollars. I stopped. I just enjoyed being a normal kid for three months out of the year. Then went home. Was going to college. I started lifting weights, just stayed in shape. I remember an MMA fighter was hitting a bag on a hill going up. So I saw that, and I was like, “You know what, that seems like a cool thing to do, work out.” I didn't care about fighting each other and beating each other. I just liked how they worked out. So I went to the gym, started hitting a bag. A guy I used to wrestle with in high school, I wrestled with one of his teammates. He was like, Hey, man, do you want to do mixed martial arts?
I said, Sure. I signed up at the gym, started training, taking my classes. That's how it went.
JW: You weren't one of these guys who was 10 years old, watching the old Tank Abbott tapes, UFC tapes?
DJ: I didn't even see the old UFC tapes. I grew up in a household without a father. My mom, we didn't watch mixed martial arts, didn't watch basketball. Didn't watch much sports at all. I've always loved working out. That's how it kind of got me into that way.
JW: Did you have a job while you were training?
DJ: Oh, yeah. I worked a full-time job at a place call Caraustar. We recycle paper, then through recycled paper, we take it and we make V board out of it. If you buy a TV, a new couch, you see these little V boards that make like a V.
JW: You hear these stories all the time, ‘I used to work in a shoe store, but I would leave and train.’ What is that mentality like?
DJ: For me, it was just a release from the day-to-day grind. It reminded me of wrestling. I wasn't training to become a full-time fighter. I did it because I wanted to.
JW: You never thought, Man, if I win this next one...
DJ: No, I never thought I would quit and become a world champion and all that stuff. It's funny, because when I get the call, my coach would call me. Hey, man, WEC wants to know if you'll fight this date. They say, “Your first pay is going to be three thousand to fight, three thousand to win, it's going to be six grand. Can you make the fight?”
I'm like, “I got to see if I can get a day off from work.”
Anybody else would be like: F---, yeah, this is my dream, I want to do it. I'm following my passion, blah, blah, blah.
Your dreams can lead you down a very dark road, my friend. I wasn't oblivious to that. I live in reality.
JW: When did you stop having to ask your boss?
DJ: When I was getting ready to fight for the world title against Dominick Cruz.
JW: He was cool about it?
DJ: He was cool. I told him, “If you are not going to give me the day off, I won't fight.” He goes, “I would fire you if you don't fight.”
I said, “I'm just being honest. This is a consistent paycheck that I'm going to get every single f---ing week.” …That's why I always worked full-time.
People say, you're a professional fighter, you made it.
You're not getting the big bucks when you first start off. Even now you make 10 and 10, you lose your fight, 10 grand minus 40%, you got $6,000. Let's say you got a mortgage, people, training, you [take home] four grand from that fight and you're a professional athlete. Does that make f---ing sense? You know, that's why I tell my kids they're not going to fight.
JW: You tell your kids they're not going to fight?
DJ: They're two and three. I'm fighting so you don't have to fight. I don't want them to go through all that stuff. When you break down the numbers, you look at it this way, it's brutal.
JW: Where did you get this level of realism?
DJ: Life. It's being a champion. It's understanding that this is not falling in love and getting googley-eyed with all the lights and glamour. It's understanding the sheer will of stuff.
People say,”‘Look at all this money.” Five years later, Yeah, “I'm broke. Didn't pay my taxes. Ended up in jail. Trying to live up this persona, lifestyle, so people will like me.” You know, that's the realism right there.
JW: What do you know about your past?
DJ: So I know nothing about my past as a child. Like where I come from, what was my mom and dad's relationship was like, what was it like.
I grew up with my mom. In fact I get asked, “What type of mom was your mom?” Well, she made sure I had a meal every night. My mom didn't have a car. We were poor. I needed cleats? We'd jump on the bus, the 55, go down by Red Lobster, by Sports Authority, get my sneakers, go back home.
My wrestling shoes? Make those wrestling shoes last. I met a guy a couple months ago. He goes, I can't believe, man, you made it this big. I remember you wrestling in high school, you had holes in your f---ing shoes. Motherf---ers lasted. I couldn't afford them.
JW: I think when people have these challenging upbringings in sports, I think we make this leap: That's what makes them so tough, that's where they get their mental toughness.
DJ: I think what gets my mental capacity, I grew up, I never knew my father. Single household, my mom. She was deaf. We had to go to my father's, my stepdad's house. He was military. So he was very [strict]. Ever since then I've always had like a tough mentality about it. You know, no other man is going to f---ing break me.
JW: You don't romanticize it? I hated it then but he made me the man I am now?
DJ: No. I think I'm happy that I didn't grow up knowing my real father. For me, what makes you so tough? I don't f---ing stop. I know what I want. I want money. How I'm going to get the money is by my athletic ability. How do I keep my athletic ability good? Keep on training, stay smart, learn all that stuff. You know, this is how I make my living. My coach says the best thing about me is I see this sport as my job, not as a dream.
JW: You're not doing this to get Twitter followers?
DJ: To get Twitter followers or all this stuff. This is literally how I pay my bills. I know the big checks are going to stop coming one day. Until then, I'm going to make it, save it, then when I'm all done, Thank you, part ways. I pretty much put 35% away of all my earnings in retirement accounts, 35%.
[Sees questioner staring at watch]
This is a $36,000 watch? Do you know how I got this watch? I saved all my per diems for three years from the UFC.
JW: That's your meal money right there?
DJ: That's my meal money right here. Guys go out and buy a watch like this off of their win purse, all that stuff. All the money I make, I throw it right in the bank. My goal is to, after I'm done fighting, my house is paid off, everything is paid off. I should make enough off my interest and all my investments that I shouldn't have to work a day in my life. My main goal is until after I'm done fighting, I shouldn't have to worry about a thing. I should get a check every month from my investments and all my retirement, $8,000 a month.
JW: That's your nut right there?
DJ: That's my nut right there. Then cut my expenses, my costs, all that stuff. I'm a frugal guy. So that's my money set.
So when I see these guys, you know, buying f---ing Bentleys, all that stuff. Maybe they can. Maybe they have an $8 million purse. If you get an $8 million purse, you can buy cars. That's f---ing chump change. I'm not getting those purses.
JW: That's your impulse purchase on your wrist—
DJ: I like watches. I like expensive watches. I like expensive clothes. These are Hudson jeans. They're like $200, but I wait for them to go on sale for $90 bucks. I drive a BMW. Got it used, preowned. There are guys who I beat up in my division, he had Gucci f---ing sneakers. Tyron [Woodley] was like, Dude, you whooped his ass three times, he's got f---ing Gucci sneakers on, you're here rocking Reeboks.
I don't care.
JW: What's your reaction when you see, like, Al Iaquinta just maul Diego Sanchez? How do you react to that?
DJ: Like f---. It's a very brutal sport. When I watch it, it's very—I love it, but I also don't like the sheer will of people getting beat up, then not being taken care of. So, for example, I was there for Rory MacDonald versus Robbie Lawler. I'll never forget. Everyone was like, Oh, my God. I was shaking my head. I hope they f---ing take care of him, I sure do. Believe it or not, he lost years off his life.
JW: You don't mean his fighting life either. You mean his life, life?
DJ: Yeah, I mean, life. When I see guys going in there, “I want to slug it out, do this.” I'm like, Why? Why do that? Stupid.
If you're fighting someone that is way better than you, boxing, take his ass down. Or if this guy is way down on the ground, stand up on your feet.
I come from a background I'm efficient everywhere. It's not hard for me to watch the fights. But I'm already thinking about life after fighting, if that makes sense.
JW: What do you mean?
DJ: Dana [White] always says, “If you're not thinking about fighting 100%, you should be out of it.” I'm like, Hey, guess what? I'm not getting paid enough. I mean, I am, but you have to think life after that.
JW: They're asking us to commit ourselves. It's a physical price, it's an emotional price—
DJ: That's right. People say: [Go to] bantamweight, you need to challenge yourself. I will do that if you pay me enough. But if you don't want to pay me, then don't talk about it. I'm not bitching and complaining. I'm happy to stay at 125 and keep beating people up.
JW: Right, speculating about how you would fare at 135. That's what you mean by super fight?
DJ: Yeah. Fighting Cody Garbrandt, or T.J. Dillishaw or Dominick Cruz. I would do that. I never said I wouldn't. UFC just won't pay me what I'm asking for. Never been scared. People are like, “Oh, he's scared to fight me because he won't take the fight.” Yeah, because I don't want to get paid f---ing $400,000 a fight when I know I can get $1 million.
JW: The flipside is: you won't let yourself become a cartoon character?
DJ: No, I won't.
JW: Put on a devil's mask, call someone out.
DJ: No, it's just not who I am. If I want to do that, I'll go into acting, okay?
JW: Are the fighters talking about the same stuff the fans are talking about?
JW: Not Conor McGregor is fighting Mayweather!
DJ: No. We're talking about how we can make as much money as possible.
JW: What do you think of it?
DJ: Conor and Floyd thing, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I'm not sitting here getting hyped up until I know they're both together. I'd rather see Mayweather fight the winner of Canelo [Alvarez] and Triple G. And I’d rather see Conor defend his belt. You have a dude who is champion, full blown, healthy as f---, who is not defending his belt? So that's the thing. This is where I have the evil side of the sport. Remember how we were talking about reality and realism?
JW: Just clocking in?
DJ: Just clocking in, clocking out.
JW: You got 10 more years?
DJ: I got five. If I'm fighting 10 years from now, I didn't make enough money in the UFC. That's my philosophy. Five or six more years, I'm ready to move on. I'm already starting to work on my exit plan.
JW: Apart from it's lucrative—you have financial goals—surely fighting is still feeding something
DJ: I think my financial goals outweigh, like, my other goals.
JW: Like thirst for competition?
DJ: Thirst for competition, f---. I get tested every time I fight Matt [Hume, Johnson’s coach]. I fight him a lot. He's bigger, he challenges me. One of my financial goals is I want to have $1 million in the bank, 1,000,000. Another one of my goals is to get a $1 million paycheck, where I get a check from Zuffa LLC that says 1 and six zeroes.
JW: Two commas.
DJ: Yeah, those are my goals. People might not like this. You're money hungry. You're goddamn right I'm money hungry. I’ll still train my ass off, but, yeah, goals are goals. I want a $1 million paycheck….When I got a fight made like an extra $250,000, for discretionary stuff and I was like, “Now this is a f---ing athlete's check, $250,000 check.” But then you start seeing other guys, you know, guys who aren't even champions getting a check of $500,000 up front. “This f---er isn't even a champion, got his ass beat. How does that even make sense?”
This is before I figured out it's a marketing machine. They want to pay for people. One of the people who worked for the UFC, they said, “They just want to see bigger men fight.” My heart beats just as much as his does, asshole, so kiss my ass.
JW: You like where you are right now?
DJ: Right now I'm the greatest fighter in the f---ing UFC roster. I have never missed weight. I've never bashed my company, and said, Hey, f--- you UFC, f--- you, f--- you. Never said it to the media, IMG. I'm always on time. Never missed a fight. I'm the same person when I'm up here as I was when I was down here. That should not change.
Is it different for Ronda? When she's way up here, she's more bubbly, she's talking to people, blah, blah, blah. When she finally loses, she's down here. She doesn't give anybody the time of day, blah, blah, blah. Same thing.
So we don't know who she really is, you know what I mean? I've always kept to myself when I win my fights. I'm never going to change. When I lose, I'm never going to change.