Q&A: Demetrious Johnson Ready to Win Gold in ONE Championship

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Demetrious Johnson makes his return to the cage on Wednesday for ONE Championship. One of the most dominant fighters in MMA history, Johnson (30–3–1) challenges Adriano Moraes for the ONE flyweight championship, fighting in Singapore on ONE’s debut card on TNT.

Moraes (18–3) has won five of his last six bouts, but he has never met a fighter the caliber of Johnson. Johnson has captured 16 of his past 17, and he is the greatest flyweight champion in UFC history. He has brought his talents to ONE, capturing his first three fights, and now seeks to further cement his legacy by capturing another flyweight title.

Before the fight, Johnson spoke with Sports Illustrated, discussing staying hungry in spite of all his past success, the decision to leave UFC for ONE and his upcoming fight.

Sports Illustrated: The question of who is the greatest of all time is a never-ending debate. To me, being the greatest is not what defines you as a mixed martial artist. In addition to all the victories, the staples of your career are discipline, dedication, making weight, staying drug-free. It would be easier just to coast off your wins, but you have always focused on your journey, always seeking self-improvement. How have you kept such a sharp mentality?

Demetrious Johnson: I think back to my last sparring session. I kept making mistakes. They were minor, but they were mistakes. So I went through my five rounds, and even though I was making those mistakes, I was still finishing my opponent. After I got through, I spoke with my coach about the parts I missed, and he pointed out a couple things, too.

Our focus is making the best Demetrious Johnson possible, as an athlete and mixed martial artist. I am dedicated to this sport. I love it. It’s my passion; it’s my job. I expect to make weight every single time, I expect to pass every single drug test because I don’t do drugs. I don’t look at it as being the greatest of all time; I look at it as being dedicated to my craft.

SI: You successfully defended the UFC flyweight champion on 11 consecutive occasions. At this point in your career, are you able to appreciate your accomplishments? Or are you too focused on the present to look back at the past?

DJ: It’s a little bit of both. I appreciate it, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to keep on competing and show I’m the best in the world. Right now, I don’t have time to look back on it. When I’m at the gym, or when I’m with my wife or my kids, we’re not talking about my accomplishments. That’s not driving me when I walk in the house. That’s part of the reason I haven’t taken the time to appreciate it.

SI: Your wife is such an integral part of your success. What has she meant to you throughout your career?

DJ: Our marriage is a partnership. When I’m in training camp, it’s like my wife is in training camp, too. Destiny is the secret to my success. I love her and I am very grateful to have her in my life.

SI: Looking back at your first fight against Joseph Benavidez back in 2012, when you won the UFC flyweight championship, you had everything to prove. Today, at the age of 34, you have repeatedly reached the pinnacle of your profession. How do you continue to stay so sharp, both physically and mentally?

DJ: I’m a competitor. That’s my DNA. I’m not here to collect a check, either. I am here to be the best I can possibly be. I’m here to test myself and push myself to be the best in the world. I’ve fought my entire life, and that’s how it will always be.

SI: After a dominating run in UFC, you now get to showcase yourself in ONE, another global brand. What went into your decision to fight outside of the UFC?

DJ: I took a leap of faith not fighting under the UFC banner and taking my brand to another organization, one that has more love for the lighter weight divisions. Now I get the chance to fight in front of fans in Asia. It was a huge step, but I am grateful that I did it.

Going over to Asia and competing, to me, it’s dope. You look at the great athletes in our time in mixed martial arts, like Fedor [Emelianenko], Shogun [Maurício Rua], [Mirko] Cro Cop, even Rampage [Quinton] Jackson, Chuck Liddell, Vitor Belfort, these are fighters that have fought all over the world. Now it’s my time to do the same thing. I’ve built my brand in North America, and now it’s time to build my brand in Asia.

SI: I remember being disappointed when you parted ways with the UFC, and a fight against Deiveson Figueiredo would have been especially compelling. But in other ways, this was the best move for you. You’re always seeking new challenges, and there are so many with your schedule alone in ONE, especially the travel and the adjustment in sleep schedule.

DJ: Don’t get me wrong, I miss going to Vegas. It was a three-hour flight, and that is beautiful. This is definitely a challenge—getting adjusted to the time zone, getting adjusted to the food, the culture. For this fight, we’re fighting off the American time zone. That’s the opposite when I fly to Japan or Manila and fight off the local time. For this fight, I’ll stay on the American time zone since we’re fighting on TNT.

I’m really looking forward to this fight in Singapore. It’s my first fight since 2019; it’s been too long. I have my jump rope and my ankle weights to keep me company in my hotel room, and I can’t wait to compete.

SI: Your pacing and in-fight psychology are so elite. You are so experienced, so seasoned, you never panic. Why was there a specific point during your career when you felt like you reached another level?

DJ: The development of my pacing, my IQ and my technique came over time. That’s a result of being with the same coach and the same team. When I get in a tough situation in a fight, I don’t get scared. I’ve been there before in training. I’ve had the best in the world on my back in the gym, so I am comfortable in these situations.

And in terms of a moment, I don’t know if there was one. I put myself in this position. I drove myself to the gym every single day when I was 18 years old to learn how to do mixed martial arts. It wasn’t my destiny. I made choices to get where I am at today through dedication, hard work and support from my family, community and teammates.

SI: You mention that this was not destiny, and I agree—your success is a testament to your drive. Nothing was handed to you. You did this your way, making something great where there was nothing.

DJ: As a father, that’s a discussion for later on in life to share with my children. I’m still in the midst of the battle, in the midst of the journey. When I sit down with my children as they get older, we can discuss my drive and my motivation, especially because I came from nothing.

SI: Is there any flyweight in the world that can beat you?

DJ: I think everybody in the world is beatable. Every champion in any organization, everyone can be beat. It’s up to the opponent to not make those mistakes and impose his will.

SI: What should we expect to see in your fight against Moraes?

DJ: I’m looking to go out there and impose my will, put on a great fight and showcase my dominance.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.