The Working Champ
Newly minted UFC Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson worked his way to the top of the 125-pound heap—now, he’s working full-time to stay there.
Demetrious Johnson’s first job was Parkland Putters, where he swept a miniature golf course all day, sometimes pulling double-duty by mowing the owner’s lawn and cleaning up dog poop. Then it was Taco Bell, because he needed a car. Then construction, Red Lobster, a gig hanging gutters, and warehouse work.
“Mighty Mouse” has always understood hard work. Since he was 15 years old, he’s been punching a timecard in his mind, counting hours, trying to gain distance from his past. Raised by a deaf mother and an abusive stepfather, the 26-yearold fighter left his old life in suburban Washington for a better one with his new wife. The scenery is changing fast, and just beneath the surface of a sunny exterior, he’s learning to live with the roller coaster ride of his current gig—UFC Flyweight Champion.
Stubby cauliflower ears aside, Demetrious Johnson could be a greeter at Pottery Barn. Maybe it’s all those years in restaurants, but hearing his singsong greeting, you don’t know whether to smile or brace yourself for a hard sell. He was born in Madisonville, Kentucky, to a Navy-wife, and he was raised with his three siblings in a low-income section of Parkland, Washington. Yet, not a trace of harsh circumstance seems to have rubbed off.
In longer conversations, and especially around nosy reporters, Johnson is irrepressibly buoyant. The closest he ever came to thug life was a fight in the second grade over the legitimacy of professional wrestling (he won) and a series of middle school nights staying out too late. No trouble with the law. No drugs, although he did have an addiction to Nintentdo. A gangsta rap phase was suppressed with Madonna-appreciation lessons from his sister. Today, bump “You Can Dance” at a club, and don’t be surprised to see him on the dance floor.
“That could be my downfall,” says Johnson of his squeaky clean image, “because what the UFC likes is for you to make yourself marketable to them. But at the same time, I’m not going to put on a front. I’m a guy who likes to spend time with my wife, come home and play video games, go out for drinks, and that’s it.”
After a few minutes, it’s clear his Dickensian childhood won’t be a willing topic, if it even exists. Asking, though, whether he grew up in a positive environment, the man who talks like he fights—fast—stutters for an eternity. “It depends on what you want to call a positive environment.”
It was livable, he’ll say. He never knew his real father, and he had several stepfathers, one of whom used to beat him and his siblings. He didn’t know until well into his childhood that his mother was deaf—his sister told him years after their mom taught him to look her in the eyes when he spoke or bang on the wall when she was out of the room. There was always food on the table. He had his Nintendo and his brothers and sister. He can’t say it was a positive environment. It was just the one he had.
One thing is certain—from an early age, he earned his happiness. He ran every day to earn “tickets for miles” at his middle school track club—75 miles worth of tickets was a pizza party, and 100 was a gold medal. That gave him a good gas tank when he stepped on the wrestling mats in seventh grade. He ran track and cross-country, two other sports where his hustle was appreciated. At Washington High School, he placed second in the state in his senior year on the mat.
Then there were the jobs. One after another, Demetrious never stopped moving. His mom told him if he wanted something, go out and do it. At 22 years old, he discovered a purpose behind his toil while working a job with his future father-in-law.
“I sat there and watched him every single morning,” he says. “Every day, he would go out to a house and measure the gutters, and he’d write it down on a piece of paper and get out of his truck and start running the gutter. And I go, ‘Fuck, you do this every morning?’ He was like, ‘Yep, every single morning. You make life what it is. My only concern is that my wife and kids have a house to live under.’ I was like, ‘You know what? You’re fucking right.’”
The discovery of his current career seems almost happenstance. Watching TV one day in 2007, he saw Rashad Evans pushing a heavy bag up an incline on The Ultimate Fighter 2, and just like that, he decided to go out and do mixed martial arts. He started hitting the heavy bag. Then he started fighting.
He never stopped working.
Less than 10 miles from parkland at the Ram Brewery and Restaurant in Puyallup, Washington, Demetrious sits outside on a patio with his wife Destiny. The newlyweds come here when they want to unwind from an increasingly busy life as the flagship members of Team Mighty Mouse. With that saccharine lilt, he orders a lemon drop and requests sugar on the rim—as if that wasn’t already part of the deal—and she orders a blonde ale. One lemon drop later, when the f-bombs flow more freely, he worries that he’s already opened up too much.
There’s something new to protect, you see. Just 12 days ago, UFC president Dana White wrapped the inaugural UFC Flyweight Title around Demetrious’ narrow waist. Shortly after his coronation, he wiggled out of the bulky strap, hoisted it over his shoulder, and gave a hang-loose sign. One of four men tapped for a winner-take-all flyweight tournament, he endured the folly of judges, who declared his opening round fight with Ian McCall a win, only to discover later that their math didn’t add up and the bout was actually a draw that necessitated a rematch. He was dominant in that June affair, winning a unanimous decision against “Uncle Creepy.”
And yet, after seizing the biggest opportunity possible in the nascent 125-pound class, the few memories he has of that night, when at UFC 152 he fought circles around Joseph Benavidez for 25 minutes to win a split decision, are vague in the way experiences are when they haven’t fully been processed.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” he says. “To me, there’s more to life than fighting.”
The waitress puts the lemon drop in front of Destiny, who is used to this mix up, and she switches drinks with Demetrious. In high school, they were co-workers at Red Lobster—he a lovelorn alley coordinator and she a server. In the kitchen, he would crow Bubba Sparx at her (“Booty booty booty rockin’ everywhere!”) and she would sing back the Oompa Looma song from Willy Wonka. They became friends, and then they became inseparable. She’s been with him since his second amateur fight, from the days when people used to make fun of his height. When they got married in May, she let him merge their honeymoon with a training camp for his rematch with Ian McCall at UFC on FX 3. She’s also fiercely protective—At UFC 152, she wrenched him from the jaws of an aggressive fan.
“I find people coming out of the woodwork nowadays to be a part of his life, and I have to help him understand that they’re just wanting to be a part of the fame,” she says. “He comes from poverty, and I look at the way he’s worked his ass off. People in the gym used to make comments about DJ being athletic, and how that was the only reason he is where he is today. And they’re the same people who want to be a part of his life, now that he has the belt.”
These days, Destiny has taken to asking him every single morning whether he feels like the champ. She usually gets a halfhearted answer. It is
somewhat of an awkward question, after all. What does it mean to feel like a champ? And isn’t that how you feel at the end, rather than in the big middle he’s now facing? Her question, incidentally, touches on a topic that’s not so buoyant.
“I’ve accomplished something that every fi ghter wants, which is to be a UFC champion or champion in any organization,” says Demetrious. “But I started this sport as a hobby. I was working fulltime, dating full-time. I had other things going on in my mind than just, ‘I’m going to become champion.’ It has happened. But, regardless of whether I became champion or didn’t become champion, I would be doing the same things—come home, spend time with my wife, relax, go back to the gym to train, and keep getting better.”
Demetrious’ nonchalance about being the UFC Flyweight Champion is a little surprising, but when you consider that it came with a bitter aftertaste, it makes sense. Fans booed much of the title fight in which Demetrious careened around the cage as he dodged an aggressive Joseph Benavidez. Afterward, a dour Dana White told critics of the tactical engagement to shove it—he didn’t want any of their money.
At first, the champ’s emotional investment seems considerably smaller. A year ago, he was working full-time at the Caraustar warehouse in Tacoma, cutting paperboard into triangles that protect LCD TVs and subbing for the forklift driver. He says he trained MMA 15 hours a week—a trainer at the AMC Pankration gym in Kirkland said it was more like eight. It was only a title fight against UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz that convinced him to
take AMC guru Matt Hume’s advice to become a full-time fighter.
But it’s not at all that he doesn’t care. He launches into an analogy comparing the reaction to his fight to the release of Resident Evil 6. The game, he said, was bashed by reviewers, when really it just catered to a different fan base—one that included Demetrious, who thought the game was the shit.
“You can’t make everybody happy,” he says. “You look at Jon Jones, and he’s one of the people out there that’s finished every single person, and he still gets booed. I’m not stupid. Benavidez, yes, he has a lot of power, and he hits hard. But at the same time, he doesn’t move his feet very well. For me, I like to be more elusive, a guy who can get off a couple of good shots. It comes down to what the fans want to see, and obviously, they don’t want to see me move around looking good, I guess.”
Looking good and being marketable can be two different things. There are fighters in the UFC’s stable that are experts at avoiding damage. Two of most famous examples are Lyoto Machida and Cruz, who beat Demetrious in October 2011. Both have been called box-office poison, despite an obvious technical mastery inside the Octagon. Recently, Machida has finished two of his opponents (Randy Couture and Ryan Bader) in devastating fashion, and that’s largely attributed to his comfort inside the Octagon. Cruz, well, let’s just say that fans aren’t clamoring to see him return from an ACL injury.
Will Johnson get the same leeway as Machida? It’s hard to tell. His fight with Benavidez wasn’t the first time he was booed. His upcoming title defense against John Dodson is expected to be the most frenetic fight yet in the division. That may produce another boo-fest and another tirade from White, who says real fight fans appreciate technique—and Demetrious has technique for days.
There’s also already a well-trodden theory that no one cares about the littlest guys, no matter how well they fight.
Johnson, of course, doesn’t buy into this, at least publicly. He wants fans to love him for the way he fights and because he isn’t marketable in the cheap way of talking trash and being controversial. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes easy to imagine his old warehouse supervisor jumping out from behind his desk, putting him back to work, and finding no resistance from “Mighty Mouse.” Sure enough, despite the success he’s had in the WEC and UFC, beating bigger fighters and winning a title fight that he was expected to lose, he admits he misses the stability of a bimonthly paycheck. After the loss to Cruz, he even made post-career plans to work at Costco.
“You go in, you slide your time card, clock your hours, get your benefits, and put money in your 401k,” he says. “I can go there and they have to pay me. They can’t argue. I’m like, ‘Dude, look at my fucking time card. There’s 40 hours on there. You pay me $10.76 an hour. It’s supposed to be $476 on this check—pay me my fucking money.’ You get in a fight, you get paid your show bonus. But I’m only going to pay you an extra X amount of money if you win. Floyd Mayweather, he’s the champion. He’s 47-0, he makes millions of dollars. He will never have to work again in his life if he’s smart with his money. Me, there’s possibly a chance that I could go back to work, and it’s not because I’m stupid with my money. If I go out in my next few fights and lose, and then lose again, I could be out of the UFC. Right now, I’m the best fighter in the world at 125 pounds. Do I believe in that? Yeah, I do. But at the same time, you have to have humbleness in yourself. I could be one of these servers.”
The sun shifts on the patio,and Demetrious is ready to clock out for the day, but he says he could strap on his gloves and fight this weekend if he wanted to. This is what happens when your opponent takes most of the damage and you weave out of the way, a matador giving a bull the red. However, he’s had some hard days on the job. There was the time at UFC 130 when he felt a crunch after Miguel Torres checked a kick, and he had to fight two rounds on a broken fibula. There was the hernia he suffered in the rematch with McCall. But other than a sore knuckle from hitting Benavidez, he’s ready to clock in.
Now, if only he could find a timecard. If there was any complaint he had about being champ, it’s that his responsibilities aren’t clearly defined. He has to train hard, eat well, and fight. That, he was already doing. The intangibles of his job—the PR, pleasing the fans, making himself interesting—are things he isn’t quite used to. But he’s getting there. As a full-time fighter with 40 hours a week to kill in the gym, Johnson is only getting better. He could obliterate Dodson, and people might start to appreciate the way he fights. If not, he’ll continue to train, play video games, and hang with Destiny.
“I’m still maturing as a fighter and an athlete, and I think in time, that’s going to come,” he says. “It’s not that I’m scared to sit in the pocket. Your risk to get knocked out is higher when you do that, especially with a guy who’s a good puncher. If fans don’t like the answer that I just gave, well, when your ass is on the line and you’ve got to make sure the mortgage gets paid, then you can tell me different.”