Back when Demetrious Johnson’s grip on the UFC flyweight championship was as tight as his potent armbars, no champion was more active in defending his or her crown.
From 2013 through 2017, “Mighty Mouse” successfully retained his title a UFC-record 11 times. He’d always been an active competitor, with 10 months representing the longest layoff of his career.
Then COVID-19 ravaged the globe, and the 2019 ONE Championship Flyweight Grand Prix winner missed out on a full calendar year of competition for the first time as a professional. By the time Johnson (30-3-1, 17 finishes) makes his scheduled April 7 date to challenge ONE flyweight champ Adriano Moraes (18-3, 12 finishes) as the headliner for the first “ONE on TNT” event airing from Singapore Indoor Stadium in Kallang, Singapore, he will have been sidelined for nearly 18 full months.
Bummer, right? Not in Johnson’s eyes. Not when the world has been dealing with forces outside of his control. Not when he’s got so much else occupying his time.
“It’s been great, to be honest with you,” Johnson told The Post recently regarding the longest layoff of his career. “… I’ve been extremely busy, even in this time of COVID-19, hanging out with the kids and the wife. A lot of people might look at it as a negative, but for me, I’ve been busy.”
Johnson, who left the UFC shortly after losing his 125-pound crown in a razor-thin decision against Henry Cejudo in August 2018 and became part of the first major MMA “trade” to another organization — in exchange for now-retired welterweight Ben Askren — noted he utilized this rare time away from competition to build his esports and gaming profile as well as release a collection of vinyl figures. The 34-year-old thoroughly comprehends that his time as a cage fighter is finite and is setting himself up for the post-athletic phase of his life.
“You can’t fight forever,” Johnson said. “You have to start building your brand in different ways. That way, when you’re done fighting, you have something to fall back on.”
But Johnson has no concrete plans to walk away anytime soon, and he remains one of the top flyweights in the world. (Well, sort of. ONE Championship flyweights compete at 135 pounds — 10 above the typical limit — and are tested to ensure they are not dehydrating themselves in an effort to curb dangerous weight cuts. Technically, he competes as a bantamweight, but ostensibly he is the same size as his UFC flyweight days).
If Johnson wanted, he could make a pretty solid case for being the top flyweight in the world. Cejudo made just one title defense before vacating the belt to focus on defending his bantamweight championship, then surprisingly retired last May. Nobody defeated him to become the UFC 125-pound champ, a distinction now borne by Deiveson Figueiredo. Mighty Mouse has said he intends to finish his career with ONE, for whom he competed three times in 2019, capped by a decision victory over Danny Kingad in the October final of an eight-man tournament. That would make a matchup between Johnson and Figueiredo all but impossible.
And it’s not as if Johnson, who said he doesn’t get wrapped up in back-and-forth “I’m better” debates, is creating heat. As far as asserting who’s the top flyweight in MMA, he would only go so far as to posit that all fighters think of themselves as the best.
“I think Deiveson is an amazing champion,” Johnson said. “He’s done amazing things, and I wish him nothing but the best, and I hope he has a great, successful career.”
The loss to Cejudo continues to be debated by fans in the MMA community, with many believing Johnson did enough to win the tipping-point second round. One judge agreed, while the other two scored it for Cejudo as 48-47 final tallies were split between them in Cejudo’s favor. For his part, Johnson has always publicly taken the loss in stride, even from the moment he heard the announced decision go against him. If he thought he was wronged, his calm demeanor and respectful reaction didn’t show it.
He attributes the ability to take the loss in stride to having the right mentality and perspective, realizing that great athletes don’t always win and that he himself had tasted defeat twice before.
“Don’t get me wrong: I went back to the hotel room, and I cried, and I screamed, and I was pissed off,” Johnson said of the aftermath of the loss. “And then after that, I was like, well, you know, we’ll go back home and get back to work.
“… I’m doing this because it’s what I do to provide for my family. When you have that type of mindset, you never truly lose. It’s just part of the f—kng game, man.”