Coming off two very impressive wins, Michael Johnson is looking to make a serious run in 2014.
His thumping of Joe Lauzon and his KO victory over Gleison Tibau showed him displaying an improved skill set and a serious fire. Most recently, he used this as a platform to make a plea for a fight with Nate Diaz, suggesting the bout on Twitter.
But he may be thinking too far down the road with his recent talk on MMAJunkie Radio of getting a title shot “pretty soon.”
Right now, the lightweight division is one of the deepest pools of talent in the sport. Men like Nate Diaz, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Josh Thomson, TJ Grant—they are all rightfully above him in the rankings due to accomplishment, and he’s not going to be able to leapfrog all the way to the front of the line with just two more wins.
But he’s pointed in the right direction—that much seems certain. In a post-fight interview after his win at UFC 168 (h/t MMAWeekly.com), Johnson noted that he got hit more times than he would have liked based on Tibau being the slower fighter; an attitude that shows a critical eye for improvement.
When you honestly look at Johnson, he has made the necessary changes in his game to become a viable threat sometime in 2015. He’s moving a lot more instead of just rushing forward, and he’s now luring fighters into following him—something you don’t want to do with a big puncher like Johnson.
Given his movement and athleticism, it’s going to be hard for many lightweights to score an easy takedown; but that will be the big test for Johnson. Men like Nurmagomedov, for instance, are dogged in their pursuit of the takedown and don’t ever stop.
If he could keep Nurmagomedov standing, Johnson probably takes the fight via unanimous decision, or possibly even via KO/TKO. But what is Johnson going to do if he lands on his back with a strong fighter on top of him?
In the past, that situation has not boded well for him, and it remains the key question to be answered. Before he get’s a title shot, he will be put into a fight that tests him in this area; given how many strong grapplers there are in the division, it’s near inevitable.
In his last two bouts, the new and improved Johnson enjoyed a kind of stylistic advantage over Lauzon and Tibau. That is going to come to an end when he faces fighters like Nurmagomedov, Grant, Gray Maynard and Gilbert Melendez.
All of those men have proven capable of pulling a stand-up fighter to the floor and working them over. While Johnson may not have to fight them all in order to earn a title shot, he’s going to have to fight at least one of them.
And that is when we will find out if Johnson is a true title contender, and not before.
But for all the naysayers who believe that the ground is where Johnson will be exposed, they should remember that he comes from a wrestling background. While this alone means little in the world of MMA, Johnson is now under the tutelage of Kenny Monday; a name that should speak for itself.
Monday was a big influence on Randy Couture and countless other wrestlers over the years, for good reason. As a gold-medal winner in freestyle wrestling in the 1988 Olympics, Monday is the man to have in order to build on a wrestling background.
If Johnson can stay healthy and win three fights against top-10 opponents in 2014, then a title shot is very likely.
But right now, Johnson should take advantage of the time required to get within striking distance of the belt. In a weight class as deep as 155, one should never assume too much nor move so quickly that something is overlooked.
He may only get one shot at the title, and if the time comes, he needs to be ready.