When Demetrious Johnson gets the call to fight from UFC President Dana White, “Mighty Mouse” declares he transforms from mild-mannered citizen to bantamweight contender. At 5’3", 135-pounds, Johnson’s nickname is exactly what it sounds like.
The 24-year-old is the smallest competitor at his gym AMC Pankration in Kirkland, Washington. His self-described protruding ears listen to the mixed martial arts wizardry of Matt Hume as he prepares for UFC 130 this Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Originally slated to face Renan “Barao” in a preliminary bout, Johnson received an opponent switch to former WEC Bantamweight Champion Miguel Torres for featured fight spot on Spike TV six weeks before fight time.
"I never thought of the day I'd fight Miguel Torres. I remember watching him when I was an amateur,” the four-year fight veteran told Bleacher Report. “I am really honored that all my fans out there believe I have a shot to take him out. I'm going to do my best and it's just surreal. I can't wait ‘til the day comes when he and I are in the Octagon together fighting."
Johnson has amassed an 8-1 professional MMA record (he has over 26 amateur boxing, kickboxing and MMA contests) including his current three-fight win streak comprised of victories against Nick Pace, Damacio Page and Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto.
Factor in 10-hour shifts at a recycling plant in addition to the rigors of training for a former pound-for-pound pillar like Torres and the strength of “Mighty Mouse” is apparent. He enjoys staying busy so he doesn’t mind double duties although he’s never had the option of being a full-time fighter either.
"That's my ultimate goal to be a full-time fighter: to be able to take care of my fighting and my family and be able to train full-time. Right now I just don't see that happening,” said Johnson. “If you're only fighting every three months or whatever and the checks aren't as big as GSP's [Georges St-Pierre] and Anderson Silva's—when I'm up to that point with big checks I'll just stop working, start a family and keep on training full time."
Johnson is eager to test himself against Torres after proving he can mix it up with the upper echelon of the bantamweight division. A sound victory over “Kid” Yamamoto—once as highly regarded internationally as Torres was stateside—in his UFC debut on the same night Torres bested Antonio Banuelos at UFC 126 in February bolsters Johnson's position opposite Torres. He has the necessary imaginative mindset for an underdog to be successful.
“For me, [MMA is] like being able to live my fantasy life. I play a lot of fighting games; I can't throw an ice ball or a Hadouken or a big giant tidal wave,” Johnson said. “So I guess fighting is my resort to that."
Despite having a high-gear competition switch, Johnson reveals he’s not entirely comfortable with punching people as a profession.
"I really don't like hurting people honestly. When I get in there, it's like, 'oh, here we go.' I just like to compete and be active and have fun honestly,” he said. “I really do enjoy fighting. When I punch someone in the face, I don't really get pleasure out of it.”
Johnson calmly lists all the sports in which he was counted out because he is a smaller competitor: basketball, track and field, wrestling and now, mixed martial arts. He recalls making a point to run over defenders when running the ball in football. Picking up guys he bulldozed, Johnson lied and said he was 135-pounds (he was more like 119). “You hit like a 185-pounder,” they’d tell him.
The UFC doesn’t host Johnson’s natural weight of 125 pounds, but it’s no sweat for him. He is more comfortable fighting near his walk around weight. He values the marquee fights available at 135-pounds that are harder to come by in the weight below too. Really, Johnson being undersized for the division is just another strength he hopes others mistakenly perceive as a weakness because he’s game no matter the size difference.
"My ultimate goal is to be champion at 135. If they ever do implement 125, I wouldn't mind fighting at 135 and 125 because then I could be more valuable to the UFC because I only walk around at 140, 141. I can cut to 125 and it wouldn't be hard at all,” said the Kentucky-born fighter. "I want to be champion in both weight classes but in order for that happen I have to keep training hard. Hopefully I get past Miguel Torres and they open up a 125 weight class."
Johnson is engaged to wed his fiancé Destiny in May 2012. If he’s not a champion by then, he’d at least like to be a full-time fighter. Where he will be professionally by the time he ties the knot hinges heavily on his fight with Torres. Honored to meet the former 135-pound kingpin in the Octagon, he has invested three months for 15 minutes on May 28 that can define his place in a division he sees as wide-open for No. 1 contenders.
"People say I have nothing to lose, but in my mind, I have everything to lose,” said Johnson. “I'm going to go out there and take it to him and get my hand raised at the end of the night."
Danny Acosta is the lead writer at FIGHT! Magazine. Follow him on twitter.com/acostaislegend