Finally Free of Difficult UFC Reign, Demetrious Johnson Starts Fresh in ONE

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMarch 29, 2019

Photo by Jonathan Snowden

Destiny Johnson was upstairs on a rocking chair when she heard the two words that would change her life forever. Family friends were over at the house watching her husband, future Hall of Famer Demetrious Johnson, defend his flyweight championship against former Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo at UFC 227 in Los Angeles. Thirty-eight weeks pregnant, she had been afraid to tune in, in case the excitement of it all made her water break while her husband was more than 1,100 miles away from home and just a little bit busy.

But she couldn't help cheat, at least a little, catching snippets of the commentary as Johnson attempted to add to his record of 11 consecutive title defenses. When the fight was over and ring announcer Bruce Buffer said "and new..." by way of introducing Cejudo as the champion, Destiny knew two things; 1) Demetrious had lost a professional fight for the first time in almost seven years; and 2) things were about to get very, very interesting.

"I didn't cry when he lost, but when they did the interview after the fight, that's when I cried," she remembers. "I was so proud with how he carried himself and how he answered.

"I knew he was heartbroken because it was the unknown. He had this future planned for him, for us. In that moment, I can imagine all these different feelings, but for me, I looked at our friends and I gave them hugs and said, 'You guys, this is a weight lifted off of his shoulders.' I know it's a weight lifted off of his shoulders. It's no longer on him. He's carried that for so long." 

In the aftermath, many champions would have immediately sought a rematch, especially when their reign was finally ended with a controversial split decision. But Johnson didn't ask about that. In the back, before the sweat had even dried, he had a single question for his managers Malki and Abe Kawa.

"Can I get out of my contract?" he remembers with a laugh. Most fighters work their entire martial arts lives to get a chance at competing for the UFC. Johnson, the moment he wasn't trapped by the promotion's onerous champion's clause that kept him locked in place, was looking instead for an escape hatch.

"Malki said, 'Yeah, I'll get you out of your contract.' So I was like, 'Sweet.' There was a long battle between them and UFC to figure out how to make it work, and they were able to make it work. The opportunity became available to me to fight for the ONE Championship, and I was like, 'OK, I'm gonna do it.'"  

Johnson opened up his life to Bleacher Report for a day leading up to his ONE Championship debut Sunday against Japanese sensation Yuya Wakamatsu on B/R Live. He says moving to ONE wasn't about securing the biggest possible paycheck. It wasn't about furthering his video game empire, although when Johnson learned Bleacher Report's cameraman was a fellow World of Warcraft enthusiast, he broke into excited, indecipherable chatter about the fictional world of Azeroth that lasted the better part of an hour.

For Johnson, one half of an unprecedented trade that saw ONE's Ben Askren move to the UFC, competing in the sport's biggest promotion had ceased being fun. He'd been worn down by the UFC's familiar pre-fight back-and-forth with opponents. By the end of his time, the fights outside the cage felt just as fierce as the ones in it.

"It was constant," Destiny says, reflecting the point of view that made headlines when Johnson issued a statement to MMA Fighting in June 2017. "'No we're not paying you this. No you don't deserve that. You're not selling fights. If you don't take this fight, I'm closing the weight class.' There was constant negativity."

(UFC chief Dana White offered a rebuttal to Johnson's statement, as reported by TMZ and summarized by Cageside Press.)

"... Those conversations got really dirty," Destiny says. "But he had so much confidence in who he was that he said, 'Close it then.' Because he wasn't going to change...he's never going to change who he is. He's never going to try to become what they want. They wanted something he couldn't provide. They want the animosity, they want to see conflict. But Mr. Nice Guy, that's who he is deep down in his soul."

Leaving the UFC just felt right. There was nothing left for him there. The world the UFC built and made billions from, a world where Conor McGregor thrived after throwing a dolly at a bus, where Ronda Rousey shot the bird at Miesha Tate and went into hiding after suffering her first loss, wasn't for him. Even Cejudo felt like a chapter he was happy to close. He'd beaten the new champion before and wasn't entirely convinced he had even lost the rematch.

"I had been beaten before where I felt like I didn't have an answer," Johnson says. "Early in my career, I felt like I got beat by a bigger, stronger dude. He beat me everywhere. That was (former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick) Cruz. I felt like, Damn, I lost that fight. He suplexed me like three times. With Cejudo, I didn't feel like I lost. One judge thought that he won and it is what it is." 

Johnson is careful not to disparage the UFC. He doesn't want to appear bitter or even ungrateful for the life his career there has provided for his family of three kids under six.

As close as he'll come to directly criticizing the UFC on the record is this:

"Promoting someone as a great fighter is a hard thing to do. When you look at Anderson Silva, it took him forever to be beloved by people and it didn't really happen until Chael Sonnen came around to talk crap to him.

"But you can make a star out of anyone. You can have an ant versus a wasp and probably sell it out as long as you market it correctly. When it came to the marketing part, they probably didn't do it to the best of their ability with me."

With the UFC, the pressure was always there to be someone he wasn't, with the hyper-aggressive McGregor serving as the de facto role model for every other fighter in the promotion. Johnson couldn't bring himself to be that guy. And the guy he was, one with diverse and even potentially profitable outside interests, never seemed like enough for company officials who he believes preferred the manufactured to the real. 

"I pushed to get out there on the celebrity gaming circuit," Johnson remembers. "I saw the Thursday ELeague Showdown. They had Shaq, they had Reggie Bush. These motherf--kers don't play video games. Stop putting them in there! And I understand. They have to create content and get viewers. But I would dust every one of those guys."

In the end, the move wasn't so much about what the UFC lacked, he says, but what ONE offered on a spiritual, emotional and (yes) monetary level. His top training partner, Bibiano Fernandes, is one of the promotion's best fighters. Even Askren's wife called, telling Destiny about how well the company had treated their family.

Johnson trains with ONE Championship star Bibiano Fernandes.
Johnson trains with ONE Championship star Bibiano Fernandes.Photo by Jonathan Snowden

Demetrious knew he'd be comfortable there—and after years of battling the UFC, just being comfortable and happy seemed like a pretty big deal.

"I wanted a change," he says. "I wanted something different. I wanted to be able to compete for a company that values smaller fighters, a company that likes to focus not just on one person but on all of its athletes. They aren't focused on getting behind a hype train and blowing him up. They get behind everybody to do their best and to tell everyone's story, and I like that.

"... It's kind of the vibe. It's kind of the values. In North America, people like controversy. I understand. Controversy creates emotion, creates buzz. Over in Asia, you see a lot more respect and athletes who have honor, integrity and discipline." 

As a kid growing up near Tacoma, Washington, Johnson was encouraged to bang the wall with gusto. Kind of odd behavior in retrospect, but it was actually encouraged in his often single-parent home. He and his brother would bang or stomp and Momma would come running. That's just how things were in his house—you pounded on the wall when you needed Momma and you looked her in the eye when you spoke.

It wasn't until an older sibling revealed the truth when he was 13 that Johnson realized the truth.

"I said, 'Mom, are you deaf?' She said, 'Yeah.' I'm like, 'What the f--k? Mom, how long have you been deaf?' She said, 'I've been deaf my whole life.' That's why she taught us that when you talk to someone, you look them in the eye. So she could read our lips."

Johnson thinks about those days sometimes, his deaf mom jamming to Tupac's "California Love" because she could feel the beat surround her, as he prepares breakfast for the kids before school. Life wasn't always easy for his family, the hard times dark enough to drive him even in the midst of unprecedented MMA success.

"I remember waking up and going to the refrigerator and only having a gallon of milk, a gallon of orange juice and some TV dinners in the freezer," he says. "I remember my beginnings, and that keeps me humble and grateful that I can provide the kind of life for my family that I didn't have." 

Next to him, Destiny can only nod. She's been a presence in his life since both were teenagers, the hidden source of power that helped propel his nascent professional fighting career from day one. To this day, she says, the kind of things that others take for granted are capable of moving Demetrious to states of awe and wonder.

"Even just last week, I had gone grocery shopping and everything was organized and all pretty, and he opened up the fridge and said, 'This is beautiful.' I said, 'What's beautiful?' He said, 'Looking in the refrigerator growing up, empty, It was empty. So to be able to have a refrigerator that's full of fresh food, healthy food, produce, thank you.' Those little things, and we've been together going on 13 years, he's still like, 'Thank you.'"

The Johnsons tag-team breakfast.
The Johnsons tag-team breakfast.Photo by Jonathan Snowden

The two met at Red Lobster where she was a server and he made cheddar biscuits in the back. They gabbed about everything, mostly their failing relationships. When she was around Demetrious, Destiny realized, she felt good. He made everything, even the drudgery of restaurant work, fun.

"Every time I would walk down the alley of the restaurant he would say, 'Booty, booty, booty, booty, rocking everywhere.' It was just funny, always just to crack a smile," she says. "When he left for another job, he gave me his phone number on a little Post-it, and I called him that night. I didn't waste any time."

Johnson had been a smart kid at Washington High School. His grade-point average, he still recalls, was 3.85. He was an athlete too, going from losing every wrestling match his sophomore year to state runner-up as a junior. Like most smart kids, he was pushed on the path to higher education, attending Pierce College for two years, feeling a little trapped every minute. 

He remembers being called into the guidance counselor's office to discuss his falling grades. At 19 he was working full time, taking 15 hours of classes and had just discovered both mixed martial arts and Destiny. Something, he remembers the woman telling him, would have to go.

"I was like, 'Peace. I'm out.' I wanted to enjoy myself," he says. "And the time I found myself really enjoying my life was when I was training. So I dropped out of college."  

Soon his life took on a familiar pattern. He'd get up in the morning and get in a workout, work all day at a variety of jobs, everything from Taco Bell, to construction, to a paper plant, then race to the gym where he'd teach classes and then train. If there was time, he'd sneak in some time playing World of Warcraft.

Then he'd get up and do it all again. 

"Between Destiny and I, we were clearing maybe $1,600 a month. I remember having just $50 in the bank account. You're just grinding. That's life. You just grind and grind and grind. How bad do you want it?"

A decade later, little had changed. The grind of his life had become exhausting. There was fighting at an unprecedented level, a family of five, more than 150,000 fans on Twitch to entertain and the UFC's constant insistence that he sell, sell, sell. Johnson has always lived this way, taking on responsibilities until he walked right up to the breaking point and teetered on the edge.

"I was a champion from 2012 to 2018. That's six years of title fights," Johnson says. "And not three-round fights. These are five-round fights. In one year, I did three title defenses along with shoulder surgery. It wasn't like I was wasting my time as champion. I was putting in the work."

Johnson was 15 fights into a promising professional career before he even focused on fighting full time, advancing all the way to a UFC title shot against Cruz in 2011 despite rarely training MMA even 10 hours a week

"(Coach) Matt (Hume) always told me, 'You need to quit your job'. I was like, 'Matt, when you can bring me a stable check for $400 a week, then we can talk. Until then, I'm going to work,'" Johnson says. "Even when I quit my job during the training camp for Cruz, I wasn't sure about it. I fought for the world title and remember I only made $14,000. I got a bonus check for $20,000. I walked away with $25,000 [after taxes]. That's when I quit my job for real."

There was never another UFC fight for Johnson without title implications. He won the inaugural flyweight tournament in 2012 and then defended that title 11 consecutive times. But what had been a pure relationship with fighting as mastery of an esoteric art and a pretty cool way to get some exercise morphed into something different.

As champion, Johnson was forced to do more than just fight and win. He was expected to sell, not just the sport, but himself, something MMA Junkie's Ben Fowlkes argues the former assistant manager of a Journeys shoe store was profoundly unsuited for:

"He gets to the top and realizes, wait, this is just another sales job.

"At least, that's what it must feel like on weeks like this. Here he is, one of the most dominant champions in the UFC, one of the few fighters where, when they throw around phrases like 'pound-for-pound best' during the commercials, it feels pretty legit, and when he makes the media rounds what we want to know is, So why should we pay for this?

"For people with the sales gene, it's the question their skills are designed to answer, sometimes even before it's been asked. For people like Johnson, it presents two unappealing options: 1) Stumble and fake and guess your way through an answer, probably poorly, or 2) Refuse to acknowledge the validity of the question.

"More and more these days, it seems like Johnson is going with the second option."

That article was written in 2015, and for the next three years, almost every story about the 125-pound champion focused like a laser, not on Johnson's inarguable excellence in the cage, but on his reticence to promote himself outside of it. Ironically, at the same time, he was slowly building his own brand in the video game space, launching a Twitch channel to monetize his passion for World of Warcraft.

Johnson is a serious gamer.
Johnson is a serious gamer.Casey Rodgers/Associated Press

The game, at one point years earlier, almost torpedoed his relationship with Destiny. 

"I remember several times coming home from work and the laundry was still on the couch and dishes were piled high in his game room and he still wanted me cooking for him," she says. "I told him, 'I can't do this anymore.' I gave him an ultimatum. Something has to change because this is ridiculous. You get one day off a week and you're sunup to sundown, sitting in the same spot, same underwear, hadn't brushed your teeth, like what the hell is going on here."

Johnson put away the games then, choosing his real life over a virtual one. He obsessed over his training instead of spending that time hunkering down over a laptop. But a few years later in 2014, he found a solution that could make gaming work as both a business and a hobby.

"I remember when he went live the first time on Twitch," she says. "He was sweating so bad. He was so nervous. I was sitting outside the camera so no one could see me and he's like, 'Hello...' So awkward. And he's on camera all the time, but it was his first time doing this. It's his channel, and he's not just playing games. He's entertaining. It was just funny to see him, with all he's done, so nervous about video games."

Now gaming is just part of a broader search for balance. If he could, he'd choose gaming over fighting. But that's just not reality, and Johnson is too old to live a fantasy. With a new baby at home and a new professional adventure with ONE, Johnson is down to eight hours a week. 

The latest addition to the Johnson family.
The latest addition to the Johnson family.Photo by Jonathan Snowden

"I was going to bed with my wife like one or two days a week and now I am going to bed with her almost every day of the week and getting eights hours of sleep," Johnson says. "I made money from streaming and I wanted the extra cash, but I said, 'Is it worth it?' I took a step back and decided it's not.

"I wanted to be able to perform better in the gym, focus more on my competition. The people who support me understand that. And I have three kids. I can't just say, 'OK, kids go play with your Legos; I'm gonna play video games for three hours.'"

That he has to perform this kind of mental calculus at all says a lot about MMA's pay structure. Even the best fighters in the world make pennies on the dollar compared to their professional counterparts in other sports. It's created an uncomfortable reality for fighters like Johnson, who prefer to focus on the athletic competition and flowery concepts like artistry but find themselves drawn into the ever-waging battle for compensation.

To Johnson, scrounging after a few thousand dollars should be the last thing on his mind. He hated chasing sponsors before a fight and then chasing them again afterward just to get what he was promised. He even wore an Xbox logo on his trunks sometimes when he wasn't even being paid by Microsoft anymore, hoping to possibly secure a regular paycheck from the mega-corporation. 

"I didn't mind the Reebok sponsorship," he says of the UFC's controversial decision to hand over fighter branding to the apparel company. "Reebok was just like, 'Wear our s--t and we're going to give you 40 G's.' That money was there eight days after the fight, every time. Boom, in my account. For a guy who is 5'3", 125 pounds and doesn't have anyone out there hustling for him, this was a breath of fresh air. I didn't have to focus on that."

These days, the focus is back where he believes it belongs—inside the cage, where he hopes to conquer a brand-new promotion like he first conquered the UFC. He pushes aside any discussion of his pro gaming life or sponsorship opportunities in Asia. For once, he believes, it's time to focus on what he does best. He sees five more years in the sport before he hangs up the gloves for good, retiring to the kind of life he's spent his entire career building.

"After I'm done fighting, I ain't working," he says. "I'm waking my ass up and doing whatever I want to do. That's my goal. I've been working since I was 15-and-a-half years old. When I'm finally done pushing my heart and pushing my body to the limit, I'm done. I'll still pursue my passions, but I'm not going to be clocking in.

"There's a reality. I am older. It is a different talent pool. There are a lot of things that are different. I'm just going to go out there and compete and hopefully become a champion. In the end for me, I just want to be successful. I just want to be able to pay my bills and take care of my family. That's my ultimate goal. If I become a champion again, awesome. If I don't, it is what it is. I've already accomplished a lot in this sport."


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.


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