"To me, there’s really no such thing as a short notice fight just because I’m always in shape. I’m always ready to get a call from (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva." - Michael Johnson
Former Ultimate Fighter finalist Michael Johnson is focused on moving up the lightweight rankings in 2012. If everything goes as planned, he’ll end the year on the cusp of being a contender.
The 25-year-old St. Louis native, who has been a part of “The Blackzilians” for the last year, set his sights on a productive and successful year after suffering a first-round submission loss to British leg lock expert Paul Sass back in October. Frustrated with his performance, Johnson sought the silver lining in his loss.
“Sometimes losing can be good,” he admitted prior to his first fight of 2012, a difficult matchup with former All-American wrestler Shane Roller. “The majority of times they’re horrible, but it’s good to have it happen early, as opposed to later on in my career. This way I actually have time to work on it, get better, and not get caught in it again.
“I went back to the drawing board, spent a lot of time with my jiu-jitsu coach and the many black belts we have in our gym down here, and we work on it every day. Next time I do see something like that, I’ll know exactly what to do, and not just sit there and think about it.”
That work on the mats paid off.
While he wasn’t forced to fight his way out of any leg locks, Johnson’s calm when caught in a submission hold was put to the test. Closing the distance to start the third, Johnson was forced to play defense as Roller got inside, took him down, and took his back early in the final round. Three months after he panicked against Sass, Johnson had his chance to redeem himself.
“Just don’t get finished,” Johnson says, chasing his recollection of what was running through his head that night in Chicago with a chuckle. “That was a huge thing — we trained that position a lot coming up to that fight, and I could hear my jiu-jitsu coach in my head, playing out every movement I had to do. I think it’s real important to stay calm in those situations because once you panic, you do something wrong, and then the fight’s over.
“I don’t want to be the guy that looks back at a fight like, ‘That’s what I was supposed to do! I knew I needed to do that, but I didn’t do it.’ At that point it would have been too late, so I really focused on staying calm, working myself out of the position, and it worked out for the best.”
Despite spending a healthy portion of the final round fending off Roller’s attempts to finish him, Johnson’s output in the opening two frames earned him a unanimous decision win, setting “The Year of the Menace” off right.
“I didn’t get finished, I came away with a victory, and on to the next fight.” That next fight is a short notice opportunity against “El Cucuy,” Tony Ferguson.
One season after Johnson’s runner-up performance on The Ultimate Fighter, Ferguson blasted his way through the competition, knocking out Ramsey Nijem in the finals to become a member of the exclusive fraternity of Ultimate Fighter winners. He’s put up another two wins since, steadily moving his way up the 155-pound division’s depth chart.
“I feel real good about this fight,” says Johnson, who steps in for an injured Thiago Tavares, who in turn had replaced veteran Dennis Hallman. “Before I got the call, I was kind of getting a feeling like for some reason I was getting ready to fight; it was weird. He has been on a roll, and he’s one of the guys that I’ve been wanting to fight lately just for that matter. I want the guys in this division that are on a streak, and are looking to prove something just like myself.”
Generally speaking, taking a fight on just over a month’s notice is a challenge, one that becomes a little more difficult when the man standing across from you in the cage sports a 14-2 record and has won seven consecutive contests.
But the man known as “The Menace” didn’t hesitate to become Ferguson’s third scheduled opponent for this fight. Like a boy scout, this Blackzilian is always prepared to answer the call.
“To me, there’s really no such thing as a short notice fight just because I’m always in shape. I’m always ready to get a call from (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva. If they need help, I’m always here willing to help those guys, and fill that spot.
“We’ve got guys fighting every month, so in order for me to help those guys, and do as much as I can for them, I have to be in shape. It’s not always about just one person on this team — these guys depend on me, and I depend on them. We’re all trying to help each other succeed in this business. It’s a huge benefit for me to always be ready to fight, and be in a position where I can take a fight on short notice, and be able to fight no problem.”
One of the youngest members of “The Blackzilians,” the camaraderie and shared focus on being successful as a unit has made a serious impact on Johnson over the last year, both in terms of his skills and his outlook. Working daily with the collection of talented coaches and established stars assembled in South Florida, Johnson sees what he can achieve — how good he can become — next to him on the mats every day, and is focused on using each fight as a chance to get one step closer to reaching his goals.
“Everything has changed completely,” offers Johnson, the genuine appreciation he feels for his fighting family permeating his words. “I think we’ve got the best coaches in the world, plus I’m surrounded by current champions, former champions, and future champions too, and it’s just so beneficial for me. Everything has improved and changed, and I think people are going to start noticing that in these next couple of fights.
“I look around the gym, and I see guys doing big things, and I just want to be a part of that, and follow in those guys’ footsteps. I look at Rashad (Evans), and Jorge Santiago, and JZ (Cavalcante), and all the other top names in our gym, and I think I’m a lil’ pup in the game, but I’m working my way up. Having those guys around me, and training me, and gaining experience from them means a lot.”
On the first Saturday in May at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Johnson is intent on putting the lessons he’s learned to good use against Ferguson, who he thinks might be looking past him a little as he prepares for this fight.
“I’m kind of sensing that he might be underestimating me a little bit. His last two opponents he fought were Aaron Riley and Yves Edwards — two UFC veterans — and he beat them. He might be sitting on his high horse a little bit; that’s what I’m hoping. I want to be the guy to come in and knock him off of that.
“He won his season, I got second on my season, so in some people’s eyes, they might see him as better than me, or taking a step back fighting me, but it’s the perfect opportunity for me. It’s right where I need to be.”
Like every fighter, Johnson has championship ambitions, but he knows the journey to the top of the lightweight division is an incremental process; each win leading to a bigger name, a bigger fight, and a bigger opportunity, until finally there is only one man left to defeat.
“I’ve never worked harder, and I’m going to keep that intensity in the gym, and finish this year off strong. I’ve got a good win over Shane Roller under my belt, but with big wins come big competition. I want to be close to the Top 10 when this year is over, and Tony Ferguson is just another guy in the way of me getting to my goal.
“I was playing this through my head the other day, and it’s like a video game — like Mortal Kombat: you’ve got to get through these little guys to get up to the top level, and that’s exactly how I’m playing it out right now. This is a huge year for me, and I’m looking forward to what’s to come.”
“The Menace” is ready to take that next step. Or is that Lord Raiden?