The promotional fight posters hanging from stanchions planted around the Westin Hotel ballroom in Seattle paint a menacing picture of Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson.
The UFC’s first flyweight division champion and Washington High graduate has a stare of intense focus and the look of a man not afraid of what might greet him in the Octagon when he defends his title Saturday in a bout against John Moraga at KeyArena in Seattle, which will be televised live at 5 p.m. on Ch. 13.
But outside the ring, Johnson, 26, is humble, quick to smile and joke, and a portrait of a working class guy who has fought his way into his role as the UFC’s headliner in its new weight class.
“I don’t feel like I need to portray something that I’m not,” Johnson said Thursday afternoon at a pre-fight media session. “The UFC doesn’t tell me to portray something that I’m not as well. This is who I am.
“I’m a nice guy and this is what I do.”
Nice guy reputation aside, Johnson holds nothing back when it comes to training and working on perfecting his craft.
It’s a dedication to hard work that started in high school at Washington, where he wrestled and ran cross country. As a junior wrestler, he was runner-up at the Mat Classic in the 119-pound division in 2004, and finished in third place his senior year. Johnson also finished 22nd at the Class 3A state cross-country championships as a senior.
None of his success later in life surprises Washington High cross country and track coach Allen Culp, who has kept in touch with Johnson over the years and will be in the stands during Saturday night’s fight.
“He’s got a great work ethic,” said Culp, who will be entering his 14th year at Washington in the fall. “And the sport — the fame — has not changed him a lick.”
What’s helped keep Johnson grounded is a path to the UFC paved with years working full-time at a construction materials company in Tacoma while juggling a training regiment and fighting at the amateur level before turning pro a couple of years ago.
“I did basically everything. I drove a forklift, I packed stuff ... I wasn’t at that point in my career where I could just stop working,” the 5-foot-3, 125-pound fighter said of his full-time job. “This sport isn’t for everybody. Not everybody makes it to where you can make a living off it.”
While “Mighty Mouse” was fighting his way through the amateur ranks — building on the wrestling skills he learned at Washington — he never let his dream of fighting at the highest level fade.
Johnson has battled through his share of injuries over the years (broken hand, broken rib, and most recently a torn labrum) but he enters Saturday’s bout healthy, on a four-fight unbeaten streak and packing a 17-2-1 career Mixed Martial Arts record, including a 5-1-1 mark in the UFC.
Culp knew his former student was on the path for big things when he attended Johnson’s first amateur bout at a facility in Auburn.
“His opponent’s face was all beat up (after the fight),” said Culp, who recalls with jest Johnson’s high energy as a competitor and his love for the video game “Dance Dance Revolution.”
“When he does something, he puts everything into it.”
UFC president Dana White said he thinks the flyweight division will one day be enough of a draw to be the centerpiece of a UFC pay-per-view event. Johnson will likely play a key role in the rise of the division, which is less than 2 years old.
“I feel that if I want to try and build this weight class, and (White) puts the burden on me, I want to try and build it right,” said the 26-year-old, who recently bought a house in the South Sound. “I want to do it the right way — not by smack talking. This is my skill set, this is what I present. Fans are either going to love it or hate it.”
Either way, Johnson considers himself a normal guy just doing what it takes to provide for his family.
His wife gave birth to their first child, son Tyren, on July 19. The happy father is taking everything in stride, sticking to his training schedule and pitching in when he could.
“I’ve only changed about 10 diapers,” he said laughing. “A lot of people get themselves worked up for fighting. I’m just like, ‘It is what it is.’ This is what I do for a living. I just try and stay humble.”
WHAT IS UFC?
Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the largest mixed martial arts marketing company in the world. Formed in 1993, UFC holds fights all over the world, including at KeyArena in Seattle on Saturday night.
Fighters utilize skill sets grounded in a number of training methods — boxing, wrestling, judo, karate, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai — for their bouts, which are held in a cage known as “The Octagon.” Championship bouts last up to five rounds, and can end on knockout, submission, technical knockout, judges’ decision, disqualification, forfeit or no-contest.
DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON BIO
Born: Madisonville, Ky.
High school/college: Washington High School (2005 graduate)/Pierce College.
Family: Wife, Destiny; son, Tyren.
Mixed Martial Arts camp: AMC Pankration, Kirkland.
MMA record: 17-2-1.
MMA background: The two-time Mat Classic state placer turned professional in 2007. After winning his first nine bouts, he joined World Extreme Cagefighting in 2010 – just months before it merged with Ultimate Fighting Championship. He first fought for the UFC bantamweight title (135 pounds) in 2011, losing to Dominick Cruz. But the UFC created a flyweight division (125 pounds) a year later, and won a four-man tournament by defeating Joseph Benavidez via split decision to become that division’s first UFC champion. His fight Saturday night (“UFC on Fox 8”) against John Moraga in Seattle – rescheduled from April – will be his second title defense.