Last December, Demetrious Johnson was two minutes into his UFC flyweight title defense bout with Joseph Benevidez when he showed the MMA world something they wouldn’t soon forget.
He threw a quick, right-handed jab that landed square on the side of Benevidez’s face. The blow knocked Benevidez cold, proving that the smallest fighters can produce some of the biggest knockouts.
“It felt great, and I’m pretty sure people out there in the world are still saying it was just a one-time shot,” he said. “But I’m just going out there to fight, and when the big hits come, I capitalize on them, and show what I’m capable of.”
At 5-foot-3, 125-pounds, Johnson (19-2-1) is the smallest of all UFC titleholders. He competes in the flyweight division, which was only added to the UFC lineup four years ago.
Dana White, president of the UFC, said Johnson is showing that he has what it takes to be an MMA star.
“He’s a great wrestler, and he showed his knockout power in his last fight (against Benevidez),” White said. “Demetrious keeps getting better and better with each fight.”
Johnson, a resident of Parkland, is gearing up to defend his belt again Saturday in Vancouver, British Columbia, against Ali Bagautinov. Bagautinov (13-2) is the No. 1-ranked contender on UFC.com.
“He hits hard, he’s got a great wrestling background,” Johnson said of Bagautinov. “He’s a Combat Sambo champion, and he’s a great fighter. It’ll be a challenge, but I’m looking forward to it.”
The match is the main event of UFC 174, and Johnson, 27, is defending his UFC flyweight world title for the fourth time. He’s 3-0 in title-defense bouts.
“Mighty Mouse,” as Johnson is known among UFC fans, is the betting line favorite to defend his title. It is Bagautinov’s first title shot.
“I’m confident in my skills, and victory is all I think about,” Bagautinov, who is from the Republic of Dagestan in Russia, told UFC.com. “I’m craving this fight and the belt.”
White said he thinks Johnson is nothing less than one of the best fighters in the world.
“Demetrious Johnson is, pound-for-pound, one of the best fighters in the world, and now that he’s ranked fourth, he’s the guy building the division. He has been absolutely dominant and he’s never lost at 125 pounds,” he said.
While he maintains a level of celebrity in the Pacific Northwest, Johnson is relatively unknown nationally. Fighters in heavier weight classes, like Jon “Bones” Jones and Georges St. Pierre, also have bigger national profiles.
Johnson says he doesn’t let the slight bother him. He said fighters his size put on competitive fights that are as fun to watch as the big guys.
“I can’t always change someone else’s opinion,” he said. “I think I’m a good fighter, but there’s probably lots of people out there who think I’m a horrible fighter. I go out there and train my butt off to prove them wrong, but that’s their opinion.”
Besides a smaller profile, the lack of national exposure means Johnson makes less money. Jones was paid an estimated $1 million for his last fight. Johnson estimates he will make about $300,000 for this fight, despite being the event headliner.
Money is made in the UFC from a handful of ways — contracts with UFC itself, revenue from ticket sales and pay-per-view shares, and endorsement money with brands that cater to UFC, like Tap Out Clothing.
Johnson says he fights to make a living, to support his wife and 10-month-old son. He says he’s aware that fighting isn’t going to last him the rest of his life, and that making a living with his body is a fragile and precarious thing.
“I try to block my head, but every time I get hit, I know, it’s violent,” Johnson said.
So he’s making plans for the future, which include becoming an action movie star.
The move would have precedent — other UFC stars, have done so in recent years, like St. Pierre, who had a small role in “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” and Ronda Rousey, who is set to appear in “The Expendables 3.”
Johnson said he doesn’t have anything in the works, but that he is open to any ideas.
“You’ve got to always be moving forward, and I think that’s a good way for me to be moving,” Johnson said. “There’s no reason why I can’t be like those GSPs, or the Rouseys. I have something to offer too.”andy.bixler@ thenewstribune.com