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Demetrious Johnson: The working man’s UFC champion

‘Mighty Mouse’ headlines UFC 174 three years after finally giving up day job

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Associated Press

Demetrious Johnson, left, avoids a punch from Joseph Benavidez in a UFC flyweight mixed martial arts title fight in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013.

Authority figures from both of Demetrious Johnson’s professional worlds used to give him the same long-term directive.

It was one thing when coach Matt Hume urged Johnson to quit his manual-labor job to concentrate on a budding fight career starting five years ago. Hearing an identical message from the boss of the factory just outside of Seattle where Johnson worked was more unexpected.

“He always told me he would fire me if I picked my job over fighting,” Johnson said.

Johnson never gave him the opportunity. He reluctantly became a full-time fighter in preparation for a UFC bantamweight title bout against Dominick Cruz.

Johnson lost the fight but made the right choice. Six unbeaten fights later, the 27-year-old “Mighty Mouse” is considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

Johnson (19-2-1 MMA, 7-1-1 UFC) goes for a fourth straight defense of the UFC flyweight championship against Ali Bagautinov (13-2 MMA, 3-0 UFC) in the main event of UFC 174 on Saturday in Vancouver, British Columbia. Much of his success, Johnson says, comes from the determination he learned while undertaking two simultaneous occupations.

“I wasn’t a person who hated working,” Johnson said. “When I was working and training, I loved it. I loved that I had to work that hard. I think it transformed into the gym and then transformed into the octagon. It was a good thing.”

But Johnson can’t deny the improved comfort his new lifestyle provides. Back in the factory days, he would work himself to exhaustion without a moment to relax during training camps.

He often worked 10- or 12-hour shifts. Sometimes, he’d bookend the workday with two training sessions but always made it to the gym at least once.

It’s no surprise he became known as one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport considering the physically demanding duties in the warehouse.

“If you look at the end of a roll of toilet paper, like the brown paper tube, I basically worked in a factory that made humongous ones like that — for concrete or anything you wanted to put in there,” Johnson said. “I was the guy who chopped those up into smaller pieces, put them in a box, throw it in a pallet, wrap it up, jump in a forklift and put it on a truck. There were so many roles, and I basically did all of them except operate the big machines.”

Sounds like a metaphor for the way he fights. Johnson might be the smallest fighter in the UFC, but his efficiency is machine-like in every area.

He continues to rely on wrestling techniques he’s honed since he was a child, but he can also trade submission attempts with the best at his weight class. Johnson has seven career victories by submission, including a fifth-round armbar over John Moraga two fights ago.

Johnson heard people question his striking power before his last fight, so he promptly went and knocked out heralded Joseph Benavidez two minutes into the first round.

“It’s coming up on my three-year anniversary of not working and just training, so my training is always getting better,” Johnson said. “Matt is the fountain of knowledge when it comes to mixed martial arts, and he instills new things every camp.”

Hume would get frustrated years ago when Johnson insisted on keeping his other job. Johnson remembered Hume preaching multiple times about Johnson needing to develop the routine of other professional athletes.

Johnson found benefits with his approach, though, chiefly the financial freedom he was afforded before his fighting career took off. He still speaks highly of the whole experience.

It’s a wonder they never had to fire him.

“I still talk to my boss that I worked with,” Johnson said. “He was one of the best bosses I ever had in my life. Not that Dana White isn’t a badass boss, but when it comes to something like a 9-to-5 job, he was great. It was a great job with the security. I’d go in there, clock in and get to work.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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