Winning an Ultimate Fighting Championship title typically cements a fighter’s place in the sport of mixed martial arts and positively affects the remainder of his career.
For Demetrious Johnson, just getting a title shot has completely changed his life.
Upon learning he would face UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, Johnson made the decision to quit his job and become a “full-time fighter.”
“I thought, it’s a title fight and Dominick’s on a different level than anybody else, and I thought I owed it to the fans and myself and my family and all my training partners to train full time,” Johnson said.
The lightning-fast 25-year-old will fight the equally elusive Cruz tonight in Washington, D.C., in the main event of the UFC on Versus 6 card. It marks the first time a UFC belt will be up for grabs live on cable.
Johnson comes into this fight off his first training camp where he didn’t spend the day working at his construction job before training at night.
“I would go in the morning and run the machines, drive a forklift, dump scrap, carry (equipment) to the warehouse. I mean, it was a (labor-intensive) job and I did it for all my fights,” Johnson said. “I’d get home on Sunday (after a fight) and it wasn’t like, ‘Whoo, let’s go out and party.’ I had to wake up and go to work the next morning on Monday at 6 a.m. (after) I broke my leg against Miguel Torres.”
Despite suffering that injury during his last fight in May, Johnson won a somewhat controversial unanimous decision, vaulting him into this opportunity.
He might be one of the most anonymous fighters to get a shot at a UFC belt. Johnson never has been on a main card at a UFC event and was on one main card during his stint in World Extreme Cagefighting.
But after dropping his first WEC fight, Johnson has reeled off four straight wins, including two in the UFC, and put himself in position to challenge for Cruz’s belt.
Listed generously at 5 feet 3 inches, Johnson is the shortest fighter in the UFC. “Mighty Mouse” goes into the biggest fight of his life as a 5-to-1 underdog, a line that doesn’t surprise him.
“It’s just the way the world sees me. That’s the story of my life. Every fight I’ve come into I’ve been an underdog, and it doesn’t bother me at all,” Johnson said. “I look forward to getting in there with Dominick and just showing the world what I got.”
Cruz, 26, is an established star, especially coming off his title defense against Urijah Faber in the main event of UFC 132 in July. But he remembers when he was in Johnson’s situation.
“He’s considered an underdog, and I know how that feels,” Cruz said. “I came up very similar as him early in my career where I was working a full-time job and trying to juggle that at the same time as my fight career, and then you have all these naysayers that say you can’t do it, you can’t beat so-and-so or this guy’s the next one coming.
“I went out there and did it, so I just understand that that’s something he brings to the table and keeps in his mind all the time.”
Johnson plans on enjoying his time in the spotlight no matter how it turns out.
“In the back of my head, I can go out here and get absolutely destroyed, and the next thing I know I fight again and get destroyed again and the next thing, you know, I might be back in the warehouse working somewhere,” he said. “I’m going to go out there, and what do I got to lose? I’m going out there and (I’m going to) try to make a name for myself.”
The card, which airs live at 6 p.m. on Versus (Cable 38), also includes a heavyweight matchup between 6-10 Stefan Struve and 5-11 Pat Barry, the largest height discrepancy between two fighters in UFC history.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.