The first round Michael Johnson ever fought at featherweight was a sensational display of how his skills could translate to 145 pounds. The second round told a far too familiar story.
Following a seven-year, 17-fight journey as one of the UFC’s elite at 155 pounds, Johnson made an unexpected entry into the featherweight division this past January against Darren Elkins at UFC St. Louis, and the bout’s opening five minutes showed exactly why Johnson could become a force to be reckoned with at 145 pounds. With his lightning-quick speed and creative striking angles, “The Menace” busted up Elkins in a bad way until “The Damage” lived true to his nickname and pounced on a second-round rear-naked choke to secure yet another of his many come-from-behind wins.
The dramatic swing in momentum ruined what was supposed to be the start of a promising new chapter for Johnson at featherweight. But he isn’t deterred. A 32-year-old perennial contender, Johnson returns for his second go-round at his new weight class on Saturday at UFC Lincoln in a co-headlining feature against Elkins’ Team Alpha Male squadmate, Andre Fili. And after struggling through a slump that has seen him lose five of his last six contests, Johnson is eager to turn the page and resume his winning ways.
“I definitely need to get in here and get a win, I know that,” Johnson told MMA Fighting. “Not only for the sake of my position, but for my sanity, for one, and for things that I want [in my career] and for things that I’m wanting in life. I have to go in there, I have to get a win, I have to keep progressing. I can’t take any steps back now.
“I’m still shocked from that (Elkins) fight, how I ended up losing. It’s just like everybody who saw it. I was pretty much having my way with him the whole first round, and I just made a little mistake and that’s our sport, and that’s our world, and it cost me. And I didn’t really recover too well and I rushed out of a spot, so all I take from that is I have to stay focused. I have to believe in my training and believe in myself, and believe in what I can do. I kinda froze up on the ground in that first fight, and that’s not happening anymore.”
Johnson’s experience at UFC St. Louis effectively served as a test run for how the longtime lightweight could handle the drop to 145 pounds.
Aside from the result of his fight, Johnson was pleased with the results.
He was never really a guy who had to cut a lot of weight to make 155 pounds, so he approached his featherweight debut with caution. He arrived at UFC St. Louis fight week already close to the featherweight limit simply because he was afraid of his body locking up mid-cut due to the foreign nature of the drop to 145 pounds. But with the help of weight-cutting guru George Lockhart, those concerns never became an issue. The transition down to featherweight ended up being a smooth one, and now Johnson is confident in his ability to make the weight safely, which has led him to carry a little extra muscle into UFC Lincoln.
“There is a different feeling to this camp,” Johnson said. “I’m carrying a lot more weight closer to the fight now, which is good because now I do believe that I won’t get stuck up at a higher weight [while I’m cutting], and that was kinda my fear for a little bit the first time. I wanted to be really low in my weight close to the fight, but now I know I can keep on a few.
“Maybe I don’t have as much pop [at 145], or maybe I didn’t have as much pop back in January as I usually did at 155, because I don’t have that extra 10 pounds on me, but like I said, that was my first time down there. I was a little lower in weight. This time it’s a different story and I’m making sure I’m a little heavier coming in this time around.”
Of all the changes his move to 145 pounds has wrought, none have been felt by Johnson more than the overall shift in lifestyle he now enjoys. He says the need to hover around a lower weight has affected both his diet and sleeping patterns in a positive way. He’s eating healthier, going to sleep and waking up earlier, and is running virtually every morning to maintain the robust lifestyle needed to compete at featherweight. He says his body feels better than it has in ages, and it’s put him in a good mental place despite the nightmarish in-cage slump he’s been struggling through since his woes first began in late 2015.
“[A run like the one I’m on], it’s ridiculous. It’s a horrible feeling,” Johnson said. “Especially coming from winning and then being in a stretch and losing. I’m not used to this feeling. This sport’s lonely enough as it is. It’s even lonelier when you lose. Granted, I don’t like to keep any people around me just because I win — I’m very selective in my circle and my group and my support team — but at the end of the day, it’s obvious. When people are around you, you’re winning; when people are not around you, you’re losing. But that’s just the way of the world. The world loves winners.”
To break his run of bad luck, Johnson will first need to get past Fili, a Team Alpha Male standout who is enjoying the best streak of his UFC career. After alternating wins and losses in his first eight Octagon appearances, the 28-year-old Fili has finally picked up back-to-back wins with performances over Artem Lobov and Dennis Bermudez.
Fili’s coaches are quite familiar with Johnson as well.
In addition to Elkins, the Team Alpha Male stable also includes Danny Castillo, a retired fighter-turned-coach who Johnson brutally knocked out back in 2012.
So needless to say, Johnson is well aware of what he’s up against at UFC Lincoln.
“He’s a great opponent,” Johnson said of Fili. “He’s a very durable fighter. He knows how to fight and he fights, which is what I like. He’s very long and he can be tricky sometimes. He’s a decent wrestler. He comes from a great camp of guys — not to mention, it’s the second time in a row that I’m fighting that camp, and it’s the third time [in total] I’m fighting that camp, so this is almost like a tiebreaker with me and this camp. So I have to go in there. This is like my payback fight for Elkins, so it can’t get any sweeter than this without fighting him.
“I fought Danny Castillo years ago in Minnesota, I knocked him out in the second round, and then Elkins submits me in the second round,” Johnson added with a laugh. “Now I get to knock Fili out in the second round, I guess.”
Considering his history with Team Alpha Male, Johnson knows familiarity will be working against him on Saturday night, but he’s also confident Elkins’ success isn’t something the Sacramento-based coaches can replicate with Fili.
“They know how to fight me, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “It’s a line and they just tell the other guy exactly what they were planning on. However, Fili and Elkins are two completely different fighters. Elkins is, I think, in my opinion, a lot better on the ground. He’s a lot more durable. He’s a rougher fighter. Fili likes to be a little pretty in there, and I’m going to make it a little ugly.”
It says something about Johnson’s impressive strength of schedule that Fili will be the first truly unranked opponent “The Menace” has fought since 2014.
But ranked or unranked, Johnson isn’t taking Fili lightly.
If his run at featherweight is supposed to mark the beginning of a new chapter, Johnson knows that chapter can only start with a thunderous statement at UFC Lincoln.
“I’m not going to take anything away from Andre and compare him to my past opponents, because that’s just obvious,” Johnson said. “Look at where my past opponents are, look at where Andre Fili is. But, when it’s all said and done, I’m in a position to where now I have to fight Andre Fili. That’s all I’m worried about. He’s the most talented guy I’m going to face in my opinion right now, because that’s who I’m fighting, so that’s why all of my energy is focused on him. He’s just as dangerous as anybody else I’ve fought.
“[It’s going to be] a beautiful destruction. I’m going to go in there and I’m going to be as sharp as possible, and everything is just going to be on-point. There’s no mistakes that can be made in this fight. Everybody tries to be perfect — I have to be perfect in this fight.”