Though Wilson Reis is not a household name, the Brazilian is a legitimate BJJ black belt with MMA 22 wins, just one loss at 125lb and a number-three ranking in the division. By anyone’s standards, he’s an excellent fighter. But when he stepped into the cage with Demetrious Johnson, he was made to look like a rank amateur by the greatest combat athlete in the world.
The first, current and only UFC flyweight champion hit him at will. When the challenger tried to return fire, ‘Mighty Mouse’ was already somewhere else, ready to blast him with punches, kicks or knees and put him down.
Reis is used to the mat being his world. Not this time. His guard was passed as if it wasn’t there. Hammerfists and elbows landed effortlessly. Finally, when he was a broken man, DJ took his arm.
A few minutes later, Brian Stann stood next to the flyweight champion, captivated by the brilliance he’d just seen, and asked him whether he belongs not just in the company of the best in the world, but the greatest of all time as the crowd in Kansas City, Missouri roared their approval.
“GSP (Georges St-Pierre) and Anderson (Silva), they’re great champions,” said Johnson, “but I’m the best champion to ever step in this Octagon.”
A few weeks later, the world flyweight champion and pound-four-pound best fighter in the world – that’s ‘official’ too, according to the UFC rankings – reflects on the win that earned him his record-equaling 10th title defense and the renewed enthusiasm from hard-core MMA fans about his status at the top of the sport.
He’s not shy about saying he is the best, it’s something he’s believed for some time, but is ‘Mighty Mouse’ bothered that the rest of the MMA community are more united than ever in their celebration of him as the top dog?
“It’s a compliment, but I’ve been here before and then Jon Jones came back and took it away from me,” he tells Fighters Only. “You can’t put too much into what people think because one thing can happen and it’s gone. That’s why I don’t let it fill up my head. The only thing I can dictate is how I train in the gym and how I fight.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t care about the way he’s perceived. When his career is over, he’d certainly like to be remembered for his ability to dominate all-comers.
“I want people to remember me as one of the champions that was very dominant. Anderson Silva won all his title fights by knocking people out. He was a great striker. In my eyes, he didn’t fight anyone who was really efficient in all the areas. The guys I’ve beaten in my weight class were well-rounded. I’ve gone out there and finished a lot of guys. I can’t compare the two because he’s done a lot of great things, but I want to be remembered as one of the champions who did it all.
“I can do it all. I’ve fought multiple guys who were experts in certain martial arts. I took them to where they were deficient and I beat them. I know how to put myself into positions to capitalize on openings.”
Though that seems like quite a sterile assessment of Johnson’s ability to beat anyone in any way he chooses, it’s perfect for breaking down the way in which some incredible fighters have been dismantled. Henry Cejudo is an Olympic gold-medal-winning wrestler that was made to feel every element of a dynamic striking game. John Dodson was the biggest hitter at 125lb but was shut down over 25 minutes by relentless offense. Joseph Benavidez is the closest man being a match in the weight class thanks to his incredible all-around skills and pushed him as hard as anyone in their first encounter, so Johnson knocked him out in two minutes.
Attaining this lofty status has not always been the target for DJ. Many fighters will tell you they always wanted to be a world champion, but when Johnson started training 11 years ago as a 19-year-old there was little infrastructure for flyweight fights anywhere, let alone in the UFC. His ambitions were restricted.
“You’re just doing it for the pure love of mixed martial arts and because you want to learn. For me to sit here and say I wanted to be the best fighter in the world and be a world champion, I’d be telling a lie. That wasn’t feasible for myself. I just went to the gym and wanted to learn how to fight and learn martial arts.”
Only later, once the Octagon’s flyweight class was launched, a title was won and defenses started piling up did his ambitions evolve.
“Once I became champion I wanted to become known as one of the top fighters and possibly the most well-rounded fighter in the world. All the pound-for-pound talk, that’s for people to put labels on people and all that stuff. As a competitor, my mindset is in the right place. It’s in the gym, doing better, staying healthy and letting my skill-set show it in the Octagon.”
His achievements and future targets may have changed, but they were a by-product of the way he’d approached his career since day one.
With no titles on the horizon or even a clear path to making a full-time living in the sport, DJ’s ambitions were pure: he wanted to become the most complete mixed martial artist possible.
He explains: “I joined a gym and learned how to throw my first punch and learned how to kick when you’re punching. I learned how to do everything. I took advanced boxing classes and kickboxing classes and Muay Thai. I already knew how to wrestle, so I didn’t need that. I then learned how to do submission grappling. Once you get all those, you start applying it to controlled environments, like sparring, and you start doing amateur fights.”
He competed in most of those disciplines at the amateur level before turning pro. He was well-prepared for the task of taking on bigger men in the bantamweight division. He quickly made it to WEC, where he lost only once, and then the UFC, where his only defeat came when he came up short against Dominick Cruz in a back-and-forth battle for the 135lb title.
Incredibly, as well as achieving all of this with a size disadvantage, Johnson wasn’t even training full-time. He was getting world-class instruction when it came to fighting, but doing his own thing for conditioning and nutrition. After he escaped from his first fight at flyweight – a draw with Ian McCall – his schedule at AMC Pankration in Kirkland, Washington, became full-time. He’s won every one of his 12 fights since.
Now his aim is simple: “I just go out there to fight and win. Don’t get me wrong, I try and finish every single fight because I work way too hard in the gym to go to the judges.”
Johnson credits much of his success to becoming a full-time pro. The most important part of that was doing everything with Matt Hume: “I think I’m a great athlete,” he says. “I think I would have done well everywhere. But I think I’ve done amazingly good because of the coaching staff I have had. I’ve seen cornermen in world title fights in the UFC and their guy is just getting mauled in wrestling and the head coach looks at the wrestling coach and says, ‘Have you got anything to say to him?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you, dude.’ That happens in the UFC.
“My coach has wrestled all his life. He has a Muay Thai record. He has fought in mixed martial arts. He’s done all of it. My second guy, Brad Curtain, has been with Matt Hume since he was probably 16 years old. He’s 37 now. What we’re working on is the same stuff that has been in-house and made Matt successful. Now it’s just being transferred over to me. It’s worked out perfect.”
Hume and Johnson operate with seamless synchronicity. The coach’s corner instructions are executed flawlessly, as if DJ is a character from a beat ’em up video game and Hume is holding a PlayStation control pad – and he’s got all the cheat codes to make the contest totally one-sided.
“The thing I most enjoy is after the first round sitting down and hearing what Matt has to say,” Johnson adds. “He will tell me what the opponent is trying to do to me and then say, ‘I want you to do this and see if it works.’ I’ll then go out and try to do it.”
With his outstanding talents, it’s a wonder the world flyweight champion’s team can find anyone to test him and push him in training. Five-time BJJ world champion and ONE Championship titlist, Bibiano Fernandes, is a good start. But the AMC Pankration training philosophy doesn’t require its fighters to break each other in the gym every day.
“Matt’s philosophy has always been to train with people who can compete and then with people who are way better than you,” says Johnson. “People who are better than me are my coaches. They say iron sharpens iron, but iron also breaks iron. I’ve never had to go super hard in sparring to prepare for a fight. I don’t plan on getting hit when I fight. That doesn’t make sense.”
The proof is in his unique and unbroken title reign. The preparation and training is so good, Johnson believes one of the other men in the P4P conversation and a man whose skills he respects, could be even better if he left the renowned surrounds of New Mexico for Washington.
“Me and Jon Jones have worked out in the room together,” Johnson says. “He flowed very well. His combinations were good. He has good jiu-jitsu. If he came here, he would be sick.”
He’s got the skills, he’s got the titles, he’s got the record; the only thing that’s arguably missing from the Mighty Mouse puzzle is the crossover stardom and money-making ability of a Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey. He has long been derided for not being able to sell, but there are signs that’s starting to change.
His headline effort against Reis was the highest-grossing sporting event in the history of Kansas City’s Spirit Center. There were more people in the building than for Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier at the MGM Grand. He’s also started acting gigs and he talks to Fighters Only between media engagements in New York and Dallas. Mighty Mouse is going mainstream.
Possibly the greatest value he brings is from the Mighty Squad, an army of loyal fans and followers he’s cultivated streaming video games on Twitch. It’s in this domain that fans get to see the ‘real’ DJ, when he’s relaxed and in his element at home and enjoying his other passion, and the UFC has finally started to embrace this for promotional purposes, rather than waiting for him to try and sell a fight like everyone else.
It’s a strategy he supports. “I hope they keep doing it,” he says “That’s my personality. I’m not a guy who creates conflict or stirs up drama or belittles my opponent or talks s**t. I think that’s the way the UFC should go and I think they’re doing a good job of it.”
That’s not to say Johnson isn’t scared of ruffling a few feathers – not to sell a fight, but to make sure everyone knows the way things really are in MMA. “I like how Nate Diaz keeps it real and up front,” he says. “He’s basically trying to bring down the illusion of the best boxer in the world taking on Conor McGregor. The media likes to make illusions. Gegard Mousasi said it, too. At one point in time everybody thought Ronda Rousey was the best fighter in the world and she didn’t even throw a f**king kick. Who brought that up? The media. Everybody creates this illusion. That’s why I stay even keel, that’s why I be me. I tell it how it is.”
Give him the platform to speak his mind and the best fighter in the world will get attention and more fans. But social media beef? He’ll leave that to everyone else: “It’s child’s play. When I see people going back and forth on Twitter, I think, aren’t you adults?”
His star is on the rise and it’s not without precedent. Floyd Mayweather was a three-division champion before he was recognized as pound-for pound number one. He didn’t even make it onto pay-per-view until he was 33-0 and fought Arturo Gatti. He didn’t even break 375,000 pay-per-view buys until a historic fight with Oscar De La Hoya.
Sustained success – as well as a love/hate personality – helped ‘Money’ to unparalleled levels of success. Johnson might not be able to ever command $100 million for a fight, but if he keeps winning, he’ll stand alone as the most successful UFC champion ever and maybe then achieve the kind of recognition and stardom his abilities deserve.
“We’ll make it eleven in a row and I’ll continue to build my brand. I love mixed martial arts and if my body can do it forever and I can recover I’d do it until I’m 85 years old. But that’s not the reality. The reality is I’ve probably got five or six years left in me until my body is going.
“You get the belt and you just keep defending the belt. I always took it one fight at a time. You just never know what your opponent is going to bring to you. If I got to 10, that would be awesome. Now I want to try and get to 15, and then we’ll try and get to 20 and then I’ll retire as the champion and never come back.”
Undefeated champion with 20 defenses? That sounds like the best champion to ever step in the Octagon.
*** This feature first appeared in the August 2017 issue of Fighters Only magazine ***