Your promotional debut with ONE was in a foreign county in Tokyo, Japanin the opening round of the Featherweight Grand Prix at a higher weight of 135 lbs. versus Yuya Wakamatsu. That’s a lot to unwrap in one scrap. What are your takeaways from the entire experience?Demetrious Johnson-It was a great fight. The build up was nice. To be able to fight in front a different crowd for a different organization and with the different hydration process was all new. All in all it was great. The fight was tough. Wakamatsu is slick on his feet. He has knockout power. We went out there and go the finish and moved on the next round.
Speaking of moving on to the next round, you moved on the semifinals of the grand prix and faced Tatsumitsu Wada. It was yet another tough fight in which you won by unanimous decision. This time the fight was in a ring. I assume it been a while since you fight in a ring. What was the experience like?
That was a great one. I competed in Manila for the first time. I had been in Manila before for previous promotions but I never competed there. It was a little different, being my first fight in a ring. I train in a ring a lot more than I do in cages but this was my first professional competition in a ring. It was fun. Wada is a tough guy. He is very long and just big. He got my back and locked up that body triangle. To get those big ass legs untangled was a lot of work. I spent three minutes trying to untangle his legs. We got them untangled and turned on the offense. We came away with the unanimous decision. I wanted to get the finish but we will take the UD and move on the next one.
Ahead of the Grand Prix final with Danny Kingad, what were your thoughts on him as an opponent?
I thought it would be a great fight. Danny is a young phenom from Team Lakay representing the Philippines. He only had one loss on his record butI knew I was ready to go out there and get it done.
Once it was all said and done your hand was raised and you were crowned the ONE Featherweight World Grand Prix Champion. What do you remember about that historic fight?
I thought it was a good fight. A lot of the stuff we worked on in the gym was to nullify Danny’s wrestling. He loves to go with the under hooks. Even when you watch his previous fights you can see it. He loves to use the underhooks to get up. We trained a lot to shut that down. Obviously, we were going for the finish, trying to get him in the arm bar and the guillotine. He was able to nullify that. We came away with the victory with no injuries.
To be able to capture a title in another major organization is a special accomplishment. What does it mean to you to have held championship gold in multiple fight companies?
It’s awesome. That is always the goal but I don’t put a lot of stress on myself about it. I have been a champion for six years straight with all those title defences. The world grand prix title is a big deal. They don’t give those out like they used to back in the day. Now I am going home to get healthy and relax a bit. I am dealing with some health issues. I am trying to get that beat. It’s a long battle. These last few camps I did on antibiotics. It will be nice to do a full camp without any antibiotics whatsoever and get my weight back to where it needs to be. I woke up this morning at 135.8 and I didn’t cut weight. I have been going through this battle this whole, entire year. That’s the main focus right now-to get healthy. I want to get back to 100%. Once I get healthy then I will go get the title. If that is in the cards,I will play those cards. If not, then I will keep competing and one day hopefully get it. I am at the point in my career where I am focused on winning and having a good time and not stressing out about things.
ONE is very Pride-esque in their pageantry and showmanship. What was it like to walk out with those circumstances the first time and what emotions were coursing through your veins when you literally ran into the ONE cage for the first time?
I grew up watching those types of entrances. I grew up watching Mirko Cro Cop, Wanderlei Silva and Shogun and all of those guys. To be able to have my own was really special. The opening ceremony was special, too. They shoot those fireworks off and I was thinking ‘Oh, shit. Don’t get burned!’ It has been fun. When it comes to the walkout and actually stepping into their cage it felt good. The cage and canvas is better. It’s just a different material and it literally felt really good.
The audience overseas is generally quiet and polite with the exception of certain bursts of oohs and aahs during highlights in the action. The almost accentuates the moments even more. How did the crowds reactions influence or affect you during the fight?
They are very knowledgeable. I remember when I was fighting Wakamatsu. They were cheering him on. He was the hometown hero. At one point I took him down and got his back. Then the crowd started cheering for me. They knew I was about to finish him on the ground. It was a back and forth battle between him and I. The fans loved it. They were very in tune with what was going on in the fight.
It has always appeared that many of the fans oversea appreciate the subtleties maybe more so than fans stateside. Is that a fair statement?
Yeah they appreciate the subtleties.They will cheer a guard pass. They will appreciate someone taking their opponents back. They are more in tune with every aspect of what is going on in a fight.
ONE has struck a major TV deal with Turner here in the States. How excited are you to be a part of ONE during this time of real growth?
The Turner TV deal is done. They have already broadcasted a few fights. It’s great to now compete on a global stage. We are broadcasted in places like India, Thailand and China to name a few. We are exposed not only to Mixed Martial Arts fans but kickboxing and Muay Thai fans as well.
People in other parts of the world still don’t fully understand how huge combat sports in general and ONE specifically are in Asia and overseas. Are you experiencing that at a crazy level now?
Oh, Manila is absolutely bonkers. Manila is a fight city. Team Lakay does a great job being good role models for the community. It is a huge thing overseas and Manila is one of the biggest places to do it in.
Now that you have had some time in your new organization and away from the UFC, what are your thoughts on the decision to move on from competing in the UFC?
I think it was the best decision I could have made so far in my career. I have done a lot in North America and I think I have hit my peak here in North America. Now to be able to be 33 years old in a new organization and fighting closer to my natural weight and fighting overseas has all been awesome. There is a little more preparation that goes into it with the travel and time zone changes but I am a professional. I take that very seriously.
There has been a lot made of the hydration process and change in weight classes from 125 to 135. Have your opponents felt much bugger and stringer in competition?
They have definitely felt bigger. They are five foot six or five foot eight. They are taller than the average five foot three or five foot four guys I have been fighting. Other than that, they are all hydrated and they are all strong. They all have their specialities. That is all stuff I knew I was getting myself into.
With everything you have accomplished, what are your motivations at this point?
I have always looked at a job. Matt said that is one thing that has done me well over the years, seeing it as a job. I come from a working background, working nine to five. So when I clock in the gym it is a job. I love it with all my heart and I enjoy it. I am grateful that I am able to do this. Right now, it’s my job and I am focused on setting myself up for the future to have financial freedom. It’s very hard to make a living as an up and coming Mixed Martial Artist. Coming up, I kept a full time job and my workload was crazy. I had that supplemental income coming in every week. I paid my bills and it worked out for me. The focus now is on the fact that when I’m done fighting I don’t have to go back to clocking in.