Demetrious Johnson goes to ONE, Part 1: Assessing the highlights and challenges

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Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson
Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson

ONE Championship has signed the greatest flyweight fighter of all time, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. In the first of a two part series, ASIA MMA takes an in depth look at the highlights and challenges it poses for Johnson. Part two will assess the same for ONE Championship.

Demetrious Johnson was the eleven-time defending UFC flyweight champion for six years, the most prolific title holder ever. His legacy extends from his 2011 debut at UFC 126 against KID Yamamoto and his first incredible bantamweight title challenge with Dominick Cruz, to his 2012 capture of the first UFC flyweight title and subsequent clean sweep of every contender to 2018.

The Deal

After a week of speculation, ONE CEO Chatri Sityodtong announced signing Johnson on social media on 28 October. On a Monday morning conference call with ONE, CEO Chatri Sityodtong stated, “To be able to welcome DJ, whom I consider to be the greatest pound-for-pound mixed martial artist in history… it’s just an honor.” Johnson said of his feelings about the new venture, “It’s a huge move… It’s about respect… It’s about promoting two martial artists who are going to test their skills against each other… This was the perfect opportunity for me.”

Johnson spoke about how the deal came to pass. “This wasn’t done by just me,” he said. “First Round Management, ONE Championship, Chatri, Matt Hume, the UFC – it was a collective, people coming together and making something happen.”

The terms of Johnson’s new contract with ONE weren’t announced. Johnson’s pay base disclosed for the last three out of four of his fights in UFC was US$350,000, $370,000 and $380,000. Eddie Alvarez, world top 10-ranked lightweight also recently signed to ONE said that he had an “eight figure contract”, to which Johnson’s deal’s negotiator, Malki Kawa of First Round Management, stated on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show, “DJ’s is way better than that… by far.”

On top of his promotional pay, Johnson will be able to enter into sponsorship agreements with little interference and could reap great financial benefits from that as well.

ONE Championship does not operate on a pay-per-view model broadcast cast currently so it’s unlikely that PPV points – a cash value percentage of purchased views which have been historically attributed to main card fighters in many combat sports – will apply.

Johnson’s term length, number of fights and championship bout consideration were also not released. Johnson stated that he would likely be making his first appearance in January or February, then gave an indication of length on the MMA Show when he said, “I am going to fight five or six years… and then I will retire… ONE is the last stop.”

Demetrious Johnson
Demetrious Johnson kicks an opponent. Photo by Sports Illustrated.

What it means for Demetrious Johnson

As far as remuneration goes, Johnson’s decision that this was the best choice for him financially should be the final word that yes, it certainly is the best choice.

He’ll also be able to start racking up the sponsorship dollars again. His highest profile outside of MMA is in the video games circle. Given the astronomical rise in the egames industry, Johnson could be sitting on a gold mine there.

Of course, an impetus for Johnson’s signing is the opportunity to get a belt in another promotion. As the highest-ranked fighter ONE has ever gotten its gloves on, he can be expected to get into championship contention quickly, if not immediately. ONE has booked many promotional debutants in title fights, including the recent event in Myanmar, which saw massive hometown favorite middleweight champ Aung La Nsang trounce Mohammad Karaki of Lebanon. However, Johnson said he expects to work his way up the ladder in his new promotion.

What is known is that Johnson plans to stay at flyweight in ONE for now, and not bantamweight, where his coach Bibiano Fernandes reigns as champion. Whether he fights ONE flyweight champ Geje Eustaquio first, or one of the past title contenders, as one of the pound for pound best in the history of MMA, Johnson will be a massive shark in a shallow pool and can claim gold quickly.

This addresses the opposite side of the coin: the level of Johnson’s new home’s division is substantially lower that what he’s fought in the last eight years in the UFC, and much more sparse. The highest ranked flyweights on the ONE roster are champ Eustaquio (39 Tapology, 69 Fight Matrix) and former champ Adriano Moraes (28 Tapology, 72 Fight Matrix). The other top fighters in the division are former champ Kairat Akhmetov (40 Tapology, 149 Fight Matrix), Reece McLaren (49 Tapology) and Alex Silva (55 Tapology). ONE CEO Chatri Sityodtong stated on the media call that Akhmetov “would potentially be welcoming DJ into ONE Championship… I think it would be an incredible fight”, and later mentioned that Moraes and Gianni Subba would be possibilities.

In regards to the division being sparse: out of eight championships, defenses and interim title matches, three have been rematches and two have been against promotional newcomers. While any of these fighters can bring a thrilling performance to Johnson, the competitiveness for him in ONE Championship simply does not exist at this time.

However, all of the above is regarding his partition in MMA bouts. ONE has also held grappling matches and now has the Super Series for Muay Thai and kickboxing. Johnson expressed interest in this during the media call. “I have the skill set to do it, he stated. “I’m sure if I put my name in a hat to try a Muay Thai fight, they wouldn’t be opposed to it.” Given the global trend towards mixed styles bouts on cards, Johnson will add nothing but power to his legend by trying. A bout against a Thai fighter or kickboxer of similar acumen would gain him even more fame in other combat sports industries.

DJ the Gamer
DJ the Gamer

Which leads to another topic which has not been broached as of yet: egames. Johnson is an avid video gamer and extremely active on the live streaming video platform Twitch.tv with almost 100,000 fans (he’s currently in the process of changing his ID from “mightymouseufc125”). He’s also competed professionally. At TwitchCon, the convention devoted to Twitch and the culture of video game streaming, he’s competed twice in the H1Z1 Invitational, and recently won second place. Johnson has already indicated his interest in getting involved with esports beyond being a player, even to the point of purchasing a team. Almost two years ago, he told Dot Esports, “I’d love to sit down with them [UFC owners WME-IMG] and see how the business side works of an esports team.” Japan’s Pancrase has been involved with egames sponsors for several years, and RIZIN held a 3-on-3 tournament at their last event, so this could be a new avenue for ONE to explore. They certainly have the right ambassador in Johnson.

In the area of personal relationships, Johnson’s career-long coach is ONE Vice President of Operations Matt Hume, whose role directly encompasses “matchmaking and talent recruitment, managing standards in rules and regulations”. His teammate and coach, Bibiano, is the ONE bantamweight champion. Former teammate Rich Franklin is a vice president and manages the ONE Warrior Series for talent recruitment. There’s a handful of strong figures in the organization to support his move, and make the transition seamless. Johnson stands to be treated very well by ONE Championship as a definite jewel in the crown. Sityodtong said, “We’ll be promoting him very, very heavily.”

What it means for ONE flyweight fighters

Geje Eustaquio probably didn’t get any sleep this weekend. Every match in front of a fighter – as favorite or underdog – presents a mix of emotions: elation and fear, glory and loss. Now the greatest match up is potentially in front of every single ONE flyweight. Dropping one of the world’s best fighters into the division with the current ONE athletes will surely have each one of them contemplating their own mortality, and – of course – a shot at history-making glory.

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