Michael Johnson is coming off the biggest win of his UFC career, a first round KO of Dustin Poirier in the main event of UFC Fight Night 94 in Hidalgo, Texas. The victory earned Johnson a Performance of the Night bonus and a date with the UFC’s number one ranked lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov. That fight happens November 12th at UFC 205, at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Johnson, who has a record of 18-10, knows full well he has drawn a tough opponent in Nurmagomedov, whose record stands at 23-0.
“He does everything well,” Johnson told Bloody Elbow. “He's a great competitor, he's undefeated for a reason.
“He's one of the best in the world, so I have to have an outstanding fight, put pressure on him, and get out of there with a win.”
Asked where he had an advantage over Nurmagomedov, Johnson answered with confidence. “It’s striking.”
“That's the advantage I have over everybody in the division,” continued Johnson. “It's my movement, my putting punches together, and that I'm finally starting to find my groove.”
Despite impressing with his striking last time out, Johnson is also keen to show he’s no slouch in other elements of MMA.
“People tend to forget what they don't see or what they're not reminded of,” remarked Johnson regarding the assumption that Nurmagomedov’s much-praised wrestling skills may be too much for him to handle come fight night. “I've fought wrestlers my entire career, I fight wrestlers every day in the gym. I don't have one of the highest takedown defense percentages in the division for no reason.”
In his UFC career, Johnson has avoided 81% of all takedowns attempted by his opponents. According to Fight Metric, Donald Cerrone (88.4%), Edson Barboza (86.3%) and Al Iaquinta (84.8%) are the only other ranked lightweights who have a better takedown avoidance rate than Johnson.
Despite his success at staying on his feet in the UFC, Johnson admitted that his wrestling credentials are “nothing too extensive.” The Blackzillians fighter wrestled all through high school and then competed for a year at St. Louis Community College-Meramec.
“My wrestling didn't actually improve until I started fighting,” revealed Johnson. “I’ve had great coaches, and I’ve gotten great wrestling partners and training partners who know how to wrestle, so throughout the years it’s just developed to where it is now.”
Should Johnson’s defensive wrestling skills guide him to a win over Nurmagomedov he believes a UFC lightweight title fight will be waiting for him.
“Considering the rankings, he’s the number one guy. I beat him, I become the number one guy,” reasoned Johnson. “I think that’s common sense, but at the same time a lot of crazy things happen in this sport, guys get injured, somebody jumps the line, so I’m just going out there to get a win and put myself in a position to get big money and to get my title shot.”
At one point Khabib Nurmagomedov believed he would be fighting for the title at UFC 205, instead of facing Johnson on the prelim card. When news broke that UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor had been awarded the lightweight title fight opposite Eddie Alvarez, Nurmagomedov couldn’t hide his frustration. Among various interviews and social media posts, the native of Dagestan went so far as to suggest he was capable of blocking the UFC from breaking into the Russian market.
Johnson was asked whether he thought statements such as this were a good idea.
“No,” replied Johnson, emphatically. “I think that’s a pretty dangerous game to play with the UFC.
“But at the same time, you never know. Guys try things out and see what kind of reaction it gets,” continued Johnson. “If that’s the way he feels, that’s the way he feels. You can’t knock a man for saying what he truly means, so at least he’s man enough to do that.”
Johnson entered his last fight on a two-fight losing streak, although he called his 2015 split decision loss over Beneil Dariush a “win called wrong.” Even so, Johnson felt a loss to Poirier may have seen him cut from the UFC.
“I was prepared to go in there and fight like my back was against the wall,” said Johnson. “Because it was, and my back is still against the wall in this division, and in this sport, and I have to constantly fight to get it off.”
Johnson also entered the fight against Poirier - who was on a four-fight win streak - as a betting underdog.
“Yeah that was definitely motivation,” recalled Johnson. “When everybody overlooks you... That’s something that has happened to me my whole career.”
After finishing Poirier in under two minutes, Johnson celebrated and gestured towards both the crowd and his downed opponent. Asked whether this was a signal to those who were overlooking him against Poirier, Johnson confirmed that the reaction was strictly personal.
“I felt a little disrespected by Dustin throughout the whole process, throughout the fight week, especially at weigh-ins. So that was where that reaction stemmed from.”
When Johnson steps into the Octagon at UFC 205 it will be his 16th appearance in the UFC. Johnson admitted to feeling a little surprised at how many fights he’s had during his six year run in the promotion. He also admitted to “flying under the radar” for the majority of his career. However, he believes the time for being incognito is now over.
“I’m doing my thing and progressing,” said Johnson. “The ultimate goal is to get to the top and finish at the top.
“It really doesn’t matter where you start off, as long as you are striving for that goal. I’ve had my bumps and bruises, my head has been down sometimes, but now I think it’s the perfect time for me to remind everybody that I’ve been fighting the best in the world for a long time, and now it’s time for me to finally take that next step.”
You can see for yourself if Johnson is capable of taking the biggest step yet in his professional career, on November 12th, at UFC 205 - live from New York City.