After suffering defeat at the hands of Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 205 in November, Michael Johnson is back; hoping to rebound against much-hyped UFC debutante Justin Gaethje. Johnson, whose last win was a huge KO over Dustin Poirier, takes on the ZUFFA newcomer in the main event of TUF 25 Finale: Gaethje vs. Johnson.
A 16-fight veteran of the UFC whose record stands at 17-11, Johnson is more than familiar with his upcoming opponent; who is undefeated in 17 contests and a former WSOF lightweight champion. “I know he’s a scrapper,” Johnson told Bloody Elbow. “I know he’s undefeated. I know he likes to go in there and take the fight to people and those are the fights I love watching, those are the fighters I love to watch, and those are the fighters I love to compete against. So I’m excited for this one.”
Among Gaethje’s past opponents are Melvin Guillard and Gesias Cavalcante, Johnson’s former training partners from his days with the Blackzilians. Because of this, Johnson says his coaching team is ‘very familiar’ with Gaethje and that they have identified holes in Gaethje’s game that he can exploit on Friday night.
Johnson was one of a number of fighters who left the Blackzilians to train at Henri Hooft’s new venture, Combat Club. “It’s been great,” said Johnson of the new gym. “We haven’t missed a step. I’ve still got all my main training partners and all my coaches, everything is just firing on all cylinders.”
To prepare for Gaethje, he’s worked with fellow UFCers Gilbert Burns and Desmond Green, as well as former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler and Titan FC welterweight champ Jason Jackson. However, his recent work with Burns (and his brother Herbert Burns) may have had the biggest impact on his game during this training camp.
“I’ve been grappling a lot this camp,” said Johnson - who exalted the BJJ credentials of the Burns brothers, who each hold Brazilian national titles. Gilbert Burns is also a multi time world champion. “Khabib really opened my eyes. I need to work on stuff that’s going to stop me from getting that title and right now that is my grappling.”
Asked whether he had tapped out Durinho or his brother in training, Johnson laughed. “No not yet! I’m still working on it. I’m getting close to tapping them, but they’re beating my ass all day every day. But Justin’s jiu-jisu game is nowhere near those guys.” Johnson admitted he has developed a go-to move on the ground, but he wouldn’t reveal anything further than that. “We’ll see if I can lock it in,” he said.
Despite developing both his wrestling and grappling skill-set ahead of the fight, Johnson is confident that Gaethje, an owner of 14 KO/TKOs, will want to contest their bout on the feet. Evidence for this theory can be found in comments Gaethje made soon after signing on with the UFC.
On The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani, Gaethje - while promoting his exciting brand of fighting - promised that we would inevitably “get knocked out in the [UFC].” In response to that comment Johnson chuckled, “It kind of makes me worried about him.”
“That’s not the way to think,” continued Johnson. “He gets into too many wars. He’s expecting a war. He’s expecting a back and forth fight; to exchange punches; a 50-50 game, but it’s not going to be like that. I’m not going to stand in front of him and let him tee-off on me like he’s done to all those other guys.”
Gaethje’s past success against ‘all those other guys’ looks good on paper, admitted Johnson, but the veteran said he’s not fazed by the former WSOF champ’s perfect record. “They are just numbers,” he scoffed. “They’re not very important. Yeah, he’s fought 17 guys and he’s undefeated, but he hasn’t fought Michael Johnson. All those other guys he’s fought, I don’t look at them as a comparison to me because none of them are in my league and he’s in for a rude awakening if he thinks they are.”
Johnson, who was a finalist on The Ultimate Fighter Season 12 in 2010, thinks Gaethje will struggle in his transition to the UFC and not just because of the level of competition. “It’s a different animal,” said Johnson. “I’ve been in the UFC for six years and I’ve pretty much grown up in the UFC. I’m very familiar with the crowd. I’m very familiar with how bright the lights shine and how hot they can get. And all my nerves have gone now. You just can’t compare it to anything Justin would have faced before.”
Friday’s fight is Johnson’s second UFC main event in his last three fights (third overall). “I love my name being on the marquee,” he said. “People come to fights for the main event and I’m going to put some fans in the seats.” Johnson believes this headliner has the potential to satisfy those who stay tuned, but he’s not banking on this being a Fight of the Night.
“This fight has the possibility of being Fight of the Night, absolutely. But, I don’t go into these fights looking to get Fight of the Night. I look for Performance of the Night, because to me a Fight of the Night means my opponent has hit me too much or it was too competitive, it was too much give and take. That’s not my game. That’s not my style.”
You can see whether Johnson vs. Gaethje delivers Fight of the Night, or Performance of the Night, accolades this weekend. The main card of The Ultimate Fighter Finale: Johnson vs. Gaethje goes down on FS1 at 9pm ET.