ONE Championship’s ‘A New Era’ show delivered the goods. A card headlined by a four-piece of title fights was nonetheless most notable for two fighters making their debuts on the undercard — in the quarter-final rounds of the promotion’s lightweight and flyweight tournaments. Former UFC champions Eddie Alvarez and Demetrious Johnson hit the ONE cage for the first time in the Singapore-based promotion’s first ever event in Japan.
Both men were expected to make large impacts at their new home, as elite competitors coming to the UFC in the late-prime of their careers. While both Alvarez and DJ left the Octagon on a loss, in Johnson’s case it was a controversial split decision to current champ Henry Cejudo — cutting off ‘Mighty Mouse’’s record setting streak of title defenses. Alvarez’s recent career had been much more rocky, but it included a remarkable KO over Justin Gaethje and a long-held spot in the UFC’s top 5 at lightweight — as well as being only two-ish years removed from Alvarez’s championship reign.
For his part, DJ lived up to those expectations, finishing Yuya Wakamatsu with a guillotine in the second round of their contest.
“First round was a little rough,” Johnson admitted in a post-fight interview with MMA Fighting, “but we got our wits about us and picked up the pressure. And that was the gameplan; Yuya Wakamatsu, he likes to have his opponents... He likes to be able to sit there and throw the right hand, left hook, left hook, right hand. We knew we had to put the pressure on him. I knew if I did that, I would run into a little bit of trouble. Because I’m engaging, I’m not trying to draw him out. Great first fight. I’m happy that I got the victory. I got the finish, that’s most important — that I’m out there finishing, not going to a decision. And I’m happy and ready for the next round.”
Johnson also described the adjustments he had to make to his game, fighting far from home, and just his second time ever outside North America. Along with the time change, ONE’s grounded knees rule, and taking on an opponent in their own back yard, the former UFC flyweight king put a lot of emphasis on how much bigger the opposition is with ONE’s adjusted weight division system.
“Everything is different,” Johnson explained. “Weight cut is different. Now I’m not fighting guys who are 5’3”/5’4”. I’m fighting guys who are 5’5”/5’7. I’m back to being the smallest guy in the division height-wise, but weight-wise we’re all the same.”
“I can’t make 125 hydrated,” he continued, “and I won’t go through the lifestyle changes to do that. I’m at that point in my career now where I’m focused on: just keep training, get strong. I mean, this morning I woke up weighing 136.4 [lbs]. That’s what I like about the hydrated weight cut, because I weighed in at 135 [lbs] two days in a row. And to turn back around on competition day, your body won’t do very well holding all that weight, because you kept your weight down that long. So, I’m just going to go home, lift weights, put some more muscle on me. But, at the same time, it’s going to have to come back off.”
However, if Johnson’s first bout post-UFC went more-or-less as planned, Eddie Alvarez’s did not. The ‘Underground King’ suffered one of the most lopsided losses of his career. Getting knocked out in the first round - for the first time in 37 fights - by Russian former featherweight Timofey Nastyukhin.
“This is the biggest thing that... it irritates me, a little bit,” Johnson said when asked about Alvarez’s surprising loss. “It doesn’t matter what organization you fight for. The light heavyweight champion, Jon Jones, could come over here and fight Aung La Nsang, and Aung La Nsang would probably give him a run for his money. Or potentially beat him. Who else? What’s another champion? Khabib Nurmagomedov, he might be able to come over here, and he might blow through everybody. But, he might have some tough matches. And the list just goes on and on and on.
“It doesn’t matter if you fight for ONE, UFC, Bellator, DEEP, RIZIN, whatever,” Johnson added. “Every athlete can lose on any given day. And that’s a problem with the causal fans – or even the hardcore fans – they think that just because you fight for the biggest organization in the world means that you’re absolutely the best fighter in the world. That’s a problem of the sport, right? It’s like, if you play for the NFL, you’re better than Arena Football League or Canada Football League. Nah, I’m pretty sure if you play a team, you might get beat that day. Even though you’re better, you might get beat.
“I think that fight between Timofey Nastyukhin and Eddie Alvarez was a great fight. Timofey is very good. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen him fight. Then I saw some of his highlights, and I was like, ‘Oh man! This is gonna be a good fight.’ Because I know Eddie, he likes to stand and bang. And Timofey will do the same thing. And, once again, Eddie’s fighting bigger dudes. Somebody was like, ‘Damn, Timofey is huge!’ Which, I’m sure Eddie is used to fighting guys who were 5’8”/5’9 – I don’t know how big he was – but Eddie will bounce back. He’ll go home, re-figure things out, and see where he goes from there.”
As for Johnson, he teased briefly that he knew when his next fight would happen, but couldn’t yet officially announce it. The AMC Pankration talent should be set to face off against the winner of Tatsumitsu Wada vs. Gustavo Balart, after their quarter-final bout on April 12th at ONE Championship: Roots of Honor in the Philippines. After that fight is in the books, hopefully fans will be able to expect Johnson back in the cage again soon.