TUF 12 finalist ready to begin his climb up the lightweight ladder
There is no off-season in mixed martial arts.
Fights happen every day, every weekend. Somewhere, there is a fight happening right now.
The sport is a living organism, constantly in motion. Fights are being announced, organizations are being put up for sale on Twitter, and each passing event pushes someone new to the forefront of their division. But for every fighter moving forward, there is someone who is getting shuffled deeper into the deck.
Michael Johnson has been one of those fighters.
The first pick (the second overall) of Team GSP on Season 12 of The Ultimate Fighter, Johnson was viewed as one of the favorites heading into the house. He justified his early selection and short odds by advancing to the finals, where he lost a unanimous decision to Jonathan Brookins.
Since then, Johnson has waited for the chance to get back into the cage.
He waited so long that he looked at taking a fight outside of the organization. Eventually, the call he'd been waiting for came, and this Sunday, Johnson will finally make his way into the Octagon once again.
"It feels great," said Johnson, speaking with HeavyMMA on Friday from Pittsburgh. "A six-month layoff definitely feels like a long time, especially coming back from The Ultimate Fighter; fighting four times in six weeks and then again a couple months after.
"I've always had the nature as a fighter and a competitor to hurry up and get back in the cage, so I'm real excited to get that chance again in a couple days. I just want to thank Joe Silva and Dana White for giving me another chance. I'm just real eager to show the world how hard I've worked in the last six months to get to where I am right now."
When he first left The Ultimate Fighter house, Johnson headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico to train with Greg Jackson and the collection of coaches and athletes who call his gym home. While Johnson enjoyed the experience, it ended up not being the right fit for him.
"Going down to Albuquerque was a great, great experience; Greg Jackson is a great coach, he helped me out a lot. Greg's a busy guy — everybody knows that — and I didn't want to really put too much on his plate with me kind of being a burden on him; I didn't really want to feel that way.
"Also, there's going to come a point in time where I have no choice but to face one of those guys, and I didn't really want to have to go through the troubles of figuring out where I was going to have to go train if I had to compete against Donald Cerrone or Melvin Guillard and us being in the same gym."
As a result, Johnson joined former Jackson's mainstays Rashad Evans and coach Mike Van Arsdale at Imperial Athletics in Florida, alongside Jorge Santiago, Anthony Johnson, Gesias Cavalcante and others.
"I think this move is the best for me. Being down in Florida with the Blackzilian crew, everybody is on that same goal, everybody's always pushing each other. It's a smaller environment for me. It's very family oriented, and we've got great guys.
"I'm able to work on my weaknesses a lot more in Florida," continued Johnson, expanding on his early thoughts about not wanting to be a burden to Jackson and his staff in Albuquerque. "With me being young in my career, I have to take advantage of a lot more one-on-one time."
Though he's surrounded by a collection of quality teammates, Johnson has an easy role model right next to him in the gym everyday in Evans.
Like Johnson, Evans made his way onto the MMA radar through The Ultimate Fighter, winning the second season of the long-running reality TV program. He quickly established himself as a star in the UFC, and climbed to the top of the light heavyweight division, capturing the title from Forrest Griffin at UFC 92.
Their shared path and similar personalities have given Johnson an in-house mentor who he hopes he can emulate.
"He absolutely is (a mentor to me]. I actually spend quite a bit of time with Rashad. We have a great relationship down there. Our personalities just click, and him being an Ultimate Fighter superstar than working his way up and winning the world title, I just love to pick his brain.
"I take everything I can from him. He gives me great advice about always staying focused, and never taking days off, and getting as much as I can out of a practice. I just try to better myself everyday.
"I look at him like I want to be in his shoes a couple years from now, and hopefully better than he is. Not knocking him, but you always strive to be better than who you mirror, and that's one of my goals in this sport."
One of the things that Johnson needed to improve coming off of The Ultimate Fighter was his endurance. In his elimination fights and in the finals, Johnson seemed to tire once the first round ended. He's identified the issue and worked to resolve it over the last six months, and aims to prove on Sunday that they are a thing of the past.
"I was a young fighter — and I'm still a young fighter — but I've continued to grow. Being a young fighter, I'd get over zealous; I'd see an opportunity to finish and I'd blow all my energy out.
"Brookins is a great competitor. He was able to weather that storm in the first round, and he caught me in the second and third rounds not being as energized as I was in the first round. To fix that, I've calmed myself down a lot in training. I've figured out how to really control my pace, work at my own pace and not get over zealous. I've also been running a lot and doing a lot of leg work, so those mistakes definitely won't happen again any time soon."
He can't afford to make those same mistakes — or any mistakes - in the ultra-competitive lightweight division.
No group better embodies the non-stop nature of the sport than the UFC's 155-pound group. As soon as a fighter establishes himself as a contender and steps into the spotlight, two more are right there to push him out of the way with a more recent impressive performance.
With the lightweight ranks brimming with talent, Johnson is thankful that the waiting is just about over, and his chance to start establishing himself as someone to watch in the 155-pound ranks has finally arrived.
"This division is so competitive. I'm just excited to finally break into the bread and butter of this weight class, get up to the top 10 fighters, and see how I can compete with those guys."
"That's definitely a step that I need to take; to go in here, have a dominant performance, and coming out with a victory. [I also have to work on] getting myself out there, and almost creating a demand for me in the UFC. If I can get three or four fights a year, I can see myself moving up the rankings pretty fast and getting into the top 10."
One way to create an instant connection and build your name with the fans? Giving away free stuff.
"Let everybody know: this weekend, everyone that follows me on Twitter (@FollowTheMenace), I'm giving away a pair of my black or white walkout shorts. I'll pick a winner on Monday," laughed Johnson at his self-promotional efforts.
Sunday night in Pittsburgh, he'll get the chance to make an impression with the UFC brass as well, kicking of the UFC on Versus 4 fight card opposite Edward Faaloloto. Batting lead-off is something Johnson is looking forward to and he promises to give the crowd what they came to see.
"It definitely gives me motivation to get in there and get the crowd riled up. You can expect a great fight from me and Edward; he's a good, tough guy.
"The fans are going to expect me to go out and put on a show like always. I think that's the most important thing to do in this sport — always play to the fans. Those are the guys that support us, so they can expect fireworks comes Sunday."
They say good things come to those who wait.
Johnson has done a lot of that over the last six months, but don't expect him to sit around to see if the old axiom holds true.
He's done waiting.
Now it's time to fight, finally.