For the first time in nearly eight years, Demetrious Johnson has a new home as he officially joins the roster at ONE Championship.
The former UFC flyweight champion initiated a historic trade through his representatives at First Round Management that allowed him to leave the promotion and join ONE Championship while former ONE welterweight champion Ben Askren came to the UFC.
According to Johnson, his earliest machinations about striking up this trade came after his fight against Henry Cejudo when he first brought up the idea to his management team. Johnson already has deep ties to ONE Championship thanks to his head coach Matt Hume, who works as an executive at the Singapore-based promotion as well as teammate Bibiano Fernandes, who is the current ONE bantamweight champion.
“At the end of the day, I felt that I’m pretty young in my career and I wanted to try something different,” Johnson told MMAWeekly on Sunday during a media conference call. “I’ve always wanted to travel a lot and compete and I actually grew up watching Asian mixed martial arts with PRIDE mostly and to be able to have the opportunity to travel over to Asia to compete a totally different weight class, it was something I couldn’t pass up.
“Working with First Round Management and Malki [Kawa] after my last fight, I was like ‘you know what you think this is something that could be possible?’ and he said ‘anything’s possible’ and so Malki was able to get it done. Here we are now and I’m glad everything fell into the right place. Now I’m a ONE athlete and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.”
The past year has been rather tumultuous for Johnson after he ended up at odds with UFC president Dana White when he didn’t accept a bout against T.J. Dillashaw. Following that incident, Johnson and White had a very public war of words in the media.
Johnson remained a stalwart with the UFC even after that incident, however, but he did suffer his first loss in nearly seven years when he fell to Henry Cejudo by split decision in August.
Following that fight, Johnson felt like the time was right to explore other options for his career but he insists there was no bad blood with the UFC about his exit.
“I leave the UFC with no regrets, on good terms,” Johnson stated. “I believe I accomplished everything I could there. I defended the belt 11 times. I won every single way you can possibly think of — knockout, submission that nobody has ever seen before — I’ve done everything I can over there.
“I think me coming to ONE Championship, there’s a lot of new goals, a lot fresh things, a lot of fresh matchups. This is different. The guys in Asia have been doing it since they were three or four years old, they bring a different style of mixed martial arts to the table.”
Perhaps one of Johnson’s favorite parts about leaving the UFC and joining ONE Championship comes down to the way fights are promoted and the respect shared between the athletes.
“I was always never the biggest fan of all the way people went about promoting their fights in North America,” Johnson added. “I thought of it in a way as some athletes using it as a way of bullying. A way of trying to gain followers. As athletes on Twitter, why haven’t you signed a contract yet to another athlete and to me I see that as a form of bullying. All that’s going to do is stir people to go to that person’s Twitter or social media to say ‘you’re scared’ or ‘you don’t want this’ or ‘you’re chicken’ and when I see professional athletes doing that, that are trying to embody the spirit of martial artists, it just puts a bad taste in my mouth.
“I’m glad I don’t have to go through that whole thing and to be able to carry myself as a true martial artist. I felt I’ve always done that in my time in North America and it’s in everybody’s DNA in Asia. It’s always about respect and promoting the fight the correct way as two martial artists going in there, we’re going to test our skills against each other. I’m very looking forward to that way of promoting fights. That was something I just didn’t really fit in.”
Johnson also felt that despite a potential trilogy looming with current flyweight champion Henry Cejudo, he just didn’t have that much more to gain by getting back the title in the UFC.
Conversely, Johnson will now have all new opportunities opened up to him as a member of the ONE Championship roster and that was most intriguing to him when this proposed deal actually became a reality.
“I think for me to go back and try to regain my title, there was nothing there for me to,” Johnson explained. “I looked at it from the standpoint as a martial artist. It was something I’ve already beat Henry Cejudo and I truly felt that I’ve been beaten a lot worse in my fights. When I fought Dominick Cruz, I felt like I truly was the smaller guy, I mean he suplexed me three times for God’s sake. I felt if I went back and I fought, who knows how the fight could have went. I could have won it the third time or I could have lost again. I took a step back and said what do I truly want? Ask yourself that DJ, what do you truly want?
“I wanted something different, I wanted to mix it up. I wanted something different. I wanted to be able to walk out to the cage and feel butterflies. I want to face different type of competition. If I would have went back and won the belt, I would have gone back and stayed in the exact same organization, fighting the exact same athletes, which they are phenomenal athletes but I’ve beat pretty much everybody on that roster so far. So I felt this was the perfect opportunity for me.”
Right now, there’s no exact timeline for Johnson’s debut with ONE Championship, although he said if his body feels ready, he would likely to make his first appearance in January or February 2019.
Johnson also added that he’s not rushing to get a title shot on his first day with ONE Championship, although winning and defending the flyweight championship would be his long term goal.
As far as his exit from the UFC, Johnson didn’t take any cheap shots or make any derogatory remarks about his former promotion. More than anything, Johnson is just happy to have a fresh start with ONE Championship and that’s all that matters to him right now.
“It was something I wanted to do,” Johnson said. “I brought it to my management and they were able to make it happen and now I’m a ONE athlete.”