It took a village to arrange for the first major trade in MMA history.
When it was first reported that UFC flyweight great Demetrious Johnson and unbeaten ONE Championship welterweight champion Ben Askren were being swapped by their respective promotions, media and fans were left wondering how and why such a deal was made. The former question has a relatively simple answer, as it appears that it was only a matter of the fighters’ employers agreeing to relinquish the rights to their athletes (both of whom had fights remaining on their contracts) so that they might sign elsewhere.
As for the why, that was a tad more complicated.
Speaking on a conference call Sunday, “Mighty Mouse” discussed the various motivations he had for wanting to join ONE and what it took to get him there.
“At the end of the day, I felt that I’m pretty young in my career and I wanted to try something different,” Johnson said. “I’ve always wanted to travel the world and compete and actually grew up watching Asian mixed martial arts with Pride, mostly. To be able to have the opportunity to travel over to Asia in a whole new weight class, it’s something I couldn’t pass up.
“So obviously I had to leave, and First Round Management, with (Johnson’s manager) Malki (Kawa), after my last fight I was like, ‘You know what? You think this is possible?’ He goes, ‘Anything’s possible, man.” And so Malki was able to get it done and here we are now. I’m grateful that everything fell to the right place, now I’m a ONE athlete, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.”
ONE president Chatri Sityodtong was also on Sunday’s call and he credited Johnson’s manager with engineering much of the trade, saying Kawa “took the lead and coordinated everything.” According to Sityodtong, it was Kawa and Askren who came up with the idea to have he and Johnson switch promotions.
Another key figure was Johnson’s longtime coach Matt Hume, who also works as ONE’s vice president of operations.
“It feels good, but this wasn’t done by just me,” Johnson said. “There’s multiple people involved in it. First Round Management, ONE Championship, Chatri, Matt Hume, the UFC, so it was a collective, people coming together and making something happen. And even Ben Askren. So I think it’s a great thing, I think if people want to be able to be traded and compete in different organizations I think that we should have that option on the table.”
During his time in the UFC, Johnson emerged as one of the best fighters in MMA history, clearing out the 125-pound division with notable wins over Henry Cejudo, Joseph Benavidez, John Dodson, Kyoji Horiguchi, and Ian McCall, among others. He became the promotion’s inaugural champion in September 2012 and racked up a UFC-record 11 consecutive successful title defenses before losing a split decision in a rematch with Cejudo this past August.
That success never translated into massive viewership numbers, but Sityodtong believes that will be a different story in Asia, where the Singapore-based ONE has established a considerable presence. Sityodtong sees Johnson, who he called one of his top-2 favorite fighters ever, potentially achieving the same level of fame as some of the continent’s most renowned martial arts stars.
“DJ embodies true martial arts,” Sityodtong said. “Asia’s been the home of martial arts for 5000 years and it’s basically been a way of life for Asians, and honor, the respect, the humility, the integrity, the discipline, the compassion that you earn through thousands of hours of training. It’s how we live our lives out here in Asia and DJ not only is the best pound-for-pound king to ever do it, but I think he embodies everything authentic and everything beautiful about martial arts and so I think he’s going to transcend being just a martial arts star.
“I think if you look at who’s transcended just being a martial arts star, whether it’s Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, there’s countless people who have transcended martial arts and became true global superstars. I think DJ has the potential.”
Johnson is singing the same tune. He watched ONE’s most recent show in Yangon, Myanmar, headlined by Aung La N Sang, and marveled at how the two-division champion was lauded in his home country.
It’s that respect for the fighters and how they conduct themselves that has Johnson most enthusiastic about the opportunity that lies ahead.
“ONE Championship, they are about bringing up heroes,” Johnson said. “And the first time I watched ‘The Burmese Python’ fight in the last event in Yangon, I could see how the crowd would react to him when he stepped into the cage to fight and after he won and how the whole crowd was saying his name. I can see that his countrymen, his people really see him as a hero, not as an athlete who’s going to go to a bar after this and beat somebody in the face, they honestly are the home of martial arts and it’s not just mixed martial arts.
“It’s kickboxing, boxing, Muay Thai, submission grappling, and for me that just intrigued me about it. They’re focused on promoting true martial artists, humble, discipline, integrity, and humility, and that’s all that I stand for, so absolutely I am 100 percent on board with that.”