It wasn't supposed to be like this.
When DaMarques Johnson debuted on the ninth season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), he never expected to be the lone surviving American contestant heading into the June 20 live finale.
But being a survivor is what helped the former soldier and competitive grappler outlast his American counterparts on a show that can be just as exhausting mentally as it is physically.
Johnson actually had to be convinced by his manager that an open tryout in Chicago for TUF 9 wasn't a complete waste of time. Already sporting a 9-6 professional record, the Jeremy Horn protege was content with his career as a fighter and jiu-jitsu instructor.
Then came the opportunity of a lifetime when TUF producers called and said he was selected to represent the United States on the "U.S. vs. UK"-themed season.
After defeating Ray Elbe by technical knockout to make the final cut for Team U.S., Johnson submitted Dean Amasinger via triangle choke to reach the semifinals. Following a hard-fought unanimous decision win over Nick Osipczak, Johnson was one fight away from UFC stardom.
We caught up with Johnson prior to his fight against Team UK's James Wilks on June 20 to discuss life as a TUF guy, whether or not he thinks he's a top 10 fighter and what his son has to say about him cursing and fighting his way to UFC fame.
Check it out:
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Tell us about your experience in the house. Obviously, you have seen past seasons -- was it what you expected or were there surprises along the way?
DaMarques Johnson: It was pretty much what I expected. The only thing that surprised me -- and it wasn't really a surprise -- was how some things were taken out of context. It was stuff that I obviously said or a way that I acted in front of the camera. But the way it was portrayed on T.V. made me come off a lot more hard-assed than I am. I do cuss a lot. My son asked me why I got beeped so much. I had to explain to my three year old that Dad wasn't saying very nice things (laughs).
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): So you let him watch the whole show? Are you going to let him be an MMA fighter?
DaMarques Johnson: He and his mom watch the show a lot. My baby's mom and I aren't together. He does watch his dad on the show so it's all well and good. And he can be whatever he wants to be. If he wants to wants to do what dad does, he can totally do it. I will help him the best I can. But if he wants to be a doctor I would love him to be a doctor. I just want him to be happy and do what he loves to do.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): So it must have been pretty hard being in the house that long and be away from your son and the rest of your family.
DaMarques Johnson: Yes. That was definitely the mental test that was pretty rough from me. The people I live for, being away from them and isolated was very hard. I was able to keep my eye on the prize though. I knew that my time on the show was going to better my life and the lives of those around me. That was the first thing I thought about when I woke up every morning on my TapouT sheets. I would think I hate this ... why am I doing this? But then I would refocus, get to the gym and do my thing.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): I am sure having a legendary fighter like Dan Henderson as a coach made up for some of that. What was that experience like?
DaMarques Johnson: Yeah. It was amazing to be coached by Dan. Wrestling is not my strong suit so to have him working with me on that was huge. It is so rare to be able to work with someone like that who is so good at what they do. Especially for a fighter like myself who is new to the big stage. Even the other coaches on the show ... everyone helped me out a lot. I feel like I got a lot better with my Thai clinch and Thai boxing.
It just rounded my game out a lot. I am still not where I need to be, but it definitely let me take steps toward becoming a complete MMA fighter. I am definitely no St. Pierre. I am not even close to being at the level of a top 10 fighter. But that is the goal, to get there. That is the ultimate goal and I am committed to getting there.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Do you look at guys from past shows who weren't in a rush to climb the ladder, but rather have a long-term plan? I know Ryan Bader recently said he has a five-year plan to work toward a title fight.
DaMarques Johnson: That is exactly what I told myself going into the show. That I was going to take my time and continue to improve. I wasn't going to go on the show and try to transform myself into some completely new fighter. And I am not in a rush to get somewhere I am not ready for yet. I am going to take what I have got and continue to improve on it and become the well-rounded fighter I need to be. The real growth and hard work is just beginning now.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Did you like the country vs. country concept for TUF 9? Did it actually motivate the fighters or was it more of a marketing tactic?
DaMarques Johnson: As far as it being a marketing tactic ... no. I think the country vs. country concept was a cool idea. I liked representing the United States. I scaled it all back in my mind though to keep things in perspective. At the end of the day it's about fighting and winning your fights.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Were you surprised at how well the British team did? Do you think some of that had to do with getting match ups that favored them stylistically?
DaMarques Johnson: I do think stylistically they had good match ups. But they did everything right as a team.
I did not underestimate any of them myself. I figured anyone in the fight was going to be a tough fight. I wasn't one of the guys that ever said the guys from team UK are a few years behind us. I was just there to win the show so I could provide for my family.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): What were toughest moments on show -- both inside the Octagon and outside of it?
DaMarques Johnson: I think the toughest moments were when I had the opportunity to act like an asshole but was forced to act like a man. Obviously, Jason Dent and I getting into it in the van was one example. A couple of years ago I wouldn't have handled it like that. Bisping squirting water in my face was another. I had my opportunities where the DaMarques of old would have screwed it up. Dealing with Jason Pierce was like dealing with a nagging injury that you knew was going to bug you the whole time, but there was nothing you could do about it.
In terms of inside the Octagon the toughest was going into a fight banged up and not having time to recover. Knowing that you're going to get kicked in the leg that was already sore and knowing it was going to hurt a lot. Nicholas Osipczak was definitely my toughest fight and best opponent in my entire career. When Nick rocked me in that last 30 seconds of the first round I went into a survival moment. I have no memory of what happened in that last 30 seconds. Nick taught me a lot about myself. You can only come back stronger and more aware in a fight. And they are only going to get better and tougher from here.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Coming out of the TUF 9 house, can you take a look at the other fighters and see future prospects for the UFC to consider?
DaMarques Johnson: Definitely. Both 155'ers fighting in the finale will have a home in the Octagon. Frankie is "tough as nails" -- he will have a good shot at making it in. Nick fought a great fight against me and I think he has what it takes to get in. Jason Dent has already fought in the UFC. A lot of people want to see Cameron fight. The Jason Dent vs. Cameron Dollar and Frank Lester vs. Nick Osipczak winners will have a lot of momentum. It is all up to Dana of course. Me, personally, I could see damn near everyone getting in.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Tell us about Santino Defranco.
DaMarques Johnson: Santino is a great guy. I have nothing bad about to say about that guy. And he is hilarious. You should ask him about some Drew Fickett stories. I love Santino and especially his cooking. He was the older wiser brother that took care of everyone. He does need to answer his phone more though. I am going to go down and train with him down in Arizona. I am also going to go train with Joe Riggs and Ryan Bader while I am down there. The guys down there are good people. I am settled on the camp I am with. They got me where I am at, but I will doing a lot of training with the best camps out there.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): So you are going to win this Saturday night, right?
DaMarques Johnson: (Laughs) Well they haven't let us watch the episode yet so I will find out when you do.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): When can we expect you back in the Octagon for your first official UFC fight post The Ultimate Fighter?
DaMarques Johnson: If all goes according to plan you will see me there. Shit yeah, I would love that. If it is up to me you'll see me soon. I just have to work things out with Dana White and Joe Silva. They are my bosses.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): We appreciate your time DaMarques and we look forward to seeing you in the Octagon representing the United States this Saturday night.
DaMarques Johnson: Thank you. And thanks for all the U.S. fans for supporting us.