The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight division is among the most competitive in the leading mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion.
Between combatants like champion Rafael dos Anjos and No. 1 contender Donald Cerrone, as well as top-15 prospects Al Iaquinta and Bobby Green, the 155-pound class hasn't been this exciting since B.J. Penn roamed the landscape.
Rising star Johnny Case (21-4) would very much like to have his chance to shine, and if he can pull off a fourth straight victory in ZUFFA, then "Hollywood" may very well find himself with a spot in UFC's lightweight rankings.
The 26-year-old recently moved to Power MMA & Fitness in Gilbert, Ariz. from San Diego, Cali. and is expecting to bull through his opponent, Nova Uniao submission ace Yan Cabral (12-1), on the UFC Fight Night 77 "Prelims" inside Ginasio do Ibirapuera in Sao Paulo, Brazil this weekend (Sat., Nov. 7, 2015).
Case spoke with MMAmania.com two weeks out from his fight with the Brazilian about his Alliance MMA departure, wrestling career, teammate and friend Myles Jury; plus much more.
How happy are you with the Reebok deal financially?
JC: I'm definitely not happy with it financially. We really don't have much ground to stand on. In my first three fights, or rather in my third fight in Mexico City, I made six times the amount [of money] what Reebok is going to pay me and that was only in my third fight. It would have only gone up from there. I think they're on the right track and to make us look more like professional athletes, like the NBA and the NFL.
Also, if we're treated as the top tier in the major leagues, we should be paid and certainly be have the medical insurance like the top athletes do.
How was your summer? Has the money you received in this new five-fight UFC contract been burning a whole in your pocket?
JC: The summer has been good, man. I recently got my own spot out here in Arizona. It's right across the street from Power MMA. I couldn't be more happier with the location and it's a real nice spot. I've been saving and looking for investment opportunities. You know, just keep stacking the chips and looking forward to making as much money as I can.
Has "Hollywood" bought any new toys for his baby boys?
JC: I got them an iPad and a gaming system. My oldest is only four right now, but they're really into motorcycles and four-wheelers and stuff like that. They'll definitely be riding around on dirt bikes and stuff within the next couple of years.
What are some activities you, or the family, like to do to break up the monotony of a fight camp?
JC: I like to hike and anything outdoors. I raced motocross for a number of years before I got into professional fighting. Any kind of motorsports like that, I'm a big fan of. Really just hanging and swimming -- the boys love swimming. They really enjoy that. We're always in the pool or out in the woods; trying to find something to do. I just like to be out and be active.
What has been the toughest part of this transition to Arizona? You were previously in California and I understand that the boys used to live with their mother in Iowa.
JC: The toughest obstacle has just been not having the ocean [laughs]. That was kind of the best part about San Diego. After practice, a tough practice, go and chill out on the beach for a couple of hours and kind of re-set and clear your mind. Out here, Arizona has the best of everything; except the ocean. If I had one complaint, it would definitely be that.
Let's talk about your start in MMA, but before that, did you wrestle all four years in high school?
JC: I did. I actually wrestled from when I was four years old all the way up until I graduated high school and started MMA.
You don't really see children beginning careers in athletics that early now, do you?
JC: I think kids nowadays are too damn lazy and too damn entitled. They don't want to work hard and just sit out around playing their video games and have an easy life. I was brought up in Iowa, in the midwest. That's not how I was raised. I was always outside playing. I was always out doing stuff. Wrestling was just another outlet that helped mold me into the man I am.
What drew you to wrestling? Was there a certain figure in your life that pushed you in that direction?
JC: To me, it was the only sport. Wrestling is a one on one, man on man, competition. Everything else just felt like a game. I might as well have been out there playing monopoly. In a football game, you go out and do well, it's not because of you. It's because of 10 other people. For me, there wasn't enough passion in team sports. It felt more like it was a game. Losing felt the same as it did winning. I could care less. It helped pass the time, but it wasn't like wrestling.
[In] wrestling, you go out there and everything is on your shoulders. You win and it's because of you. If you lose it's because of you. I remember losing football games it's like, 'Oh well, we'll get the next one.' You lose a wrestling match and it's devastating. You went out there and just got your ass kicked in front of your friends and family. There's nobody else to point the finger at other than yourself.
Another fighter I've spoken with this year, Colby Covington, said something similar in that the onus was on you and only you with wrestling. I'm not sure how familiar you're with his career...
JC: Sure yeah, I know Colby. I'm really good friends with his college wrestling coach at Iowa Central.
Have you had any experience training with Colby?
JC: I've never actually met him personally, but I knew of him and I've been following his career a little bit here and there. Seems like a good guy; Iowa midwest roots and just fighting because he enjoys fighting.
What was your motivation for pursuing MMA right out of high school? You didn't desire a longer wrestling career?
JC: I actually had a couple of scholarship offers to wrestle in college; Waldorf was interested in me and a few others one like Grand View. I started fighting right out of high school and just enjoyed doing that. That was pretty much all I did; I ate, slept and dreamt about fighting. When it boiled down to it, I went to school for all about a week and realized I wanted to pursue a career in professional fighting so I dropped out of school and started training full time and the rest is kind of history.
I had my first son right around the time I had my last loss actually, about in 2011 or around there. That's really what kind of motivated me to be a better man and to give life everything I got. I wasn't just living for myself anymore. That's something that I was responsible for and somebody that looked up for me to provide and needed me to be bigger than myself.
My oldest is Kruz and my youngest is Kuper.
Did you ever have any doubts as to whether you chose the right career path?
JC: Absolutely, man. I remember right away being like, 'My career is over. How am I going to provide for my kids and then train at the same time?' It just wasn't reasonable so then I kind of took a little time off from fighting and was working two jobs. I was still broke and miserable and I realized I had the right idea the whole time.
I need to keep fighting and pursuing this. If anything this is just something that's going to force me to make it as a fighter and it's not one of those things where I'm going to half-ass it, like no, 'You've got a kid. You need to provide.' There's no trying. You have to do it. That's kind of when I blossomed into the fighter I am now. I really made it selfless. When I get tired and I don't want to go to the gym and I don't want to get my ass kicked, it's really easy to say it ain't about you dude, it's about your kid. Get your ass up and keep going.
I'm not sure if you're a fan of Eminem, but is it safe to say that this was your "8 Mile" moment?
JC: I guess you could kind of say that, yeah. It was basically all or nothing. I put all my eggs in a basket and I was going to make it because I knew if I failed, I was just going to have my kids looking up at me saying, 'Dad, what the hell? What do we do now?' It wasn't a choice. I had to make it.
What was the period after that like? How did you get to California to train with Alliance MMA?
JC: That was really kind of a hard time and a slow time. I was kind of in between a rock and a hard spot. I was professional; I think I was 16-4 or 17-4. I was having a hard time finding fights. Nobody would want to fight me and if they did, they would want way too much money for promotion, or I'd have to go to their backyard and get paid pennies. It was kind of hard to find fights.
I ended up getting a fight with Resurrection Fighting Alliance and they came to Des Moines and did a show. During that time, Myles Jury was in Iowa doing a seminar and he decided to go to the fight. Basically, he saw my fight and said I'm interested in bringing you out to California and being a training partner. He had an upcoming fight with Diego Sanchez. Basically, that got my foot in the door in California. While I was out there, I kind of met all the coaches and the team. They liked me so they invited me back out and while I was out there the second time, that's when I got signed to the UFC. The stars kind of aligned and everything fell into place.
What are your predictions for teenage lightweight phenom Sage Northcutt?
JC: I don't see any similarities there. I worked my ass off and grinded away and had 22 professional fights before I even got signed. I feel the reason Sage got signed was because he looks like a pretty boy and throws flashy kicks. They see dollar signs.
He's kind of been groomed for the spotlight his entire life with modeling and little acting jobs. I think the only reason Sage was signed because his first fight was against Trevino, who was obviously on his way out. Granted, I didn't get the finish over Trevino, but it was definitely heading in that direction before I got poked in the eye and couldn't see the rest of the fight.
I think Sage is going to be exposed. He's still very green and it showed in that Trevino fight. I think had Trevino weathered the storm and had been able to get back to his feet, Sage would've spent enormous amounts of energy and to go three rounds -- he might've been in good enough shape and been able to go three rounds, but I haven't really been impressed with the fights I've seen him in. I think it's just a lot of hype because he was that pretty smile and those fancy flips.
His fight was just announced at UFC Fight Night 80 versus Cody Pfister, do you like his chances?
JC: I know Cody real well. I met him back at The Ultimate Fighter 15 tryouts. He's a tough kid. I think he's a lower level in the division. I think they're wanting to build Sage up and I think Cody has the skills to beat him, to be honest. Cody's a tough grinding style wrestler and he's been in the cage with some real fighters and I think Sage has yet to experience that. I think Cody's going to get the win.
The same thing with that Paige VanZant girl. She wins one fight in the UFC and her face is everywhere. It's a popularity contest in my eyes. I don't feel they're promoting the best fighters, I feel they're promoting for the biggest fan follows.
What would Johnny do as President of the promotion for one day?
JC: Holy shit [laughs]. I don't know. If I was President of the UFC for one day, I don't know man. I think I would probably start trimming the fat as far as talent goes. They've been doing that, which is good. I would definitely widdle down the roster to a better number. I would get all the fighters health insurance and stuff for the end game.
As fighters, it's a really stressful thing. If you don't go out and perform -- and get your win bonus -- you get half your pay. You have to perform to get paid. That's why I think you'd see a lot better morale and a lot better performance if guys knew they were getting taken care of and their house payments didn't rely on their training camp and fight.
I'm not sure how much you've followed Jon Fitch's career and this current class-action lawsuit he's involved with against UFC, but do you feel like we'll see a union in the next couple of years?
JC: Yeah, maybe. There may or not [be a union]. It doesn't necessarily take a union, it really just comes down to treating fighters to what they're worth. I understand that there's some fighters that don't belong in the UFC that just got the call last minute or whatever so it makes it tough to hold everyone on the same level. At the same time, if that's what it takes, I'm all for it. In my opinion, I think a change is needed. One way or another, I think it will come.
What was your opinion of the Nevada State Athletic Commission's suspension of Nick Diaz?
JC: I think they really did Nick dirty, man. It's just gross negligence as far as abusing their power. Jon Jones tests positive for cocaine and he gets no suspension, no penalties. Nothing like that. You get popped for steroids and get a year, but Nick Diaz, who has a medical marijuana card, and also passed two other tests prior to the NSAC; I think they're just trying to make an example out of him. They basically just wheeled their power around and I don't think it's right.
You're starting to see quite a bit of preferential treatment from UFC brass between some of their stars. You didn't see Dana White or Lorenzo Fertitta in the court room waiting for the Nick Diaz verdict, but they were there in Jon Jones' case...
JC: That's walking on some dangerous territory, but honestly, it comes down to who's making them money. Nick Diaz isn't really a team player. Nick Diaz only cares about Nick Diaz. He fights because he enjoys fighting. If 10 people watch him fight, great. If 10,000 people watch him fight, great. He could care less. He lives his life as he sees fit.
That's the main thing why Dana and the Fertitta's didn't want to back him.
Do you believe promoters need to be back their fighters more?
JC: Again, that's just coming down to morals. Should they? Yeah. At least treat everyone on the same standard. You can't have a double standard and treat Nick Diaz this way for smoking pot and treat Jon Jones this way, 'Oh, we're concerned for him and want him to get help. We're backing him 100 percent.' That's just being two-faced in my opinion. I'm not calling them two-faced, I'm calling it like I see it. It's a double standard and it's not right.
Getting back to your time spent out in San Diego and your relationship with Myles, how instrumental has he been in your winning streak?
JC: Myles has been a huge influence on me. Myles is a great guy and he's got a big heart. He's always going to help; whether it be personal or professional. He's just a great guy to be around and an awesome teammate. I'm grateful to him for having me come out to Alliance, which kind of opened up the door for me to get into the UFC. It's great to have him as a friend and mentor. He went 5- or 6-0 in the UFC so I can only hope to emulate that.
Basically from the first fight camp I had, where I was getting ready to fight in Japan, it was just one thing after another at that camp. I kept getting -- I got cut, [then] I couldn't go live. I got my teeth knocked out and had to sit out a little bit longer. I got sick and I got staph infection. Basically, I was just over it. I called my manager and I was I like, 'I'm going to back out of this fight. I'm going back home and I'm never coming back to this f--king camp again.' The only thing that kept me around was the jiu-jitsu coach Neil Melanson. He was a rock for me. He was like, 'You know kid, I understand what you're going through. Just hold on and things will get better.' Thank god, I did. I was able to go in there and get my hand raised in the Octagon and pick up a nice, handsome Performance of the Night bonus.
To be honest, I was kind of open to expanding my horizons as far as gyms were concerned, but really the only thing keeping me at Alliance was my teammates. Then they decided, 'this isn't where I should really be anymore. I really feel like I need to broaden my horizons and see what else is out there.' And I was like, 'Yep, lets go.'
I saw in an article that they take 10 percent of your win bonus, is that correct?
JC: Yeah, well they take 10 percent of everything including that Performance of the Night bonus. That was what got me the most. That whole camp, I couldn't train because I kept getting sick. I couldn't get in any pad work. I had to do cardio and everything on my own. Then I go out and fight my ass off and I get a Performance of the Night bonus. Now here I am -- one fight in the UFC -- writing the gym a check for more money than I'd ever seen in my life and I went out there and I fought with little to no training. For them to take 10 percent of that was a big punch to the gut.
Let's talk about your time in Power MMA so far. You're coming into a gym that's relatively known and has established veterans such as Ryan Bader. Can you talk about the comararderie and how you've been welcomed down there?
JC: Man, it's been awesome. I can't say enough good things about this gym, from the coaches to everybody. Nobody is more important than the next person there. Everybody is treated with respect. Everybody is treated the way they'd wanted to be treated and it's been like that since day one. Everybody has been on the same page and welcomed us with open arms. That's really the main difference. That's made the biggest difference in my training and my morale in the day-to-day.
Anything I need; all I have to do is ask. That's the kind of attitude -- everything is on the table with these guys. We have team meetings here every month; if we feel something is lacking here or we're not getting attention in this department we need, it's put on the table and we discuss it and come up with solutions. That's the way it should be done.
Alright, last couple of questions. Let's get an update on your health and camp. What have you been preparing for on Yan's end and where are you at in weight right now?
JC: Ah man, the camp has been really good. It wouldn't be typical fight camp if you didn't have your bumps and bruises; a little bit of injuries here and there. With that being said, I'm looking forward to this fight. It's been a great camp. It's been smooth. It's had its ups and down, but that's normal.
To be honest, my weights really good. It's kind of been dropping off. My strength and conditioning coach Jason Kamens has really made a difference in my overall athleticism. I'm bigger and stronger and my weight feels good. It's still coming down. I'm waking up at 174-175 pounds. Within the next couple of weeks, I'll look to drop off another five pounds and roll into fight week about 170 pounds and just start my cut as usual.
Yan's a big proponent of submissions. Does anything scare you about going to the ground with him?
JC: Hell no. He's just a man in flesh and bone. There isn't a single thing that this man can do that scares me. I'm a realist, though. I feel like he's a very dangerous man in top position, but if I'm on my back it means I made a mistake somewhere along the way. If that happens, I'm not going to panic. I can fight off of my back and I train with many black belts daily. I'm just going to look to get the fight back to my feet and get back to my comfort zone. I think really that's all I can do.
Everybody fights differently. Some people use fear to motivate them. I fight because I literally enjoy fighting. I'm comfortable with the fact that if I do everything I can and fight my best and give it my all -- whether I win or lose -- that's out of my hand.
You're going to see the most prepared and happiest Johnny Case out there.
Since you recently switched camps, can you leave us off with your opinion on the well-publicized split between bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw and Team Alpha Male? Have you had any interactions with the both of them?
JC: I don't really think either of them are wrong. I think TJ's just doing what's best for him in his eyes. Whether that's turning his back on who's helped him in the past, that's life. Sometimes you've got to make changes, whether it hurts or not. I think he's just looking out for him. As a world champion, who's to say he's wrong? Who's to say someone in the same situation wouldn't do the same thing?
I definitely see Urijah's point and loyalty is big with me. If I show you loyalty and you do me dirty, then that's it. You're cut off and you're automatically the enemy. You're not somebody that I'm going to help in the future. To be honest, I've met Urijah once at my UFC debut and he seemed like the type of guy that really didn't have much time for anybody and was kind of running around but as I see, that's how you kind of got to be when everyone wants your time and attention.
Also, I just respect the hell out of Urijah now after seeing all the stuff he put up with and he bit his tongue and kept it positive. I think Urijah is just a real good guy and it's a testament to him as a person.
For more on the complete UFC Fight Night 77: "Belfort vs. Henderson 3" card click here.