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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 94’s Michael Johnson

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MMAmania.com resident fighter analyst -- and aspiring professional fighter -- Andrew Richardson breaks down the mixed martial arts (MMA) game of UFC Fight Night 94 headliner Michael Johnson, who looks to return to the win column this Saturday night (Sept. 17, 2016) inside State Farm Arena in Hidalgo, Texas.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Lightning fast kickboxer, Michael Johnson, is set to throw down with rising Lightweight contender, Dustin Poirier, this Saturday (Sept. 17, 2016) at UFC Fight Night 94 on FOX Sports 1 inside State Farm Arena in Hidalgo, Texas.

In all honesty, Johnson has some shit luck.

Way back in 2013, Johnson finally put all his tools together and beat the breaks off longtime veterans Joe Lauzon and Gleison Tibau, announcing himself as a contender. His win streak continued into 2015, when he put an absolute beating on Edson Barboza, touching up the Muay Thai champion on the feet for all three rounds.

Johnson appeared to be on the fast track to a title shot, but disaster struck.

In his next bout, Johnson lost one of the most controversial decisions of the year, a split decision to Beneil Dariush. Now coming off a loss rather than a five-fight win streak over some of the division’s best, Johnson fell into the ultimate trap fight that is Nathan Diaz and came up short once more.

Despite those setbacks, "The Menace" has been given a chance to remind fans of his talent and get back on track. Let’s take a look at the Blackzilian’s skill set.

Striking

Johnson began his UFC career as a fairly standard wrestler with some decent power in his hands. He was athletic, fast, and tough, and that was enough to get him to the big show, even if he took some losses along the way.

Thanks in large part to Henri Hooft, those aforementioned attributes have been shaped into an incredibly effective striking game. His attack relies greatly on his natural aggressiveness and willingness to throw in the pocket, which is a trait many fighters simply lack.

Aggressiveness is a common theme throughout Johnson’s fights, win or lose. He’s a versatile enough kickboxer to pressure heavily — his preferred style — or work from the outside, but Johnson loves to hang around in exchanges far longer than most men.

On a technical level, Johnson is certainly skilled with some nice tricks to his offense, even if he can get a bit reckless with his punches. For example, Johnson has a sneaky jab for a Southpaw. Against Orthodox opponents, Johnson does a nice job of stepping for the inside angle to land his spearing jab.

Besides the jab, Johnson attacks with the usual left hand-heavy combinations that lots of Southpaws love. In particular, Johnson does great work with his left cross-right hook combination. Often, he’ll drop the left hand to the body before coming high with the hook, increasing his chance of catching his foe off-guard (GIF). He’ll also double up on either strike, helping to make him less predictable.

Johnson can also kick quickly and with power. He takes advantage of the opposite stance exchange often, digging power kicks to the mid-section or head. Against fellow Southpaws, Johnson is more likely to slam home outside low kicks.

Johnson’s aggression has lead him to a great deal of skill inside the pocket. In wild, heated exchanges, Johnson routinely gets the better of exchanges, largely because of his consistent head movement and determination to land the last blow.

Because of his willingness to trade in the pocket, Johnson has a few counter punch knockouts on his record. It’s not super complicated, as Johnson just refuses to give any ground, planting his feet and firing back (GIF).

Throughout his UFC career, Johnson defeated both Tony Ferguson and Edson Barboza, two of the division’s top contenders. While the Ferguson fight — "El Cucuy’s" only UFC loss — was a very strong performance, his domination of Barboza is one of the best examples of game planning in recent years.

Johnson’s strategy was obvious within about 10 seconds, as he looked to pressure the kicker immediately. For the entire fight, Johnson walked his opponent down and made it difficult to kick, forcing his opponent to play the counter striker.

Lots of fighters try to pressure, but few do it well. Johnson proved himself a member of that elite group by following Hooft’s advice to "Be first. Be last." Each time Johnson initiated an exchange, he would land his punches, avoid or absorb the counter, and continue firing with more punches.

Besides that general mentality, Johnson did a number of things quite well. For example. he never allowed Barboza to kick freely. Whenever Barboza planted his feet and smashed a body kick into Johnson — which is more than enough to deter most fighters from pressuring — Johnson would immediately return fire. It didn’t matter that he sometimes ate the kick or awkwardly lunged with the counter punches, as Barboza quickly realized most kicks would end with him taking punches.

Additionally, Johnson did beautiful work with his inside low kick. The head is a small target, and difficult to hit when an opponent is backing away. "The Menace" smartly switched it up by kicking his opponent’s leg, and he’d often follow up with hard punches while his foe regained his footing. By the end of the fight, Barboza’s movement was clearly hampered from absorbing so many kicks.

Lastly, Johnson did great work along the fence. Each time he managed to pin Barboza — which was not easy — Johnson would attack both the body and head, practically ensuring that something would land.

Wrestling

Johnson was a junior college wrestler, but he no longer looks for takedowns all that often. While his wrestling was exploited earlier in his career, he does seem to have made some serious improvements to that aspect of his game.

Offensively, Johnson relies on a sudden level change into the double leg. It works well whether he’s pressuring his opponent forward or trying to work from the outside, as Johnson can either end his combinations with a shot or reactively shoot. Alternatively, Johnson will sudden drop down from the clinch, and he’ll sometimes finish the shot by wrapping his leg around and tripping his opponent.

Defensively, Johnson has really come a long way. A couple years ago, a jiu-jitsu ace with smothering wrestling like Dariush likely would’ve put him on his back and choked him, but times have changed. In that bout, Johnson managed to push a hard pace the entire fight, step in with hard power punches, and still defend each of his opponent’s takedown attempts. Usually, Johnson would defend with a quick sprawl or by angling off in the stand up, making his opponent shoot at thin air.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Johnson has yet to really to do anything jiu-jitsu related inside the Octagon, but his defense is honestly far better than one would expect considering his six losses via tapout.

Of those six, four came in the first year or so of Johnson’s career, when he was a 5-4 fight toiling away on the regional scene. His other two came in the UFC, and one of those came early via heel hook to Paul Sass in 2011, who’s one of those weird fighters who pulls guard and jump on submissions.

That’s probably not relevant opposite elite fighters in 2016.

However, Johnson’s losses to Myles Jury and Reza Madadi are more problematic. Opposite Jury, Johnson had no real answer for his foe’s top control and was effectively controlled for the entire fight. Then, in his next bout, he tried to rush standing up and wound up in a d’arce choke.

There’s a balance between doing nothing and being reckless, and hopefully Johnson has it figured out should Poirier land a takedown.

Conclusion

This is really a must-win for Johnson if he’s to remain a contender in the Lightweight division. Poirier is a dangerous, but fairly straight-forward, opponent: a hard punching, tough wrestler with smothering jiu-jitsu. In a 25-minute match, it’s the type of fight that Johnson needs to clearly win in order to prove his championship potential.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.