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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale’s Michael Johnson resident fighter analyst -- and aspiring professional fighter -- Andrew Richardson breaks down the mixed martial arts (MMA) game of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 25 Finale headliner Michael Johnson, who looks to return to the win column this Friday night (July 7, 2017) inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Sean Porkorny-USA TODAY Sports

Heavy-handed kickboxer, Michael Johnson, is set to face off with former World Series of Fighting (WSOF) Lightweight kingpin, Justin Gaethje, this Friday (July 7, 2017) at The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 25 Finale inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

It’s easy to overlook Johnson. His record isn’t all that appealing at 17-11. Even recently, he’s lost three of his last four bouts. Despite all that, however, “The Menace” holds the No. 5 spot in the sport’s deepest division.

The fact of that matter is that Johnson is really damn good.

On his best nights, Johnson was able to hand top contenders like Edson Barboza and Tony Ferguson losses. Time has passed since those fights, but it would wrong to assume that those fighters have improved while Johnson has remained static. Even his recent losses are little to be ashamed of, as Johnson was robbed of victory opposite Beneil Dariush, the only non-elite member of that trio of losses. Simply put, Johnson is a seriously tough challenge for the debuting Gaethje.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:


Johnson began his UFC career on TUF as an above-average 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 and the Blackzilians, 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 do not have.

It’s cost him before — like in the Nate Diaz fight, when he was drawn into a boxing match — but it’s also earned him some of his biggest wins.

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. which he’s able to get away with thanks to his head movement, solid stance, and iron chin.

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.

As mentioned, Johnson’s biggest pair of wins include handing Tony Ferguson his only UFC loss and out-striking Edson Barboza. While the Ferguson fight 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.

For a live demonstration on Johnson’s pressure striking, check out our technique highlight on the topic:

When he’s not pressuring, Johnson is a very smooth kickboxer from the outside as well. In his last win, for example, it only took Johnson 90 seconds to secure the counter punch knockout over Dustin Poirier. Prior to landing the finishing blow, Johnson did a nice job of maintaining a long range, where he could circle away from Poirier’s power and poke him with jabs and low kicks. It didn’t take long for “The Diamond” to start stepping forward with power punches, and that’s where Johnson’s willingness to trade came into play. After convincing Poirier to reach for him with punches, Johnson instead planted and fired off his right hook-left cross combination, putting his opponent’s lights out (GIF).

When Johnson can get his opponent reaching, that sudden plant and counter approach is deadly.


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.

Johnson is an interesting case defensively. On one hand, experienced grapplers and wrestlers have utterly failed to take him down, such is the case with Beneil Dariush and Gleison Tibau. Then, there’s the recent case of Khabib Nurmagomedov, who completely mauled Johnson and had little trouble forcing him to the mat. Now, Nurmagomedov’s masterful wrestling is a partial answer, but looking back at his career, the loss to Myles Jury was similar even if there’s been obvious improvement since.

In my opinion, it largely comes down to how Johnson’s style of takedown defense matches up with his opponent’s offensive wrestling. Johnson’s takedown defense relies on his striking and athleticism more than anything else, as his ability to cut angles and avoid over-extending is what keeps him on his feet. In fights like the Dariush bout, his opponent just never seems to find the slightest success in staying on his hips, as Johnson moves too well to be taken down at the end of a combination and is often too fast for reactive shots.

The counter to Johnson’s style seems to be chain wrestling. He’s still damn tough to get a hold of, but Nurmagomedov’s strength made that possible. Once contained, Johnson had few answers for his opponent’s relentless transitions and throws, and Nurmagomedov figured that out quickly.

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 seven losses via tapout.

Realistically, Johnson’s biggest issue is that he struggles to get up from his back. Given enough time, any talented submission fighter will eventually find an opening. Johnson doesn’t give them up freely, but his inability to scramble back up to his feet consistently is perhaps the biggest weakness in his game.


This is a really interesting bout for Johnson, largely because we do not know exactly how good Gaethje is. He’s dominated 17 foes of middling ability, whereas Johnson has spent most of his career winning and losing against the absolute best. It’s a unique showdown of high-level experience and undeniable momentum ... and it should be a fantastic fight either way.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an 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.

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