PROVIDENCE, R.I. (March 12th, 2014) — When heavyweight John Johnston made his professional mixed martial arts debut three years ago at the age of 40 with only a few Muay Thai fights under his belt, competing for a title was the last thing on this mind.
“It was one of those things I always thought about,” he said, “but never imagined it could happen.”
As if often the case in a sport as unpredictable as MMA, dreams sometimes come true, and Johnston’s dream of fighting for a title will, in fact, become a reality Friday, March 14th, 2014 when the unbeaten Reading, Mass., heavyweight faces Josh Hendricks for the vacant CES MMA championship at “CES MMA XXII” at Twin River Casino.
Hendricks (19-9, 5 KOs), a 37-year-old Mansfield, Ohio veteran, will have experience on his side, which includes a brief stint with the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), but Johnston (5-0, 5 KOs) has launched his young career with five knockout wins in five fights, making this a must-see five-rounder on a stacked undercard that also includes seven-time UFC vet Drew Fickett.
“I respect Josh,” Johnston said. “He’s had his run. He’s had some great fights, but every fight is different. I’m expecting the fight of my life.”
In addition to his appearance on UFC 91 in 2008, which ended in a knockout loss to Boston-based heavyweight Gabriel Gonzaga, Hendricks has other ties to New England. He beat Connecticut’s Josh Diekmann at Twin River in 2012 and recently fought West Yarmouth, Mass., prospect Juliano Coutinho, who happens to be Johnston’s jiu-jitsu coach. Johnston actually worked Coutinho’s corner in that fight and has also sparred with Gonzaga, but won’t rely too heavily on the input of others when it’s his turn to face Hendricks.
“Everyone is different,” Johnston said. “When Juliano fought Josh it was a totally different fight because Juliano is real comfortable on the ground and there wasn’t much standup.
“We watch a lot of tapes on the people we’re fighting and figure out what we have to do and what the game plan will be. Going into a fight, we’re always well-prepared and ready to take the fight wherever it goes.”
If Hendricks takes it to the ground, so be it, Johnston says, but the 6-foot-4, 257-pound heavyweight would prefer to trade hands with Hendricks given the fact he’s won all five of his fights by knockout — four in the first round. That doesn’t mean he’s one-dimensional, even if some opponents believe that’s the case.
“My ground game gets overlooked because people never see it,” Johnston said.
Johnston has worked with Division I wrestlers, most notably former Iowa State Hawkeye Quinn Boyce, and fellow MMA vet Pat Walsh to improve his ground game, which has come a long way since his pro debut three years ago.
One of the rare instances where Johnston had to use his wrestling and jiu-jitsu occurred in his second pro fight in 2011 against Shaun Durfee when he slipped on the canvas on the way into the cage and broke his ankle. In the opening round, Johnston thought he saw an opening for a head kick and tried to execute, but his support foot — the one with the broken ankle — gave way and he fell against the cage. Durfee immediately took him to the ground and tried his best to earn a submission, but Johnston held his ground and survived the round.
The fight didn’t last much longer with Johnston earning the stoppage 38 seconds into the second round.
“I was fighting on a broken ankle and he couldn’t submit me or finish me,” Johnston said. “I’m mostly a standup fighter, which is fine with me. I’d rather people see that.”
As far as conditioning goes, particularly for a 43-year-old fighter who has never fought past the second round, Johnston isn’t concerned, not with all the training he’s done since the end of 2013.
“I haven’t had any breaks for a while,” he said. “My last fight was in January and I trained nine weeks for that, and when that was over I got right back into the gym. I’m not worried at all about my conditioning. Our coaches put us through the wringer here. I’ll be ready to go all five rounds.”
Johnston’s improbable run began more than a decade ago when he began training under Mark DellaGrotte at Siyodtong in Boston. Johnston was one of the school’s head Muay Thai trainers, but soon began working — and sparring — with established veterans Jorge Rivera, Stephan Bonnar and Marcus Davis.
“I got the itch to fight,” Johnston said.
After a long talk with DellaGrotte, who has hesitant at first to let Johnston turn pro at the risk of losing one of his best trainers, Johnston made his debut in 2011. Three years later at 43, he’s fighting for a title against a former UFC vet. It’s an improbable story, but not an impossible one, further prove that dreams do come true.
“This is what I do full-time now,” Johnston said. “I’m looking at this one fight at a time. CES is a real good organization and has taken care of me. I’d love to continue with them, but if Bellator or someone like that gets in touch with me, hopefully I can get to a big show before I get to the point where I have to retire. I’m 43 now. I’m not getting any younger, but I’ll keep going until my body tells me I can’t.”
Tickets for “CES MMA XXII” are on sale now at $40.00, $55.00, $100.00 and $125.00 (VIP) and can be purchased online at www.cesmma.com or www.twinriver.com or by phone at 401-724-2253/2254. All fights and fighters are subject to change.
The main event of “CES MMA XXII” features Fickett (42-20, 3 KOs) battling Providence’s Luis Felix (10-7, 3 KOs) in a lightweight bout. Several undercard bouts could steal the show, including the highly-anticipated middleweight bout between UFC vet Thomas Egan (7-4, 6 KOs) of Dorchester, Mass., and Plymouth, Mass., veteran Chip Moraza-Pollard (7-6, 4 KOs) a former Reality Fighting and Bellator contender. Egan, born and raised in Kildare, Ireland, starred on UFC 93 in Ireland.
Looking to keep the momentum going from his win over Chris Woodall in November, former TUF vet Chuck O’Neill (12-6, 4 KOs) of East Bridgwater, Mass., will battle Dade City, Fla., welterweight Roger Carroll (13-10) in a three-round bout. Caroll has won 11 bouts by submission. Lightweight contender Andres Jeudi (5-2, 1 KO) of Somerville, Mass., will face Brendan Rooney (5-1) of Shelton, Conn.
Also on the undercard, rising featherweight star and Johnson & Wales alum Charles Rosa (6-0, 3 KOs) of Boynton Beach, Fla., will return to Twin River for the fourth time in a three-round bout against Philadelphia veteran Brylan Van Artsdalen (9-9, 1 KO), an eight-time Bellator veteran.
Marshfield, Mass., featherweight Brendan Fleming (3-2) will take on Baltimore’s Robert Sullivan (3-1); fellow featherweight Josh LaBerge (8-4, 3 KOs) of Fall River, Mass., will battle Philadelphia’s Steve McCabe (6-14, 5 KOs); Tommy Venticinque (0-1) of Warwick, R.I., will face Rick Rivera of Springfield, Mass., in a welterweight bout; and Winthrop, Mass, featherweight Kyle Bochniak (1-0) will aim for his second win of the year when he faces Marius Enache (1-2) of Philadelphia.