Demetrious Johnson on day jobs and living the dream

Demetrious Johnson has spent the past three years fighting for or defending world titles in the UFC. "Mighty Mouse" spent the first five-plus years of his MMA career splitting his time between fighting and a factory day job.

"It was in a warehouse in Tacoma where we recycled paper to make boards to protect televisions during the shipping process," Johnson recounts for us.

Back then, Johnson’s days and nights were a lot longer, with little rest in between. "I would get up at 6 a.m., be at work by 7 a.m., get two 15-minute breaks and get off work by 3," he remembers.

"From there, I’d shoot down to the gym, at the time I did CrossFit so it was a CrossFit gym. I’d do my conditioning work then drive to the fight gym and train there from 5 to 7. I’d get home at 8, eat dinner with the girlfriend, who is now my wife. Then, we’d go to bed, wake up and do it all over again."

Challenging as that schedule was for Johnson to maintain while training to fight guys like former world champions Miguel Torres and Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, he says the decision to give up his factory day job was one of the "hardest ones I’ve ever had to make."

Johnson maintained this double-life all the way until his camp to prepare for his 135-pound title shot against Dominick Cruz in 2011. Though most fighters would likely have decided to train and compete full-time long before he did, the responsible Johnson had a difficult time bringing himself to give up his job at the recycling plant.

"Even though I was fighting in the UFC, I didn’t make enough money — in my eyes — to pay the bills, make car payments and all that," Johnson explains.

"I always said that for me to quit my day job, I’d have to believe that I was in the right spot to walk away from full-time work. Deciding to leave my job was very hard. It was one of the hardest decisions I made in my whole life. With the factory, there was a guarantee. You went in, punched the time clock, punched out afterwards and then you were guaranteed a check. In fighting, there are no guarantees.

"I see it all the time with former pro-football players who walk into the gym, now. They signed with an NFL team, then all of the sudden they are on the practice squad. Then, they get cut. Now, they are done with their career and are like, ‘what the hell do I do now?’ I knew that in MMA there was no guarantee and that I might get hurt and never be able to recover. That I’d possibly never be the same fighter again, and then I would not get paid. Luckily it has worked for me, as of now."

Saying that, it is clear that Johnson is talking about more than money. The reigning UFC flyweight champion is not just gainfully fighting in main events, as he will Saturday against Kyoji Horiguchi at the top of the UFC 186 card in Montreal — he also simply has a life and lifestyle that he loves, spent with those that he loves.

"I wake up every day and have breakfast with my son and my wife. He’s sitting at his little table. I love it," the father gushes.

"That stuff, I can never take for granted. If I was still working a 9-to-5 type job, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy these finer things of life. I truly love going to the store during the day and thinking, ‘no one is here because they are at work and I’m not (laughs).’ I really cherish that stuff. I still love MMA just as much as I did when I did it while working at the factory. Now, it might be even more enjoyable because I can give it 110 percent instead of picking up 150-pound piles of tubes in the warehouse all day, then going to the gym and training, sparring, lifting, when I’m already tired. It is different, now, and more enjoyable."

Life now is even better than it was back then at the factory for Johnson, though he insists that those days were "a lot of fun." "When I worked full-time and also fought, I was that guy rushing home from work to watch the WEC to see such and such guys fight. I was so excited back then just to watch as a fan. It was fun," he remembers fondly.

Johnson wouldn’t trade any of the struggle and double-duty for anything, even with his taste of the fully committed MMA life in recent years. After all, if the 28-year-old hadn’t worked so hard to get where he is, now, he may never have become the fighter and man that he is.

"I’m thankful for my road to the title shot at 125 pounds," he says.

"I would not want to do it any differently. I wouldn’t want a different or easy route. I’m glad I went through that [125 pound title] tournament. I’m glad I had my battles at 135. Because, when I got the belt, I wanted to defend it multiple times. Those times help me become the fighter I needed to be in order to have done that."

Whenever the pound-for-pound great’s MMA career does conclude, he plans to get back to the grindstone in order to pay the bills, per usual. Even though he’s one of the best athletes in the world, and most dominant fighters in the UFC, Demetrious Johnson’s attitude never switched to "big-time."

If Johnson is great, it’s because of his work ethic. Understanding that, he’s never lost sight of where he’s come from and where he believes he’ll return to.

"Working a day job never left my mind," he concludes.

"After MMA I’ll probably have to go back to work, and that’s OK. I sat down and talked about that with my coach and he said, ‘as long as you’re happy.’ Very few people can leave their fight career and be set for life. Those cases, like Georges St. Pierre, are rare. It’s awesome for him because he did so much for the sport and was on top for so long. But, most of us won’t have that ability, and that’s fine. I’m alright with working."