UFC: What’s Next for Lightweight Contender Michael Johnson?

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UFC Michael Johnson
Credit: Mike Sloan/Sherdog.com

Although he was recently ranked in the top-five of one of the UFC’s deepest divisions, lightweight contender Michael Johnson is facing an uphill battle in the 155-pound weight class.

Following his loss to promotional newcomer Justin Gaethje last weekend, in what is inarguably the Fight of the Year in the UFC, and MMA in general, thus far, Michael Johnson has won just one of his last five fights. Given the promotion’s willingness to lose contenders, Johnson needs to turn things around sooner rather than later, and can in the loaded lightweight division.

Johnson was on the longest winning streak of his career heading into his bout with Beneil Dariush in August of 2015, and hasn’t been able to fully recover since the heavily-disputed split decision loss. After Dariush, Johnson was dealt Nate Diaz in December of 2015. Coming off of a year-long layoff and fighting for the third time in three years, Diaz was reinvigorated and outclassed Johnson in a unanimous decision.

Johnson fought three times in 2015, and after back-to-back losses, took some time off and returned to the Octagon in September of 2016. That return came against the red-hot Dustin Poirier, who was on a four-fight win streak since his return to lightweight in April of 2015. Johnson put an end to that streak in emphatic fashion, knocking out Poirier 95 seconds into the main event fight.

A return to winning form was welcome for Johnson, but relatively short-lived. Two months later he was battling the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden. Although he caught Nurmagomedov a few times and had the Russian rocked, Johnson wasn’t able to capitalize. Nurmagomedov’s wrestling would go on to take control, and he was able keep his record clean with a third-round submission win over Johnson.

That brings us to last weekend. Obviously not afraid of a difficult opponent, Johnson accepted the challenge of welcoming former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje to the UFC. In the main event of The Ultimate Fighter 25: Redemption Finale, Johnson and Gaethje put on an incredible show. Both fighters gave everything they had, rocking each other multiple times, and saving what had been a mostly mediocre event. While it earned Johnson his third performance bonus in four fights, it wasn’t enough to win, as Gaethje scored the TKO with 12 seconds remaining in the second round.

A UFC veteran and contender in the 12th season of The Ultimate Fighter, Johnson has fought some of the best 155-pounders the promotion has had to offer dating back to 2010. While he’s had his ups and downs, “The Menace” has never been able to secure the crucial win that would propel him into title contention. Right now, that doesn’t matter. Under new ownership, the UFC is willing to part with many fighters, and without a win in the near future, Johnson could find himself on the free agent market.

That’s not the worst place to be in MMA nowadays, but it’s likely that Johnson would prefer to stay in the sport’s premier promotion. Although, it would be interesting to see what he could get from other promotions, after his $47k payday was revealed by the Nevada State Athletic Commission following The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption Finale.

The loss dropped Johnson from number five to number nine in the somewhat-but-not-really-meaningful official UFC fighter rankings at 155-pounds. He’s not in a situation like Travis Browne, but one more like Chris Weidman. Johnson’s recent run features a few tough fights, with good moments, and bad finishes. Fighting is about winning, and while he hasn’t looked bad, Johnson needs a win.

In the lightweight division, wins aren’t easy to come by, and regardless of who Johnson faces next, his UFC fate may be on the line. So, who could Johnson face next? Removing fighters he’s fought relatively recently, Johnson has a few routes to turn this runaround.

He’s already fought five of the nine fighters ahead of him in the rankings since 2015, leaving Tony Ferguson, Eddie Alvarez, Kevin Lee, and champion Conor McGregor as available options. Of those fighters, McGregor is busy boxing, and while a rematch with Ferguson would be interesting following Johnson’s victory in 2012, “El Cucuy” seems focused on other options. Alvarez and Lee (and Gaethje) have all been linked with coaching positions on The Ultimate Fighter 26, signaling that the UFC is looking in another direction than pairing either with Johnson in the near future. In fact, it looks like Alvarez and Gaethje might be getting the nod for that:

Behind Johnson in the rankings, there are tough tests in Michael Chiesa, Al Iaquinta, and former 155-pound champion Anthony Pettis. All would provide different problems for Johnson, and count as quality wins in the stacked lightweight division. Depending on who’s available, and willing, Johnson should have options for his next step in getting his career back on track.

Even if it’s a fighter outside of the UFC’s top-15 rankings, something that would be a change of pace for Johnson, the Missouri-native needs to make sure he wins. Quality performances only go so far without the wins to back them up, and without a return to form, Johnson could find himself outside the sport’s premier promotion for the first time since 2010. It’ll be interesting to see who he gets in his next bout, which may be the most important of Johnson’s career.

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