Morris Johnson taught his grandson, Anthony, lessons that, more than 20 years later, continue to serve him well.
Do your best. Never give up. Push yourself.
Anthony Johnson is one of the rising stars of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a welterweight with one-punch knockout power and a killer instinct second to none.
He’ll fight Yoshiyuki Yoshida a week from Saturday at UFC 104 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, looking for his fifth consecutive knockout victory.
At this stage of his career, Johnson is much like Georges St. Pierre, the UFC’s dynamic welterweight champion, was five years ago: Extraordinarily gifted, highly regarded but inexperienced and still learning his way in the game.
He’s already authored one of the most vicious knockouts in UFC history. He blew out Tommy Speer in Broomfield, Colo., on April 2, 2008, in but 51 seconds, the ferocity of which was almost frightening to watch. Yet, Johnson said that knockout was nothing.
“I’ve gotten so much better since then,” Johnson said. “If I fought him today, with what I’ve learned, I’d knock him out even worse.”
His pedigree is as a wrestler, but few in mixed martial arts have hands as good as Johnson’s. He is naturally strong and fast. Even as a child, his grandfather had to warn him about his own strength.
“When I was little, my aunt’s kids used to come over and we would play together,” Johnson said. “I would push them. To me, it was just light, but to them, it was like someone tackled them, slammed them, whatever. My granddad had to warn me about doing things like that, because I didn’t realize how strong I really am.
“One time, he and I were putting together a wagon to carry off the leaves that had fallen in the yard. I was tightening the bolt onto the wagon as I was putting it together and I ended up breaking the bolt in half because I tightened it too tight. He said he’d never, ever, seen anyone break a bolt in half before, but I wasn’t trying to do that. I was just trying to do what I was supposed to do and tighten it.”
Many significant moments in Johnson’s life involve his grandfather, who died two years ago.
Morris Johnson adopted his grandson and raised him from the time he was 2 years old. “My parents preferred the streets to raising their child,” Anthony says, softly. “The story of how my granddad wound up with me is crazy. Nobody would believe it if I told you.”
He declines to discuss those circumstances. And at one point during the telephone interview, it seems as if he may not discuss anything. Asked about his grandfather, there is suddenly a long pause, an uncomfortable silence.
The phone seems as if it may have gone dead. The question is repeated in the event he’s still on the line.
There’s a single sound, then another long pause.
The question is repeated again. There is a sniff and then, voice quivering and cracking, Anthony Johnson finally begins to speak through his tears.
“My granddad was my best friend,” Johnson said. “He adopted me and he raised me. He taught me so many valuable lessons: Always do your best. Never give up. Always be humble. So many things.”
Morris Johnson may be gone, but his influence remains, carried through a grandson who clearly worships him. He has a patch on his shorts he wears during his fights about the Bible’s Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”).
That is because when his grandfather collapsed at home, his grandmother read the 23rd Psalm as they desperately awaited an ambulance. At the funeral, the preacher read the 23rd Psalm, though no one but Anthony knew what his grandmother had done.
Johnson will also hold his arms up, as if he’s flexing, shortly before a fight in honor of his grandfather. When Anthony was wrestling in high school and college, he would glance at his grandfather in the stands, who would always make that gesture.
“He’d hold his arms up like he was flexing, as if I’d already won,” Johnson said. “It was our little sign, our connection. It was his way of telling me to give it my all. I still remember that to this day.
“I try to live my life like he lived his. I want to make him as proud of me as I can every single day. A lot of negative stuff comes your way in a given day, and there are always negative people. He would never allow the negative stuff and the negative people to get in the way of him doing what he thought was right. That’s really helped me and I try as best I can to live that same way.”
The first obstacle is getting down to the welterweight division’s 170-pound weight limit. Johnson, who is a broad-shouldered 6-foot-2, weighed 220 pounds when he began training for Yoshida.
He’s down to 190 now and plans to take advantage of the extra pound allowance fighters are given in non-title bouts and come in at 171 pounds.
“The only pressure I feel, honestly, is the pressure to make the weight,” Johnson said. “Once I’m on weight, I know everything else will take care of itself.”
Johnson has yet to fight a top 10 opponent, but knows the day is coming. He’s improving rapidly while training in ex-Strikeforce middleweight champion Cung Le’s camp and believes he’s only scratched the surface of his potential.
He’s hitting harder than he ever has, he said, and is learning to put his transitions together better.
“I’m hard on myself and I get upset when I make a mistake, but the good thing is that I can see the progress I’ve made,” Johnson said. “And I truly believe I’m nowhere near my potential. My granddad used to tell me never to settle for second best and never stop pushing to get better.
“Every day in the gym, I think of what he used to say and I’m determined to make myself better. It’s a way to honor him, to take what he taught me and put it into practice. And that’s what I try to do. It’s why I work so hard. It’s my way of thanking him for all he did for me.”