Brian Johnston is one of the pioneers in the sport of mixed martial arts that is rarely ever talked about. He began his pro career competing at UFC 10 where he would defeat Scott Fiedler with strikes, but lose in similar fashion later that night to MMA legend Don Frye. Johnston would compete in a total of six fights during his time with the then young UFC organization. Tony Reid of MyMMANews catches up with Brian Johnston.
Tony Reid – After a stroke cut your career short a number of years ago, how has your recovery progressed? How did you come to terms with your career being cut short in such a difficult fashion?
Brian Johnston – “This was a brain stem stroke directly related to trauma (I guess as far as they understand it, being punched in the head is not good for you) Most of my recovery came in the first 6 months following the stroke. The recovery took more work then I had ever given anything and gave me a whole new definition of what tough is. I recovered about 70% of function, far surpassing Doctor’s expectations. I had a condition known as locked in syndrome for a few months in which one is totally paralyzed except for the movement of the eyes, a charming ordeal. As far as dealing with the aftermath, it took a while to figure out I was not going to fight again and that was rough. Shortly after I had trained Kazayuki Fujita to a win over the then unstoppable Mark Kerr in a PRIDE Grand Prix, I was asked to compete in PRIDE and for the first time in my fighting career I was mentally ready but I had a stroke instead. I could not get the idea of a come back out of my head even after the stroke. I think it had a large influence over my recovery. One takes life as it comes, one either chooses to fight, wallow around in pity or you die. Today a decade later, life is great. I live with my wife and daughter and could not be happier.”
Tony Reid – You came into the UFC as many fighters were beginning to mesh styles and disciplines to evolve and grow in the new sport of MMA. Hybrid Fighting was all the rage for a while and you were one of the guys out in front of that movement. Can you talk about that particular style and how important it was/is to continue to grow as a mixed martial artist?
Brian Johnston – “The UFC was the first “real” fighting event, the dynamic was quite different then today, and we were trying to figure out what worked why elbowing each other in the head. I have never classified my self as a Martial Artist, I have never done a Kata nor do I understand how the crouching grasshopper position will keep one from being punched in the face. I have had conversations with karate guys that think their going to be the next Lyoto Machida; I always wish them luck with that. I have learned not to give out advice anymore; the majority of guys have to learn the hard way. Modern MMA is definitely the evolved system; it is a hybrid martial system that uses what works, except for the head butts (a personal favorite of mine). I think fighters today are lucky in the fact that the majority of the system has been figured out for them but the evolution is continuing. I always find it amusing when a young fighter tells me about the sport and tells me how different it is today. Yeah, it’s a little different but the end result is the same.”
Tony Reid – Your first UFC appearance was against a character by the name of Scotty Fiedler. I think anyone watching the early events remembers him and his style and appearance. After that you faced the cream of the crop of elite fighters in their prime in Don Frye, Mark Coleman and Ken Shamrock. Can you talk about facing Fiedler and then being pitted against icons of the sport in Frye, Coleman and Shamrock?
Brian Johnston – “Hats off to Fielder for not being the guy on the couch with his TapouT Shirt on, drinking a beer, watching the fights while telling everybody what a bad ass he is. On the contrary, Fielder was a legit pro boxer and left a welt that stayed on my cheek for a year, but this is not boxing and that was a bad hair cut!
“About fighting the best in the sport, I thought I was the best in the sport. The thing is one can be a physical specimen, have excellent technique and be the best in the gym but If one is not mentally tough their fighting at 50%. I was not yet mentally tough and that made it easy to quit.”
Tony Reid – What are your thoughts looking back now at your time spent in the Octagon?
Brian Johnston – “Fighting requires 100% effort 100% of the time. I really wish I had given that. With that said, fighting in the UFC is definitely a highlight in what has been a very exciting life thus far. You know today, if I tell a stranger, “I was in the UFC” or “I was a Pro Wrestler in Japan” or “I co-founded Pain, INC.” or “I produced a fight for Japanese TV” or anything out of the scope of the mundane, they look at me as if I may be bipolar. So now if some one asks what happened to my ears, I just say it happened in ‘Nam.”
Tony Reid – Can you talk about your role at AKA while the sport and the gym was still in its infancy?
Brian Johnston – “My role at AKA was student of world champion Javier Mendez, eventually I would teach wrestling and that evolved into NHB. Jav and I have a slight disagreement here, Jav likes to say I was his first fighter, I like to say I introduced Jav and AKA to MMA. Regardless Jav was instrumental in my training, introduced me to Judo at a world class level and brought in coaches for advanced wrestling. Javier is a world class coach and has been for a long time.”
Tony Reid – Most MMA fans will remember you as you were almost a decade ago. What do you do for a living now? Are you still involved in MMA in any capacity?
Brian Johnston – “I have tried to launch many ventures all MMA related, I created the Pain, INC brand, coached some fighters from Japan, had a gym …wait did you mean making actual money? Honda once said “success is 99% failure” and I think I’m at 98% now, so I expect good things in the coming year. For the time being I am on disability although I think I’m far more able than a lot of people I know. But this has given me time to write, I have been threatening to write a book for many years about my experiences. But if any of your readers have an executive position in say…future business development, they can Facebook me.”
Tony Reid – I am currently rewatching every UFC event starting with UFC 1. Being a part of that history, what would you want me or any fan to take away from the early days of the sport?
Brian Johnston – “You know the tooth loss, the head butts to the face, the three days that one of Don Frye’s opponents spent in the hospital? Well it is a kinder, gentler sport now. It is really a sport now; it used to be no holds barred.”
Tony Reid – Do you still follow the sport? What are your thoughts on the growth of MMA over the past few years? Do you have favorite fighters you enjoy watching today?
Brian Johnston – “I love the sport but there’s no way in Hell you will catch me paying money to see a live show at a venue. Been to too many for free, I’d rather see them on TV, that I will pay for. There are some great new fighters but I loved a 45 Year old Mark Coleman kicking Mauricio Shogun Rua’s ass for three rounds, before he gassed out. I highly doubt any of these guys could of beat Coleman in his prime. I’m a fan of Jon Jones, how could you not be? I would like him to be a little more explosive, but he is an animal. GSP has the best transitions in the business.”
Tony Reid – Do you keep in touch with any of the people you worked with back then (sponsors, trainers, competitors)?
Brian Johnston – “I saw Don (Frye) in Arizona last year; I talk to Jav on Facebook once and a while. I talk to friends and athletes I’ve trained in Japan but that’s about it.”
Tony Reid – What is your fondest memory of your time spent in the UFC? Conversely, what is your least favorite, or worst memory of your time spent there?
Brian Johnston – “Every memory of fighting in the UFC is a good one.”
Tony Reid – Can you share a behind the scenes story from your days in the sport that the average fan would never hear about?
Brian Johnston – “They changed the brackets during the course of UFC 10, suddenly I was fighting (Don) Frye instead of (Mark) Coleman. I had just watched Don beat the crap out of Amaury Bitetti in devastating fashion in an earlier UFC, I did not know who Coleman was, foolishly I did not care but my game plan was to meet Don (Frye) in the finals. I have never been afraid of any man but I kind of felt sick!”