Keith Johnson (15-4) is a dangerous submission master with a solid background in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This professional mixed martial artist holds a BJJ black belt and is currently en route to Russia where he will make his debut for the country’s largest MMA promotion, M-1 Global.
Johnson’s opponent is Maxim Grabovich (5-3) representing team Alexander Nevsky from Stary Oskol City. He is a promising young fighter who is famous for his spectacular all-out-war fighting style. Being a well-rounded fighter, Grabovich is prone to lead the fight in stand-up where he aggressively offenses his opponents.
The M-1 Challenge 78: Divnich vs Ismagulov event takes place this coming weekend in Orenburg. Before the May 26 fight we were able to catch up with Johnson for a few minutes to chat about the contest, his journey in the sport, and rivalry with American Top Team’s Roan Carneiro.
How is fight camp going?
KJ – “Fight camp is going great. Everything is going real good. I’m just excited to get over there, get the flight out of the way, so I can get down to business.”
How does a good ole’ boy from Alabama end up fighting on a card in Russia? How did this all transpire?
KJ – “Really it’s been a dream of mine to fight overseas for I don’t know, seven or eight years, and just within the last couple years, meeting the right people that could make it happen. It’s just cause I always wanted to go overseas and fight. I don’t know why but it’s something that has always interested me, and excited me. It’s a challenge. I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time now and I’m really happy I got the opportunity to pursue it.”
This is a multi-fight contract with M-1, am I correct?
KJ – “That’s correct. It’s a a six-fight contract.”
Your opponent, he lives there in Russia. He’s the hometown favorite. Is it safe to say you are being brought in as the American, the guy the fans are supposed to root against, in hopes that their guys will win?
KJ – “Yeah, just from the way it looks. From what I understand, he fought for the title and lost the decision, so I feel I am being brought in, I’ve got a good record. They are bringing me in so he can get a good win and bounce right back in his career.”
With him fighting in a completely different country, I’m sure there may not be as much film on his as you like, but is there anything that you do know about him, or anything you are worried about, anything in his game that is dangerous for you as an opponent?
KJ – “Honestly, not really. He’s athletic. He’s young. He comes to fight. But honestly, I believe he’s 5’10” and I’m 6’3″ so I personally, just that height difference alone, I really love those kind of fights. I like my reach and I like my style of fighting for a guy that’s shorter than me, honestly.”
If you were to be so bold, is there any way you see this fight going down? A prediction?
“Submission more than likely. I fought in Alabama for a long time. I’m really 15-4, is my record. I’ve got 12 submissions. That’s usually how I finish it. I’m not usually always going looking for the takedowns but usually if they try to take me down, or I drop them, I’m gonna look for the submission cause I’ve seen too many guys get kicked in the head and they can still chug along. I know a choke is fool proof.”
You are a black belt. Take us back to the beginning. You started in 2003 before mixed martial arts was mainstream, only 10 years after the UFC started, so it was still in it’s infancy. How did you get involved in the sport and MMA and eventually become a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu?
“Honestly, I used to love the old UFC VHS tapes you rent at the movie store. I was enthralled by it. I was a wrestling in high school, a state championship wrestler, and I fell in love with watching it. When I started watching and saw Dan Severn, I fell in love with the whole sport. Saw my first show in person, saw two dudes just slugging it out sloppily, and was like man, I can beat those guys. And started pursuing it from there. And my first probably five or six pro fights I didn’t have a gym I trained at, real coaches, or even a jiu-jitsu instructor. Those came along later. Cause then there weren’t a lot of MMA schools around unless you were from a big city, which I am not. I just kept pursuing it. Reach out to people within driving range that were really good, and travel and learn from them and get beat up by them.”
Have you seen a big surge in growth of MMA in Alabama?
“Absolutely. When I started a gym eight ago, nine years in August. Back that it was such a stereo type for MMA that parents didn’t want any part of it. They all thought of the old UFC. That was the real stigma I had to get over and show the parents and the kids that it is not really what it really is when you are teaching jiu-jitsu or MMA in general. That is a sport and not just a fight. But the past five years I would say there is a whole culture change cause the kids are growing up seeing it in the main stream. Now I have kids that eight years ago they played baseball, football, baseketball down here. that was it. Now I got kids choosing jiu-jitsu, wrestling, kickboxing year-round instead of those three sports. So I can tell a giant culture change down here as far as how it is viewed. That it is a mainstream sports. The way people look at it has really changed.”
Over the years you’ve seen fights come and go. A fighter signs to a contract, backs out due to injury or what have you. Sometimes even an entire card falls apart as you are all too familiar with. What has been the hardest part for you dealing with those types of issues as a fighter training for competition?
“That, and staying motivated honestly. One year I had three out of five fights get cancelled. Opponent fell out, this and that. That was just devastating cause you put so much into your training, your diet, your everything, and when that happens it’s just so much harder each time to get that same intensity with your sparring, with your training, with your diet, to know that there is 50 percent chance that it could get cancelled. It’s just demoralizing, and it’s a grind. I always had to split my love between jiu-jitsu and MMA. That’s one thing that, pursuing jiu-jitsu pulled me away from MMA, and vice versa. When training hard for fights and stuff, it’s hard to jump in Gi tournaments, and do a lot of grappling tournaments cause I really like to focus on one or the other. It’s always a part of it, but if you want to do a high level tournament or something, you really want to make sure you’re game is on point.”
Is Jiu-Jitsu the reason for your year and a half layoff. Your last fight was in December 2015 for Strike Hard Prodcutions?
“No, I tore my ACL, like three days after that fight. I was training again. I was rolling with one of my heavyweight, and tore my ACL. Got a a hernia I had two surgeries last year. Actually this fight will be one year from my surgery date. So that was the real big reason. I had to wait a couple months. Set up everything because I have a gym, teach classes everyday, and then had all my surgeries. Been rehabbing and getting back at it. I really feel refocused. When you can’t compete, I think you start to value health. When health is the reason you can’t compete, it kind of puts perspective on, ‘I don’t mind the shows getting cancelled.’ This was my first injury I ever had and it really put it in perspective laying in bed for eight weeks. I just need to be thankful for when I’m healthy, and enjoy the training for the training.”
What is like coming back into the sport after an injury like that when you know that there is a chance that you could re-injure yourself?
“Well I did some jiu-jitsu tournaments, then I did a Fight To Win Jiu-Jitsu match, and just start doing those kinds of things and slowly testing it out, kind of breaking it in. Once you get over that mental hump, cause that’s the real hard part. Physically you’ll be fine, but mentally you’ll be hesitant to do the same things you used to do. Once you get over that mental hump, now I don’t even think twice about it.”
Speaking of the Fight To Win event, you had a win there, then there was a Twitter beef, and a feud between you and American Top Team, or a member there. Is there any update on that, or is that squashed?
“It’s not squashed. I told Roan Carneiro, he said something, I fought one of his fighters in 2013. I choked him out. They came in the ring thinking the bell had already run, but he was unconscious. That night he challenged to fight me, to one of my guys. After the fight I hear that he wanted to fight me, which I was a little surprised by. I didn’t understand. It’s a fight. Somebody is gonna win and lose. But then he said some things on Twitter. When I fought for Titan, they tried to set it up, but they said they couldn’t get him to agree to it. Then he got picked up by the UFc. Then at the Fight 2 Win in December, I just happened to be walking back after my match, walking back out there to watch the rest of them and he passed me and said some things and we got in each other’s face and I told him “any time.” It’s coming. It’s coming for him. It’s just a matter of time before I get my hands on him.”
Is this something that you would like to pursue here in the United States or….?
“Wherever. I don’t care where we fight. You know what I mean? It’s just a matter of time. Unless he retires from fighting, it’s coming. Whether I finish out my contract with M-1, or… it doesn’t matter how it happens. It’s just a…. it’s gonna happen. I don’t get in anybody’s face. I don’t try to talk bad about anybody. It’s a sport. I have a bunch of students. I carry myself, I try to respect everybody and I feel that he has done none of that. He want so fight bad, and I’m gonna be happy to oblige him. Cause it’s just something that I’m not gonna put up.”
Last question, you have a six-fight contract, how often would you like to see yourself. What is your road map here in the next two years?
“I’d love to hit three fights here this year. My style, I don’t stand in front of somebody and trade shots. I’m a pretty smart fighter. I like to take as little damage and finish the fight as quick as possible. I love to fight. I fought a fight and then two weeks later fought another fight. I don’t like fighting a lot. It’s just hard with promotions and shows and all the other stuff. I’d like to fight three, four times this year. I’m ready, and I’m ready to do it. I’m 7-1 since 2010. I’m just ready to get in and show everybody what I got.”
Any sponsors, teammates, coaches you want to thank or social media sites you want to plug?
“I just want to thank my gym, Kage Fit. My training partners here, Top Pressure Fight team. And I want to thank Pridelands Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jason Ratchford really helped me out with leg lock game. I just really want to thank those guys for helping me get to my peak.”
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