“If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying …”
- John Dodson, TUF 14
To hear John Dodson recount the events of January 26, 2013, you’d be surprised to ultimately learn that he came up short in his first bid for UFC flyweight gold against Demetrious Johnson.
See, in one corner, there’s the reality and truth, that Johnson took the contest by unanimous decision, 48-47, 49-46, 48-47. But then, standing across the cage, is Dodson, offering his own version, one that’s more or less loosely based on real life events, but with some added dramatic effect.
“The first time that we fought, the world, Dana White, and even myself, I can guarantee you in the back of Demetrious Johnson’s mind as well, is that he knows that I beat him in that fight,” comments Dodson ahead of his upcoming UFC 191 title shot, a rematch against Johnson. “I should be the champion, not him … he’s been fighting guys who are at the bottom of the barrel, while I’m fighting … the cream of the crop.”
Normally jovial, there’s a venom and vitriol in Dodson’s words, along with something he constantly references as “murderous intent,” when speaking about Johnson. Perhaps it’s because of the illegal knee Dodson took to the head in the fourth round of their first contest, but his affable character, wide grin, and abundance of sarcastic, smart-ass one liners instantly vanish when Johnson’s name comes up.
And once Dodson has shared his own distortion of the facts (does he really believe he’s faced tougher competition?), he returns to his charming self, rifling off some more tall tales and vignettes from ten-plus years as a member of the Jackson-Winkeljohn camp that produced
former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, as well as upcoming title challengers Carlos Condit, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, and Holly Holm.
At only 125 pounds, Dodson’s road to the UFC was a long and winding seven-year journey. Back when he first took up the pro MMA game, the UFC had no place for flyweights, or even bantamweights and featherweights for that matter, leaving Dodson relegated to the regional scene in his native Albuquerque.
Yet, while confined to the American southwest, 5,300-feet above sea level, in “Burque” as Dodson calls his hometown, the fighter known as “The Magician,” was able to craft and cultivate a highly technical mixed martial arts repertoire, training with men 100 pounds above his weight, men like Keith Jardine, a 13-time veteran of the UFC’s Octagon.
“Keith Jardine is the reason for my (cauliflower) ears,” laments Dodson. “Me and him were sparring. He kicked me, my head tilted, and when he brought his shin back, my ear dropped down and started looking like a sad puppy dog. I was so heartbroken because I knew my modeling career was over.”
Perhaps it is exactly Dodson’s small stature, all 5-feet-3-inches, that led him to wrestling and sparring MMA behemoths in the first place. Dodson himself calls it his “superhero complex … want[ing] someone to save … developing these answers for the solutions that no one else has.” Regardless, by the time John Dodson was in his early 20s, he was already inside the Jackson Wink camp, challenging much larger men, proving his worth.
But then again, hanging around with a bigger, tougher crowd can have its drawbacks, especially where Rashad Evans is concerned.
“Rashad got me kicked out of a club once. He told the bouncers that I wasn’t old enough and that I was someone’s son … 16 years old,” recollects Dodson of his days hanging out with the former light heavyweight champ, when Evans was based in Albuquerque. “They thought that I was a minor … [Rashad] came out and he had to tell them that he was joking. But they were really taking my ID because they thought it was a fake.”
This is not the only time Dodson has been mistaken for a child; as recently as this summer, he was nearly prevented from entering a screening of the R-rated Ted 2, but following Evans’ departure from Jackson’s, Dodson shifted his attention toward men of his own size. And when the UFC opened up The Ultimate Fighter to bantamweights for its fourteenth season, Dodson transitioned from the New Mexico highlands to MMA’s national stage in Las Vegas.
But fighting on TUF wasn’t even originally Dodson’s idea. The suggestion came at the behest of coach Jackson, who saw this as Dodson's only way into the MMA big time, after the UFC had passed on previous opportunities to sign him.
"I didn’t think I would ever go on the show. I was always seeing people that were going on that I felt like I was better than. I always tried out. I didn’t want to do it. And then when I finally gave up, Greg Jackson was like ‘you should go try out for the Ultimate Fighter’," states Dodson. "Somebody that was an employee of Zuffa said they would never sign me because I wasn’t finishing fights. So I took that as a challenge. I told him if you give me a bonus and a reason for me to knock somebody out, I’ll do it. [His response] ‘If you can do it, I’ll give you a bonus every single time you do,’ and that man’s been true to his word ever since."
The experience on the UFC's reality TV feeder program resulted in three victories and a promotional contract for Dodson; he even knocked out current bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw to capture the TUF crown and those six figures. But again, it's Dodson's version of the truth that results in one of those sound bites that is amusing to the ear, yet not necessarily true.
"Seeing that the 135 division is being ruled by a guy that I knocked out in one minute and 24 seconds, I can easily do it again," comments Dodson, despite the fact that official stoppage time of their 2011 bout was 1:54. "Apparently [bantamweight] is not that well developed anymore. T.J. Dillashaw’s the champion; I can definitely knock out everybody."
Whether or not Dodson can dismantle an entire weight class, one that he doesn't even fight in anymore, is completely irrelevant. It's just fun to hear him speak this way. The responses don't seem completely off the cuff, even slightly rehearsed, but they're certainly amusing. Dodson is merely aiming for the dramatic, something his rival Johnson has never done.
"Demetrious Johnson is not entertaining ... it’s very disappointing and disheartening because he’s not paving the road for us to excel to get bigger pay days," adds Dodson. "He’s not willing to go out and step up to people that are willing to fight him ... we’ve had a very poor performance in our flyweight division with the champion ... no one likes to watch flyweights because Demetrious Johnson hasn’t been vocal enough to sit there and promote us. People hate us because of the fact that they say that we’re boring, that we’re lackluster. But we are tied with heavyweights for racking up the most bonuses."
Dating back to their first encounter in 2013, Dodson has consistently lobbied for a second crack at the belt. Ever since, he has seen a cast of challengers come up empty handed against a fighter he dropped three times over the course of five rounds. He even witnessed fellow flyweight Joseph Benavidez earn a second title shot, which only compounded his frustration with Johnson, who was consistently hesitant to grant Dodson a rematch.
And so Dodson went, back on his merry way, determined to return to the promised land of title fights. But there would be hiccups, plenty of hiccups.
First came a knee injury, a minor one, which would force him to pull out of a December 2013 bout against Scott Jorgensen. Dodson would recover reasonably quickly and return to action in June 2014 to TKO John Moraga. And while Dodson was awarded the victory via doctor stoppage, he's still holding onto some resentment toward the officiating crew, claiming "the referee robbed me of what I wanted to do. They stopped me from being able to go ahead and end the fight in the fashion that I wanted to. I had a murderous intent going into that third round."
Following the Moraga fight (again with the “murderous intent”), Dodson experienced another setback. This one would be more serious; he blew out his ACL and would have to sit out for nearly a year.
Having already seen UFC stars like Georges St.-Pierre and Conor McGregor make remarkable and successful comebacks from ACL surgery, Dodson was always adamant in his ability to return to top form. Then again, his surgery would be slightly different, opting for the same cadaver tendon technique used by the surgeons who repaired former bantamweight ruler Dominick Cruz's knee. Dodson's old teammate Rashad Evans was also struggling to return from a cadaver procedure.
Seeds of doubt began to seep into Dodson's head when he learned of the plight of his ACL-rehabbing contemporaries. However, once again, it was a fictitious version of reality that kept, and keeps, Dodson on the comeback trail.
"I always get freaked out because I hear little cricks and cracks here and there ... that’s just scar tissue trying to maneuver into me,” explains Dodson. "It’s basically like painting. What kind of artist do you want to go to? The doctor I went to specialized in using cadaver [tendons] to make sure it really takes and if they do everything properly to make sure they don’t ever give out."
It’s that jump from science and surgery to art and painting that continues to reinforce Dodson’s push toward a championship. And with his knee healed, along with clearance from the doctor, John Dodson returned to action in May, this time taking on former training partner Zach Makovsky.
The bout was tepid, to say the least. Dodson looked hesitant to unload, Makovsky was unable to land takedowns and implement his wrestling. And while Makovsky continued to shoot in, trying to bring the contest to the floor, Dodson was clearly suffering from ring rust. Although, as the world and word of Dodson goes, the scenario played completely different.
“Against Zach it was hard for me to do because he was my very close friend. I didn’t want to sit there and beat up my friend. For instance, for you, [it’s like] punching your mother in the face. It’s got to be hard for you to do, but you got to do it. Would you if she tempted you to? And that’s the same thing that happened to me that I had to punch one of my friends,” offers Dodson. “I was hitting my friend and I knew I wanted to take his head off. But at the same time, I had a few seconds of delay cause I had those hesitation moments because I knew he was my buddy and I didn’t want to end his career and have anything that could possibly be injuring to him couldn’t be my fault.”
It’s not completely unheard of for training partners to be hesitant in competition, it’s just the way Dodson delivers the anecdote feels like a prepared statement to explain his lackluster performance because, again, he prefaced the story by calling Makovsky “a pure wrestler who has the best wrestling in MMA” – take note Daniel Cormier, Ben Askren, and Khabib Nurmagomedov.
But it’s not his past performances that Dodson has been preparing for since his early days in Albuquerque. It’s the opportunity directly in front of him, against Johnson, that is taking up the majority of Dodson’s time and attention these days, along with the baby girl he and his girlfriend are expecting, due four days after UFC 191.
And since he’s already gone on the record to state that “a fight with Demetrious Johnson is gonna be the easiest fight I’ve ever had in my entire life,” John Dodson remains focused on the two task at hand. Well, maybe three, as he’s already clamoring for an additional bout with Johnson, although Dodson would prefer to see the rubber match play out on the gaming consoles for a Call of Duty squash match.
“I’ll mop up whatever team he wants to wrangle up,” adds Dodson. “His team can go against my team. We’re always down to battle anybody, everybody … we’re the best.”
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