As Michael Johnson gears up for a crucial lightweight main event with Justin Gaethje on Friday at The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale, he said he sees an empty spot at the top of the division.
Conor McGregor still officially holds status of UFC lightweight champion. However, the Irishman hasn’t defended the belt since he won it this past November, and is less than two months away from crossing over into the boxing ring for a heavily hyped showdown with Floyd Mayweather on Aug. 26.
Johnson (17-11 MMA, 9-7 UFC), who meets Gaethje (17-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC) in the FS1-televised headliner following early prelims on UFC Fight Pass from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, said he views McGregor’s (21-3 MMA, 9-1 UFC) title as vacant, and he plans on going after it.
“We don’t have a champ in this division,” Johnson told MMAjunkie. “Once Conor signed that contract to go box, to me, he vacated the title. That’s how it should be. I’ve beaten two of the top guys up there. I want to make a strong case for fighting for a title or an interim title. I think that’s in my future.”
Johnson, No. 12 in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMAjunkie MMA lightweight rankings, said he plans on making a statement at The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale. “The Menace” was tasked with welcoming former WSOF champ and No. 7-ranked Gaethje to the organization, and the tension between the two is evident.
Although Johnson said he enjoys watching Gaethje’s brawling style, he is adamant it won’t work against him. Johnson believes he’s fighting Gaethje because the UFC newcomer thought he could take out an easy target for his first octagon appearance, but in practice, he said that’s not going to work out.
“I feel like they looked at the top 10 and were like, ‘We want Michael Johnson, he’s the easiest guy in there to fight,'” Johnson said. “I feel tested. That’s my motivation, that’s where it’s coming from. It’s his first fight in the UFC. I don’t need to make him nervous. He’s nervous enough already.
“He’s fought guys who have been everywhere around the world, who have been in promotions, who have been champions, but he’s fought them at the end of the rope. I’ve fought the best of the best in the middle of their prime. I’ve lost to some, I’ve beaten some. He’s been around the corner, but I have as well. My competition blows his out of the water.”
Johnson is coming off a second-round submission loss to No. 2-ranked Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 205 in November. Prior to that fight, he earned one of the signature wins of his career, knocking out Dustin Poirier in the first round of September’s UFC Fight Night 94 headliner.
Chances to headline a UFC card don’t come often, and Johnson said the fact the UFC has placed him on the top of the lineup for the third time is evidence of faith in his ability. Now it’s time to transfer that into the octagon, and Johnson said that won’t be hard against Gaethje, whom he appears to genuinely dislike.
“I’m starting to release more of Michael Johnson,” Johnson said. “I think I’ve kind of played the good guy slash company role whose not really going to start much (expletive). But now I just did (some talking) to get under his skin a little bit and show my personality a little bit more. I just wanted to see how he would react and he did exactly what we thought he was going to do.”
For more on The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale, as well as “The Money Fight: Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor,” check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.
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