Charles Johnson usually had an answer for every question posed to him over the course of his life. It wasn’t always the right answer, but an answer, nonetheless.
This time, though, the rising flyweight star was stumped. It was the dawn of 2021, he was looking to fight for the first time since a decision loss to Brandon Royval in December 2018, and he was coming off a bout with COVID-19. The question was, did the virus take something away from him he wouldn’t ever get back and something every fighter needs?
He was going to find out. In Michigan. In the snow. He put on his shoes, and the former collegiate track standout went old school.
For 17 miles.
“I had to mentally make myself strong enough,” said Johnson. “I said if I can do these miles, I'm good.”
He was good. In February, he returned to active duty as a mixed martial artist, submitting Karlee Pangilinan in the second round of an LFA fight. The victory kicked off a four-fight winning streak that put him on the UFC’s radar, and in April of this year, he got a phone call when Manel Kape was forced out of a bout against Sumudaerji. It was the Wednesday before the Saturday fight.
“I took it,” said Johnson. “I was cutting weight. I was 142 when they called me, I was 136 cutting on that Thursday, I was in the tub, and when they called me back, they said they were gonna sign me for this fight. I didn't even know who the opponent was. They just said you're gonna fight in London, July 23rd.”
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Five minutes later, manager Brian Butler told him that he would be facing Muhammad Mokaev, who Johnson briefly trained with when the two were at the Tiger Muay Thai camp in Thailand. It’s an intriguing matchup between two rising stars at 125 pounds, but before we look forward, let’s go back to find out what the celebration dinner was like when Johnson found out he didn’t have to keep cutting weight for Sumudaerji and had been signed to the UFC.
“It was cool,” he said. “I gotta rehydrate now. (Laughs) It was a little letdown. I had kinda got my mind into fighting in the UFC on Saturday, so it was more of a mental thing. I still had practice later.”
Yes, Johnson still went to practice.
“There's no celebrating for me until the work is done,” he laughs.
That work ethic is no surprise when you realize that his father and stepmother are United States Marines who made sure that discipline was a part of their household in a St. Louis that wasn’t always a pleasant place to be in outside their home.
“Luckily for me, I always had the right people saying the right things to me,” said Johnson. “My dad, since I was younger, even if he wasn't doing the right things, he would tell me the right things to do. And my stepmom got me out of a situation with my real mother when I was about four years old, and they put me in an environment where I was able to have structure. I was in an environment until I was four where my mom was doing all kinds of things and not really being a mother to me. So I finally came to St. Louis to live with my father - and they were both Marines. I had to learn fast, but it took a while. I had a hard head and I didn't have a soft ass - I would get whuppings all the time, and eventually, my dad started putting me through boot camp stuff. Instead of giving me whuppings, he would have me do a hundred pushups, non-stop, don't touch the floor. As a kid, I was getting into all kinds of things, I was hard-headed, but he had to find a way to get through to me mentally. Being around those environments has made me who I am.”
Sports helped. Johnson ran track at a high level, boxed professionally, and, of course, there’s mixed martial arts, where he is currently 11-2 as a pro. And on his way to the biggest fight of his career in an O2 Arena where he is likely going to hear some boos as he faces the England-based Russian.
“It's nothing,” said Johnson. “I've gotten booed before, being the B-side in boxing. And obviously, nothing is gonna really compare to fighting in the UFC a hundred percent, but I feel like I've had enough experience in my competing in sports and just life, in general, that it's gonna be cool. And I'm gonna have fans there, too.”
Even if they boo, don’t expect Johnson to get rattled. That’s just not in his DNA. But fighting is, and that’s what he showed up to London to do.
“I've been watching these guys for two years now and feeling like I'm on that level, but I just had to show everyone that I deserve to be there,” he said. “And yeah, I believe that this is what I deserved. I really earned this.”
UFC Fight Night: Blaydes vs Aspinall took place live from the at The O2 Arena in London on Saturday, July 23, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!