Pay attention, ladies and gentlemen, because next Friday’s Titan Fighting Championships 33—in addition to putting on a historic four title fights on its main card—will host the arrival of UK blue chip prospect Brett “The Pikey” Johns. The 10-0 Welsh former Cage Warriors bantamweight champion will be making his stateside debut in a five round tilt for the vacant Titan FC bantamweight title.
From Swansea to Alabama: Former Cage Warriors champ Brett Johns aims for Titan FC gold
The Swansea-born lifelong judoka, who secured both the Welsh and British belts before signing on with Cage Warriors, first rose to prominence following his successful debut with the premier UK organization. He was subsequently seeded fourth in a one-night, four-man tournament for the vacant Cage Warriors title. After fighting for a total of 40 minutes, he emerged as the new undisputed champion.
A few days later, however, he made a disconcerting discovery while perusing the UK rankings.
“Before those world title fights, I was ranked 13th in the UK. I shouldn’t have been up for a world title as 13th in the UK,” Johns conceded during an interview early last week. “But I won that tournament. I jumped up a few spaces, but I’m looking at that thing… I was world champion, but I was like third or fourth in the rankings and I was like, ‘Hold on a minute… If I’m world champion, I should be at the top of that list.’ This is why when Cage Warriors offered me the next fight as the champion and asked me who I wanted to fight I said, ‘Look, I’ll fight James Brum. I want that fight.’ At the time he was 7-0 with Cage Warriors. I said, ‘I’ll fight him. I’ll fight the best guy. I beat him and I’ve more or less cleaned the division out. Them seven wins go in my basket.’ After the Brum fight, most of the rankings in the UK started taking note and put me at first.”
Their contest wasn’t without some mild controversy, though. Johns, who was coming back from an injury that had postponed their initial scheduled bout, weighed in two pounds over the 135 lb. limit. In accordance with Cage Warriors rules, he was stripped of his title but still permitted to compete. The fight would still go for five rounds. If Johns won, he would be the #1 contender for the belt. If Brum won, he’d become the new champion. “It was crazy circumstances,” he said. “The weight cut wasn’t really an issue until the last week. I personally messed up my weight cut. It was just something that I did that was very silly and I ended up missing [weight] because of it. But the weight isn’t an issue. It hadn’t been before that it and it won’t be now. It was just a silly mistake that I made at that time and I’ve learned, you know? I lost a world title because of it, so you could say I learned my lesson very quickly because of that.”
The Brum fight at Cage Warriors 67 on April 12, 2014 ended up being Johns’ last for the promotion, as he was once again plagued by a litany of injuries that put him out of competition for the remainder of the year. He was forced to default out of a scheduled bout against current UCMMA champion Cory Tait, who would go on to face and lose to Toni Tauru, the current Cage Warriors bantamweight champion.
However, things were picking up behind the scenes. A newly minted contract with Brian Butler’s Sucker Punch Entertainment—whose clients include UFC women’s strawweight champion Carla Esparza, UFC featherweight contender Max Holloway, former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver and Bellator welterweight champion Douglas Lima—opened up opportunities overseas. Suddenly, putting the Cage Warriors title in his rearview seemed like a necessary step towards loftier goals. After a lengthy talk with Butler and his head coach Chris Rees, Johns agreed to sign on with Jeff Aronson’s burgeoning promotion.
“Titan is a great company, but not only that—they’ve got these UFC veterans and I’ve missed out on these UFC veterans on my record,” he explained. “There are no UFC vets on my record. I really think, as a fighter getting into the UFC, you need UFC vets on your name, you know? They’ve been there, they’ve done that and you need to beat these guys to get onto that stage. I don’t agree with people not having these guys on their record. I see a lot of fighters in the UFC right now who just get sent in and, three fights later, get sent straight back out. If I want to be in the UFC, I want to stay in the UFC. I want to retire when I’m in the UFC. I don’t want to be in and out of fight promotions. I think I need some UFC vets on my name and I’ve signed with Titan, who has given that perfect opportunity.”
That opportunity comes in the form of Walel “The Gazelle” Watson (13-7), who has gone 2-0 since debuting with the promotion in May 2014. The 5’11” fighter from San Diego, CA went 1-3 while competing under the UFC banner, including a unanimous decision loss to current champion TJ Dillashaw. Watson earned his title shot after an exciting three-minute affair with former TUF contestant Anthony Gutierrez that ended when Watson, clearly still reeling from an early punch, locked on a triangle choke submission for the tap out.
Johns says that, while he never takes an opponent lightly, he’s approached this matchup in particular with an additional degree of gravitas—especially since he plans to put “The Gazelle” away in spectacular fashion and extinguish the three-fight decision streak he’s been on since entering the Cage Warriors tournament a year and a half ago.
“He’s by far one of the most durable fighters that I will ever face,” he said. “He’s not a guy who’s just going to take a shot on the jaw, go down and I’m going to put him away or choke him out. Walel is very tough. I’ve watched his last couple of fights and the [Anthony] Gutierrez fight was absolutely incredible. He gets hurt. There’s no doubt in my mind he gets hurt with that right hand [Gutierrez hit him with at Titan FC 30] and it’s an absolutely perfectly-timed right hand. Realistically, nine times out of 10, he should have gone—he should have got put away there, you know? I shouldn’t be fighting Walel Watson for the world title now; I should be fighting Anthony Gutierrez. But that’s where that durability comes from and you can’t teach fighters that. Walel Watson was just born with it, really. He dug deep in the round and ended up coming back with a triangle choke. He’s going to be my toughest fight to date. Skill wise, I think I’ve fought some really good guys, but they seemed to lack this kind of durability. To go in there and say I’m going to stop him might be a bit disrespectful, but that’s obviously the job I’m trying to do.”
Brett Johns first started training judo at four years old under the tutelage of his father, Andrew Haywood, who remains his sensei to this day. He began training for the 2012 Olympics in London, but after a few years he found himself too far from his goal and switched his focus entirely to combat sports. He traveled to Chris Rees Academy in Fforestfach, a suburb of Swansea, to shore up his grappling game by supplementing it with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. By 16, he decided he enjoyed it enough to train in other disciplines as well and work towards becoming a complete mixed martial artist.
Although the United States may be his competitive stomping grounds for the foreseeable future, Johns—much like a certain brash Irishman who also wore Cage Warriors gold—has no plans to relocate his training.
“Everybody’s going crazy over Conor McGregor,” he said. “He doesn’t really leave home, to be honest. Yeah, he goes out to the gym in Iceland—he goes to, I think, Gunnar Nelson’s gym; he goes there sometimes—but most of his work is done back home. The same [goes] for me. I don’t feel the need at this moment to be out in the States. I think there are equally good training partners in the UK.”
And as far as his ultimate goal is… it’s not to get into the UFC, per se.
“A lot of fighters seem to look at that goal and go, ‘I want to get to the UFC.’ I don’t want to get to the UFC. I never want to get to the UFC; I want to be a UFC champion,” he said. “I think that’s where fighters go wrong sometimes. They tend to just think, ‘I want to get to the UFC.’ If I want to be in the UFC, I want to hold the belt, you know? My last organization, Cage Warriors, I held the belt. The organization before that, I held the belt. I’m hoping I go to Titan, win this fight with Walel Watson and I hold the belt.
“I actually love listening to Conor McGregor and watching him, the way he is. He’s just so influential. He’s like the Floyd Mayweather of MMA. That’s another guy I love watching, Floyd Mayweather. He’s very inspirational. But them guys have got goals and they’re at the top of the game still, you know, and I want to picture myself up there with the Conor McGregors and the Floyd Mayweathers. That’s where I want to be in my career. I don’t want to be this guy who’s in the shadow. I want to be the guy who, when you say my name it’s not like, ‘Who’s that guy?’ I want people to know straight away who I am. I want them to say, ‘Oh, I know that guy,’ and I’ve just got to keep winning fights. I’m just excited to go out and get that belt now.”
Brett “The Pikey” Johns faces Walel “The Gazelle” Watson for the vacant Titan Fighting Championship bantamweight belt at Titan FC 33 on Friday, March 20, 2013 at the Brookley Aeroplex in Mobile, Alabama. The card takes place during the inaugral Mobile Aerofest, a two-day sports and entertainment event honoring United States military veterans. The fight will air live on CBS Sports Network at 10PM/7PM ET|PT. Click HERE for tickets and HERE for more information. All profits from the event will be donated to support the physical, emotional and adaptive needs of injured US veterans.