The double life

Combat Fitness in Winooski is blaring Three Six Mafia. DJ Paul and Juicy-J are rapping, “Hit ‘em with a left, hit ‘em with a right!” While music is supposed to inspire mixed martial arts fighter Chris Johnson to get through his grueling workout, he tunes it out.

He listens only to his Muay Thai trainer Paul, who is donning nearly full body armor: Focus mitts on his hands and a foam body protector around his stomach, as well as pads on his calves and thighs.

Paul calls out “Switch kick, hook and right cross. Go!” Johnson responds obediently with a flurry of blows.

He steps forward with his left foot and throws a kick to the inside of Paul’s thigh, then digs a hook into his liver and buries his right cross into Paul’s left hand. Johnson lets out a loud, angry exhale that sounds like a scream.

At 5 feet 9 inches tall and 146 pounds, he generates a surprising amount of power with tremendous speed in his punches. He hopes his power will surprise the opponent he will be fighting on Oct. 22 as well.

Johnson is not a boxer, Muay Thai fighter, Tae Kwon Do fighter, Jiu-Jitsu fighter or wrestler alone. He is all of these. Johnson is a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter and is well-versed in all of these styles.

Johnson is a nutrition and food science major in his senior year at the University. He grew up 25 miles outside of Philadelphia, and, like most kids, trained in Karate. But Johnson went to more than one or two sessions.

“I started karate at age 6. It was a joke. I was a black belt by age 10.”

When Johnson came to UVM at 18, he had six years of kickboxing experience under his belt and a natural ability to soak up new skills. He joined the Brazilian JiuJitsu Club to bolster his ground fighting techniques and quickly began competing in BJJ. This spirit of competition led him to compete in MMA.

While most students have trouble balancing just one schedule as a student, Johnson manages to lead the double life of student and MMA fighter, and does so successfully. However, his double life has raised a few eyebrows.

“A lot of my friends don’t understand how much work it takes. A lot of the other ones say, ‘Oh, I would never expect you to be such a bad ass.'” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t call myself a bad ass, but so many people see pictures of me or videos of me and they’re like, ‘Who the hell is this kid that has been cracking jokes in class this whole time and secretly could rip my head off if he wanted to?'”

Johnson is remarkably casual when talking about MMA, but he takes his training seriously. He trains for hours every day, keeping a finely tuned schedule of weight training, cardio, technique work and sparring.

This schedule is typical of most professional MMA fighters, but Johnson is not a professional and MMA is not his only occupation.

His schedule is packed to say the least. He typically eats while doing homework, or while in class. He does not have enough time between training and school to prepare meals during the school week, so he cooks large amounts of food at one time and portions his meals out for the week.

“Being a college student, I obviously have to start every day going to school. But I always schedule my day around eating,” Johnson said. He handles his diet — like his schedule, training and schoolwork — rigorously.

“You gotta eat and refill your body, you gotta rejuvenate before your practice. When you come here you’re still drained, you don’t have your glycogen built up yet so your muscles aren’t firing as well. You know, glycogen storage.”

A rigorous day for one student may consist of writing, listening to music, shooting pool at Davis Center and halfheartedly hitting the gym for a solid 45 minutes while listening to a National Public Radio podcast.

Glycogen storage never really comes to mind. But a rigorous day for Johnson is quite different.

“[From] 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. I was doing [physical training] with the ROTC guys. Then I had Muay Thai, and now Jiu-Jitsu. So that’ll be the third workout today. Today is one of the longest days of the week.”

This may be the longest day for him but not the hardest. His true challenge will come the night of his fight.

The day before the contest there is a fight against Johnson’s weight. Johnson has been following an extremely strict diet, even compared to his normal diet, for the past two weeks. He has virtually no body fat but still has to loose five pounds to make his 135-pound limit.

This process is not easy. Friday afternoon Johnson sits in a hot saltwater Epsom bath in order to extract excess water out of his body under the careful supervision of his trainer. He jumps rope in a sweat suit, is toweled off, and then gets back in the tub. By the time he weighs in at 7 p.m. that night he is 133.9 pounds.

First fight done, one to go.

Saturday night, Oct. 22, the bell rings and Johnson touches gloves with his opponent in the center of the ring.

He immediately throws out a left jab, gauging his range for punches. He lands another left jab and a right cross, followed by an inside leg kick to his opponent’s thigh.

Johnson takes his opponent down, and a battle on the ground ensues. To someone not well versed in the finer points of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the fight looks like a whirling dervish of legs, hands, feet and torsos, but it is clear to the knowledgeable audience that Johnson is dominating this hurricane of movement.

The first round ends. The second round is much of the same. Johnson takes down his opponent at will, controls the fight and lands powerful punches. In the third round, he threatens with two submissions: A topside triangle choke and a straight arm bar — all at once. At the end of the three-round fight, Johnson’s hand is raised in unanimous decision victory. His family screams loudly, overjoyed in his triumph.

After the fight Johnson critiques his performance in his locker room. The blood on his left hand hasn’t dried and he is still sweating from his battle, but Johnson is far removed from the fight. He is already looking forward to his next fight, always striving toward perfection. Despite his utter dominance, Johnson looks to his trainer and says, “I should have finished him.”