MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- The Marine’s eyes were focused. His forehead glistened with sweat and, although his fists were clenched, the rest of his body was as relaxed as possible. The rock music, which pulsed the ground as he approached the cage, slowly drifted away and he became alone with his silence. His opponent remained under his own lonely spotlight just a few yards away as the bell signaled the beginning of a different kind of war. Just 48 seconds later, Master Sgt. Donald W. Johnson stood victorious over his bloodied opponent.
“I’m not the type of person that shows a lot of emotions, but the butterflies are definitely there prior to the walkout music being played,” said Johnson, a Rush City, Minnesota native.
His profession isn’t fighting in a ring—it’s just one part of a journey that began 20 years ago when he raised his right hand and repeated the oath of enlistment.
Johnson’s military occupational specialty is a Low Altitude Air Defense, or LAAD, gunner. LAAD gunners operate surface-to-air weapon systems in support of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force and joint air-defense assets. Johnson is currently part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s aviation combat element which is scheduled to deploy at the end of the year.
Johnson isn’t the only Marine in his family, he joined to follow a family tradition.
“My grandfather was a Marine during the Korean War, and I enjoyed listening to his stories when I was growing up,” said the detachment staff-noncommissioned officer in charge with Marine Air Control Group 28. “He played a huge role in my life when I was growing up and [joining was] the least I could do to honor him.”
Johnson became interested in mixed martial arts after he earned his instructor tab in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program in September 2005. The MCMAP is a combat system established by the Marine Corps to chain existing, hand-to-hand, and close quarters combat techniques with morale and team-building functions. The program trains in lethal, unarmed combat; edged weapons; weapons of opportunity; and rifle and bayonet techniques.
MMA, on the other hand, is a contact combat sport that allows the use of both striking and grappling techniques from standing and ground positions—and is designed to be non-lethal.
“My [fighting] knowledge was strictly based on what the MCMAP taught, so I seldom had answers for the ‘what if’ questions that always popped up from students,” said Johnson.
After a couple of deployments around the world with the 15th MEU, a 2005-2007 tour to Al Assad, Iraq, and another with Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in Djibouti in 2007-2008, he received orders to be the Assistant Marine Officer Instructor at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
“That is where I started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because I knew it would help answer some of those [what if] questions, and it was free,” said Johnson. “I got connected with some really cool guys and then started training at a Tae Kwon Do school that was starting a BJJ program.
“After a year or so they started offering MMA classes for a few interested people so I said ‘why not.’”
When Johnson re-located to North Carolina, he continued his passion and started to train in Havelock, the town just outside Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
“A little over three years ago, Premiere Martial Art, the dojo I train at, started their active MMA program with a cage and everything,” said Johnson. “They have a great staff and it felt like a family since day one.
“I trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with a few buddies and enjoyed the individual aspect of one-on-one ‘combat.’ I’ve competed in numerous BJJ tournaments and have done fairly well. I figured I’d take it to the next level and see how it worked for me.”
Johnson fights as a Light Heavyweight and won his last two fights by knockout. He says his next fight—June 28 at Fort Bragg—will be his last due to his busy schedule in preparation for the 24th MEU’s deployment at the end of the year.
When Johnson was asked if he planned on continuing a career in MMA he replied, “No, I’m 39. If I was 10 years younger, most definitely. Besides, my wife doesn’t want me to fight any more.
“I’ll continue to train and work with my daughter and younger Marines if they want, but my fighting days are done. Regardless of how this weekend’s fight turns out I’ll be over .500 for my short career and that’s more than most people can say,” said Johnson.
Every fight requires a lot of training, hours on a mat for BJJ and cage time, but he knows it is worth it once the fight is over. “I always tell everyone that I’m making stories to tell the grandkids. If you talk to people that run marathons and they say ‘finishing is the greatest feeling in the world,’ which may be true for them. For me … it’s going toe-to-toe with a ‘peer’ and coming out victorious.”