TORONTO — UFC lightweight (Ragin’) Kajan Johnson is a walking, talking advertisement for modern medicine. And perseverance.
The charismatic 31-year-old from Burns Lake, B.C., who fights out of Montreal, has survived a longterm shoulder problem, broken orbital bones and a shattered jaw among other injuries.
“My whole career has kind of like been up and down, and up and down. But I think that’s how life is,” said Johnson.
On Saturday, a healthy Johnson (20-12-1) takes on Japan’s Naoyuki Kotani (33-12-7) at the iconic Saitama Super Arena in Japan.
Josh (The Warmaster) Barnett, ranked eighth among heavyweight contenders, faces No. 11 Roy (Big Country) Nelson in the main event of the televised card.
Johnson is coming off a unanimous decision over Zhang (The Warrior) Lipeng in May in Manila. Prior to that he was knocked out by Tae Hyun Bang at UFC 174 in June 2014 after appearing on “The Ultimate Fighter Nations” where fellow Canadian Chad Laprise broke his jaw in three places in the welterweight semifinal.
Johnson, who trains with Laprise at the renowned Tristar Gym, admits to being in “a really dark place” in 2012 after surgery to repair a second orbital injury. His facial injuries meant he couldn’t be a doorman at a club or teach martial arts.
“I wasn’t really able to sustain life,” he said.
His mother begged him to come back to B.C. “But I knew if I left and I went to Burns Lake, I would probably never make it back here.
“I did what I had to do. Not all of it was good but I did what I had to do and I was able to stay in Montreal and continue learning and continue on my path.”
Johnson did not fight for 11 months after UFC 174, his return to action slowed in part by a severe concussion. He would get headaches when he returned to training. He says he used the time to study his sport, to see who was doing what and what was working.
“I think it all happened for a reason,” he said. “It all helped me to evolve at a very very very fast pace. So it’s not like I changed my style, it’s not like I changed the way I fought. It was like I grew very very fast in that year. And now I’m continuing to grow.”
He was able to survive financially thanks to a US$50,000 fight of the night bonus.
The Zhang win that followed was vindication. “It definitely was. It felt amazing,” he said.
While he continues to train at Tristar, Johnson has added to his routine. That includes spending time in a chamber that simulates the oxygen deprivation at 10,000 feet.
It’s a far cry from when he began his pro fighting career in February 2002.
He also looks to meditation. And Johnson, who is one-eighth Blackfoot, has gone back to his native roots, taking part in traditional fasts in 2008 and in 2014 after the 2-14 loss to Bang.
The fasts are in the bush, with a small shelter called a hogan. “You sit there four days, four nights, no food, no water, no talking … It’s a very difficult experience.”
The most challenging aspect, he says, is “being alone with your thoughts.”
Johnson, who has also helped elders co-ordinate fasts for others, says he is in a good place these days.
“I’m in the light and I’m not going back to the dark.”
In an interesting twist, Johnson and Kotani both excel in the kitchen as well as the cage. Johnson has a culinary school diploma while Kotani has studied to be a pastry chef.
“That’s really cool,” said Johnson who normally walks around at 180 pounds before cutting down to fight at 155.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press