Brett_JohnsFriday Night’s (March 20, 2015) Titan FC 33 introduced North American audiences to a new star from the British Isles. Brett ‘The Pikey’ Johns is 23, a former Cage Warriors champion and firm fan-favourite on this side of the pond. Sound familiar? A few years ago I visited Wales for the first time. I went with high expectations; the Welsh are known as a sporting nation, furiously proud of their rugby team and boxing heroes like Joe Calzaghe. If there was anyone more passionate about Welsh sport than the fans – I was led to believe – it was the sportsmen and women themselves. I saw that passion in a kid named Brett Johns. It was 2012 and Cage Warriors had travelled to Cardiff, Wales’ beautiful capital, for the very first time. Even in October the city was vibrant due to the thriving student population and diverse nightlife. Cardiff remains one of the most alive and fun places I’ve visited for a fight to this day. The real treats were in the cage though. Current UFC fighter Cathal Pendred toughed-out some gruesome submissions over a nail-biting three rounds against Bruno Carvalho. Two Irishmen who would follow in his footsteps to the big show – Neil Seery and Paul Redmond – both picked up wins. Despite that show’s many highlights, there was a young man on the undercard who still managed to stand out. Welsh MC Ricky Wright – a stalwart on the UK MMA and boxing scene – tipped me off that a judo player barely out of his teens was worth keeping an eye on. At first I thought it was Welsh pride, but seeing was believing. Was it the most spectacular of victories? No… but once in a while you see somebody fight at that age, and you just know. Rise of a Dragon It wasn’t long before Johns, under the tutelage of Welsh trainer Chris Reese, started tongues wagging. A few more wins on the local circuit saw him back on Cage Warriors and once he’d handled business against Scotland’s James Macalister (from Joanne Calderwood’s Dinky Ninja team), it was beyond doubt that he had serious potential. What separated Johns from the pack was his judo, or rather the ability to implement said skillset in mixed martial arts. In general terms, the UK scene has always been a step behind our American cousins when it comes to wrestling and the controlling arts in MMA. It’s not about ability, it’s about experience. You have it, we don’t. Johns, it was theorised, might one day be good enough to negate the power double of an NCAA standout… but for now, he was still just a kid. On September 14th, 2013, Brett Johns was a kid no more. Cage Warriors was back in Wales at the Motorpoint Arena, with a four-man, one night tourney for the Bantamweight crown. The bracket was a murderer’s row; the hugely experienced Martin McDonough, James Pennington and David Haggstrom were all regarded amongst the best unsigned 135’ers in Europe at the time. And then there was Johns, a kid who’d barely broke two decades on earth. ‘The Pikey’s run through the tournament wasn’t smooth, nor was it easy. It was the danger he overcame (nearly being finished by a rib-shattering body kick in his first fight) and the depths to which he dug (a torrid, back and forth five-round split-decision in the final) that made Johns a star that night. The Pride and the Passion On the way to the cage for his first fight of that star-making tournament, Johns began screaming. “Come on!!! Come on then!!!!! Come on!!!!!” It started on the ramp and continued through the introductions and into the fight. Johns bellowed at the top of his lungs, shouted his throat raw, stomped his feet and brandished his fists. The crowd responded in kind for the home town underdog. He wasn’t the first to do it, and he won’t be the last, but the way Johns connected with the fans in that building and drank in their rapture was a sight to behold. It’s a cliché, but there were a few thousand men in the cage with ‘The Pikey’ that evening. There’s a few thousand more behind him now. Johns passion isn’t purely of the aggressive kind. He’s never been afraid to contain his emotions and it’s that which makes him – for my money – one of the most honest and humble fighters in the game. I wrote about what I saw following his tournament win at the time, and the original words do it the best justice. Johns, tears in his eyes, hugging friends and family with the title belt proudly strapped around his waist, was fighting his way to the locker room. “Turning to walk into the back, Johns came face to face with CWFC matchmaker Ian Dean. He half went to hug him, half shake his hand. Then instead, he took the slightest of steps back, and bowed. “Thank you,” he said, his voice trembling with emotion. “You don’t know what this means to me”.” You probably had to be there, but I get a lump in throat to this day thinking about it. From a young man on top of the world, it was one of the most humble acts I’ve seen and personifies Johns’ attitude towards martial arts and combat sports. He isn’t just a fighter, he’s a sportsman and a martial artist; a great role model to other young men like him, chasing a dream and trying to make a better life. Johns was set to defend his title in Swansea (his home town) a year later. Coming in a fraction over the contracted weight, the belt was taken from him on the scales. Broken-hearted doesn’t even cover it but from the lowest low of the Friday weigh-ins, Johns would once again find the strength to win. What makes a champion isn’t the metal and leather around his waist, it’s the steel, pride and passion in his heart. Coming to America It would be Johns’ last fight in Cage Warriors, as rumours swirled of a hop across the pond to the US. McGregor-fever had just begun, and Brits and Irish were chomping at the bit more than ever to follow in ‘The Notorious’ formidable footsteps. I was initially sceptical; “Too much, too soon” came to mind. A couple more fights and the UFC would surely have come calling. At the same time, I knew that Johns had the confidence of a thousand men, the support of thousands more and a coach who wouldn’t put him in a fight beyond his abilities. Hearing that Johns would fight UFC veteran Walel Watson for the Titan FC bantamweight title in his first fight off the British Isles came as something of a shock, but I thought back to that night in Wales where the bookies had Johns as the 4th pick in a four-man bracket. Beating just one favourite might not be the toughest thing he’d ever had to do after all. On Friday Johns passed the test with flying colours, pressuring Watson then scaling his back to apply a standing rear-naked choke that is already making Saturday’s MMA news reels. The stage is set for this fighting dragon to spearhead a movement in Wales like McGregor has in Ireland. He’s got the style, the charisma, the likeability and above all, the talent to go all the way. And the best part? He’s still in his early 20’s, and he’s still getting better. Like Calzaghe, Johns is a lovable rouge with a cheeky smile who’ll fight any man until his last breath. The Irish have arrived…now the Welsh are coming. Fear The Pikey. By Brad Wharton @MMABrad48     


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