A Rush City High School graduate, who contributed to winning seasons in Tiger football and basketball in the early 1990s, recently made headlines in the military for his fighting skills in the ring.
Donald W. Johnson, who graduated from Rush City High in 1993, has won two of three mixed martial arts matches by knockout. Though he’s not a fighter by profession, the experience marks one chapter of a journey that began 20 years ago when he enlisted with the United States Marines.
Now in Havelock, North Carolina, the master sergeant is married and has a 13-year-old daughter. His service to his country has included deployments to Iraq and Africa. Soon he will be off on another tour to the Mediterranean region.
“We go wherever the president tells us to,” he said in a phone interview with the Post Review last week. “We’ll do training and cross-training with other nations, help out with any situation that is needed.”
According to a story by Cpl. Devin Nichols, from Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System, Johnson’s military occupational specialty is a low-altitude air defense gunner. These 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 became interested in mixed martial arts after he earned his instructor tab in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program in September 2005. The program 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, Nichols explained.
Mixed martial arts, on the other hand, he added, is a contact combat sport that allows the use of both striking and grappling techniques from standing and ground positions — all designed to be non-lethal.
“It’s something I do on my own time,” Johnson told the Post Review. “I thought I’d try it and see what happens. In my first fight, it’s like you’re in a room in the middle of the cage. The coaches are offering tips, but you don’t hear anything because you’re focused on your opponent. I remember hearing maybe five words. I wasn’t focusing on the fundamentals. When I leaned against the cage, I stopped myself and had to think about it.”
Johnson’s journey in the sport began after his last deployment in 2007-08, when 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,” Johnson told Nichols.
He added: “I got connected with some really cool guys and then started training at a tae kwon do school that was starting a (jiu-jitsu) program. After a year or so they started offering mixed martial art classes for a few interested people, so I said ‘why not.’”
When Johnson relocated to North Carolina, he continued his passion and started to train in Havelock, the town just outside Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, Nichols wrote.
Johnson fights as a light heavyweight and lost his last match June 28 at Fort Bragg. With a 2-1 record, he said it would be his last due to his busy schedule in preparation for his deployment at the end of the year.