The reinvention of the UFC’s Johnny Walker: ‘I want to be somebody now’

MMA

IT WAS LATE November, a few weeks after Johnny Walker‘s first UFC loss. Tara Campbell, a teacher with a law degree who is also Walker’s girlfriend, couldn’t reconcile his lack of sponsors with his substantial fan following.

It was time for a change.

With Walker’s blessing, Campbell began researching representation firms in the MMA space. She happened upon Paradigm Sports Management, the agency that boasts Conor McGregor, Israel Adesanya and Cris Cyborg as clients. Campbell clicked on the “contact” link on Paradigm’s website and wrote that she was UFC light heavyweight Johnny Walker potentially looking for new representation.

“I really don’t know a lot about fighting or the UFC,” said Campbell, who has been dating Walker for about seven months. “I didn’t even know what it stood for before meeting Johnny. But it’s hard to not know the name Conor McGregor.”

The random contact paid off.

After confirming that the application was legit — or at least that Walker was part of the process — Paradigm signed Walker in January. It was the first of several significant changes Walker has made since his first-round TKO loss to Corey Anderson at UFC 244.

The other big one was moving to Montreal for a six-week training camp under coach Firas Zahabi at Tristar Gym, where Walker has worked with the legendary Georges St-Pierre.

As Walker, 27, heads into his fight with Nikita Krylov on Saturday at UFC Brasilia, he believes he has taken the right steps to continue his evolution as one of the most promising up-and-coming light heavyweight fighters in the UFC.

“I want to be somebody now,” Walker said. “I don’t want to waste my time. I don’t want to waste nobody’s time.”

CAMPBELL’S MESSAGE CAME as a surprise to the team at Paradigm. Manager John Meehan was assigned to find out if it actually came from Johnny Walker. After speaking with Campbell and Walker, Meehan realized that it was legitimate. Walker met with Meehan, Paradigm CEO Audie Attar and director of management Tim Simpson at UFC 246, which featured McGregor’s triumphant return fight against Donald Cerrone in Las Vegas.

“Someone high-profile like him, it’s weird that they go through a website contact page,” Simpson said. “But that’s how it came about. And we said, ‘Oh s—, OK. I guess it really is Johnny Walker.'”

Campbell had been frustrated even before Walker’s loss to Anderson. She saw how many followers Walker had on Instagram — more than 400,000 — and couldn’t understand why he didn’t have more sponsors. It really became obvious to her when she visited Walker while he was training in Russia and he would steal her protein powder — she’s a fitness enthusiast — because he didn’t have any of his own.

“I was thinking, ‘How do you not have any sponsors even for supplements and things?'” Campbell said. “It definitely upset me. … I just thought he kind of deserved better, in a way. I saw lesser-known fighters, even fighters that were fighting in not even the UFC, like Cage Warriors, I saw that they had sponsors.”

Walker wasn’t sure he wanted to leave his Brazilian manager Lucas Lutkus, but he trusted Campbell to steer the ship. Campbell is an Irishwoman who teaches in Qatar, and unlike Walker, English is her first language. She was comfortable reading contracts and corresponding with potential managers via email. Lutkus said he understood Walker wanted to work with a bigger agency and wished him well.

Since signing with Paradigm, Walker has picked up Zenko Fightwear as a sponsor, and he said his representatives are in negotiations with others.

“I listened to her,” Walker said. “She’s a really smart girl. She gives me good advice, and I just follow her. I’m sure she wants the best for me.

“Everything is gonna be done good after this. I changed my management, I changed my coach. All good now. I’m sure I’m gonna arrive in a really good place in a few months, in a few years.”

WALKER HAS LED a nomadic MMA life. He doesn’t like staying in one place too long, preferring to travel the world. Walker has trained in his native Brazil, as well as England, Scotland, Thailand and Russia. It seems he has found a semi-permanent home in Montreal at Tristar Gym, at least to prepare for fights, although he won’t fully commit to that and still plans to travel to different camps in between bouts.

He won’t be working with his former coach, Leo Gosling, as the split was acrimonious, according to MMA Fighting.

It’s not like Walker needed a complete overhaul. He knocked out all three of his opponents before Anderson in two minutes or less, something only two other fighters in UFC history have accomplished. He has three performance-of-the-night bonuses in four fights, and he might have landed a title shot against Jon Jones if he had beaten Anderson.

“Johnny is a very unique striker,” said Zahabi, the Tristar coach. “Very creative, very explosive. He’s the hardest-hitting guy I’ve ever trained. … I’ve been training the who’s who of UFC for a long time. I’ve had the privilege of working with these great athletes. And I’m sorry, this guy is the hardest-hitting human being I’ve ever seen. It’s scary.”

Zahabi’s focus leading into the Krylov fight was not to re-create Walker’s game, it was to tighten up his dangerous striking and add some new positional techniques on the ground. Zahabi, who will be part of Walker’s corner team Saturday, doesn’t want to suppress Walker’s creativity. This is a fighter who has UFC wins via spinning back fist and flying knee.

“I want Johnny to be Johnny,” Zahabi said. “It’s very important to me. I feel like that style works for him. I wasn’t trying to change that style in any way. I just want to polish a few things in his wrestling and his grappling.”

GSP has worked with Walker on kickboxing technique as well as positions against the cage and on the ground.

Walker can’t wait to get back to Montreal after his fight with Krylov to continue to pick St-Pierre’s brain. The free-spirited Walker, who gyrates his way to the Octagon and celebrates knockouts with flips and dance moves, has hunkered down and is reading GSP’s autobiography to gain more knowledge about someone he hopes will be a mentor.

“After this, of course I’m going to get closer with him,” Walker said. “I’m gonna know about his life, about his career, about everything. Because his book will tell me everything about this. So when I finish his book, my next training camp we’re gonna get close. I’m gonna ask him some things. I have his personal number. I can ask him anything whenever I want. He’s a really nice guy. I think I have great things to learn. Great things are gonna happen in the future.”

This is Walker’s plan. He wants to absorb various aspects of the best fighters. From Anderson Silva‘s showmanship to McGregor’s mental game to St-Pierre’s professionalism to Jones’ cage generalship. Amid all the laughing and joking around, Walker is studying.

“I like to watch people, like good people — people who make a good example for me,” he said. “I like how Khabib [Nurmagomedov] works on the floor, his ground game. [Israel] Adesanya is good with how he promotes himself; he has a lot of ability. [Yoel] Romero is a very strong guy in wrestling. Every fighter has their unique thing, you know? I like to look at them and be a little bit like them. Take the best part of everybody and make the perfect fighter.

So far, it seems to be working. For the first time in his promising career, Walker appears to be building a real foundation and structure.

“He’s got this real kind of like goofy, childish side to him,” said Simpson, Paradigm’s director of management. “But if you ask him what his goals are, what he wants to do, it’s point-blank almost like you’re an idiot for asking the question. It’s like, ‘Because I want to be champ and I want to fight all the best. Why are you asking me this? Of course.’ He’s really quite driven with it.”

The Anderson loss was a catalyst. Campbell gave him a push in the right direction. Paradigm is hooking him up with sponsors. Tristar is honing his skills. Now it’ll be up to Walker to follow through and realize his potential.

“I want to be the best,” Walker said. “How can I be the best if I don’t have the best people around me?”

Eight months ago, Walker was saying he was the man to beat Jones, the longtime UFC light heavyweight champion. Walker said he would kick Jones out of the division, that Jones would only last a round with him.

Now? Walker is pumping the brakes. The whimsical man who injured himself doing the “worm” dance on March 2, 2019 while celebrating a win seems almost grounded.

“I would like to beat him,” Walker said of Jones. “But I’m not in a rush. I need to learn a lot. I’m young in this sport. I have so much to learn. I know that.”

And as far as celebratory worm dances?

“I don’t want to stop myself again [with an injury],” he said. “I don’t want to get another surgery. I’ll probably do something safe.

“I have to be smart.”

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