Immense changes have Johnny Walker back on track to his winning ways

·Combat columnist
·4-min read

LAS VEGAS — Go back for a moment to March 2, 2019, and recall the perception of Johnny Walker shortly after he’d knocked out Misha Cirkunov in 36 seconds with a flying knee.

Walker was officially 3-0 in the UFC at that point, and none of his bouts had gone two full minutes. The longest was his debut on Nov. 17, 2018, against Khalil Rountree Jr., when an elbow by Walker ended the fight at 1:57 of the first.

He followed that with a 15 second KO of Justin Ledet on Feb. 2, 2019, in Brazil, and came back a month later to stop Cirkunov. He won Performance of the Night bonuses in each of the three fights and was the talk of the MMA world.

There was discussion — really — at the time whether he could defeat Jon Jones, who ground out a five-round decision over Anthony Smith on the same card that Walker blew away Cirkunov.

Those were heady times for Walker, who on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at Apex will face veteran Thiago Santos in the main event of UFC Vegas 38.

Now, after going 1-2 in his last three fights, it’s a much wiser and more sober Walker who is preparing to compete. And he realizes now just how much he didn’t know amid the euphoria of his third UFC first-round KO in the first five months with the promotion.

“I didn’t have the experience, I wasn’t as mature, and I didn’t understand how it works like I do now,” Walker said.

After the win over Cirkunov, Walker was brought back to Earth with a thud. He was knocked out in the first round at UFC 244 in New York by Corey Anderson, then dropped a decision to Nikita Krylov in Brasilia, Brazil, on March 14, 2020.

Walker, who turned pro in 2013, began to realize that it took more than just great athleticism to win at the highest level of the sport.

Working with SBG Ireland now, Walker said the difference in him is immense, even if it’s not immediately noticeable.

“I’ve learned how to be more professional and how to use all of my skills,” Walker said. “I am dedicated to my condition. I am now, finally, giving 100 percent of myself and it’s making a tremendous difference in everything I do.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 19: Johnny Walker of Brazil reacts after his TKO victory over Ryan Spann in their light heavyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on September 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Johnny Walker of Brazil reacts after his TKO victory over Ryan Spann in their light heavyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Apex on Sept. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Walker stopped Ryan Spann in the first round in September, so is looking to begin another winning streak by defeating Santos.

Santos has faced far better opposition than Walker. He holds a win over reigning light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz and has also defeated the likes of Smith, Jack Hermansson and Jimi Manuwa, among others. He’s lost to Jones, Glover Teixeira, Aleksandr Rakic, Vicente Luque and Gegard Mousasi.

So there is little doubt that Santos won’t be awed by Walker when they are locked in the Octagon together. Walker insists he gets that.

“He’s a really tough fighter and he’s smart and he has an answer for everything he sees,” Walker said. “I respect him. One win against him would put me in a very good place. I know how tough this fight will be.”

They’re both heavy-handed strikers, while Santos has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Walker owns a brown belt.

While their styles suggest it should turn out to be a slugfest, Walker responds to that suggestion in a manner that indicates he really has finally grasped what it takes to fight the best fighters in the world.

“I am an MMA fighter and I will be ready to fight wherever I have to, whether it’s on the floor or striking or whatever,” Walker said. “I am prepared for whatever will come.”

That’s progress.

Previously, Walker seemed just as excited to get to the after-party as he did to get back in the gym.

If he transfers that attitude to the cage on a regular basis, those heady times from his early days in the UFC may just well return.

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