Born in Khartoum, Sudan, Johnson Nasona, now the top-ranked amateur featherweight in the Pacific Northwest, emigrated to the United States when he was four years old. His family’s goal? To pursue a better way of life – what Johnson now calls ‘The American Dream’. While his memory of those early years are admittedly hazy, Nasona made a poignant return to his native Africa in 2009 when his mother sent him to a boarding school in Uganda. After staying with his family in Khartoum, Johnson says he learned a lot, both about himself, and life in the wider world.
“It was definitely an eye opener seeing how much I have here in American compared to what people have there,” Johnson told The MMA Vanguard. “Like how little they have to survive, but still manage to, making the best of everything. Without that trip I don’t think I would have known how real [that struggle] is. The things my Mom has told me, and seeing those things on TV, third world countries are definitely not a joke. We take so much for granted and still complain about what we don’t have. I didn’t get it then, but I do now.”
It’s a mentality that lends Nasona an unshakeable drive and determination. After all, MMA aside, life has imparted a series of struggles, particularly for his mother. “My childhood here [in the United States] wasn’t easy either, my Mom was a single parent with basically no English. That made it difficult to take care of two kids. I ended up running with the wrong groups of people and got myself into some trouble as a kid,” he recalls, adding: “I guess I learned the hard way.”
Still just 22, Nasona speaks with a maturity beyond his years – a maturity that has been a requirement in getting himself fixed on the right path. The groundwork was actually put in place by his grandmother, who convinced him to take up wrestling during middle school. Going undefeated during his sixth, seventh and eighth grade years, Nasona was something of a natural. It wasn’t until the ninth grade that Nasona eventually lost, and in his tenth, he stopped wrestling altogether because of what he refers to as the “wrong influences and bad decision-making”.
But as for fighting? As much as it appealed to Johnson, his mother wasn’t keen on the idea.
“I’ve always been interested in fighting,” Johnson recalls, “My Mom would never let me do it as a kid, though, because she didn’t like the thought off seeing me get hit or hitting other kids! She wanted me to be this precious little flower, like my older sister. But I remember being young and sitting in front of the TV and watching Chuck Norris or Jackie Chan and imitating them, throwing kicks and punches and having my older sister walk in and laugh at me on daily basis. But I didn’t care,” Johnson laughs. “Precious memories.”
Once Johnson turned 19, he moved into his own place in Seattle, and started training with coach Clinton Radovich at his manager’s garage. Radovich, for his part, was a student of Marcelo Alonso, and it was at Marcelo Alonso BJJ that Nasona would take his training to the next level. Today, Johnson splits his time between Alonso’s gym in Seattle, and Radovich’s newly founded gym, North Shore MMA from Woodinville. A great student with outstanding athleticism, Nasona began competing in August 2014, and traded wins and losses in his first four outings.
“My first four bouts were the proving point to see if I was a fighter or not,” Johnson told The MMA Vanguard. “I started out with a simple fight in Montana [against Mike Ruit], then [immediately faced] a huge challenge in Hawaii [against Jonathan Pico]. I lost the Pico fight after three rounds, taking damage, dislocating my jaw and everything, but through it all I kept fighting. I was sticking my thumbs up to the referee, letting him know not to stop it. From that point on my coach knew I was all in with a hard head,” Nasona laughs.
It’s common phraseology that one learns more in defeat than in victory, and if the Pico fight didn’t put Johnson off a career in MMA, virtually nothing would. But the fight that really ‘lit the fire under his ass’ was his fourth. After a tough battle with Eric Cronkhite, which Johnson won by Unanimous Decision, he found himself caught in a guillotine after just 79 seconds against Zach Zane. Chalking the loss up to inexperience, Johnson says he and his coaches used that fight as a ‘building block’, and he started training between five and seven days a week. In his words: “That’s the only reason my record is the way it is: 15-2, with thirteen straight wins!”
Hard work and hard learning, then, for the Sudanese-born, Washington State native. But as with all endeavours, talent is a requirement. “I was naturally good at the ground game due to my wrestling background, so it came easy to me,” Nasona recalls. “The thing I had to work on the most was my stand up, we put so much time into building that up, the only reason I’m such a well round fighter now is because of all the time we spent building up my stand up game, making it fit in with my fighting style.”
Judging by Johnson’s skills today, Radovich and Alonso have done an outstanding job in that department. Truly a well-rounded mixed martial artist, Nasona’s outstanding amateur record tells it’s own story. This isn’t a man prepared to rush things, or get ahead of himself; this a man prepared to work hard, keep learning, and continue improving. It’s an excellent mindset, and one that has already borne great moments for Nasona and his time.
“I’d have to say when I fought Dakota Shnall in Idaho,” Johnson says of his favourite moment in MMA to date. “I did everything correctly that we practised, and everything we drilled was executed.” Johnson added: “Every time we travel out of state is a personal highlight and achievement for me, I never thought I’d be where am at today,” he admits. “Travelling has always been my dream, and making a name for myself in every city and state I fight in [means a lot].”
While the Shnall win, a first round TKO victory that took place at a King of the Cage event in May 2016 was a personal highlight, Johnson holds several other wins that duly underline his standing as the number one amateur featherweight in the Northwest coast. A successful lightweight title defence against Gage Saunders in April 2015, a featherweight title defence against 8-0 Theron Martin in August of the same year, and a recent win over 8-fight veteran Sean Kalinoski have all been extremely impressive – and have all seen Johnson score stoppage victories.
That’s not something unfamiliar across Nasona’s career; 10 of his first 13 wins came by way of stoppages, and his current scintillating 13-fight win streak is littered with broken bodies and battered opponents. But Johnson isn’t done; far from it.
“I honestly wish to compete outside the western side of the U.S. and experience [opponents with] different techniques and styles compared to what I have seen,” Johnson told us, before laying down this challenge: “If anyone wishes to challenge me, contact my head coach Clinton Radovich or my manager Will Hammond and let’s set up a date to test ourselves, let’s help each other reach our goals and full potential. This goes to all the fighters that believe it’s time for them to turn pro.”
Challenge laid down, then – it will be interesting to see who takes Nasona up on that. Speaking of turning pro, Johnson himself is, perhaps characteristically, in no immediate hurry. “I don’t make that choice, my coach does,” Nasona says. “I truly believe he has my best interests in mind and is capable of making that decision.” Johnson adds: “I am only 22 with not that many years of training. I’m only in my third year.”
And that makes Johnson’s success all the more remarkable. For as much as wrestling is an ideal base for a career in mixed martial arts, Johnson admits he never really followed that through. It helps, sure, but Nasona is a much more well-rounded fighter than some former wrestlers. His style incorporates elements of everything in MMA, and the bulk of his training has centred around being just that: a complete mixed martial artist.
And for Johnson Nasona, that isn’t just some throwaway tag: “I want to be the best in every aspect of life,” he says, “Not just fighting. MMA has given me my life back, given me something to look forward to. Thanks to my coach who is more then just my trainer but also a father figure, guiding me through the things I have trouble with outside the gym in order for me to be great in all things. There’s more to fighting than just fighting,” Johnson insists, “We have to understand ourselves and try to be the best we can be inside and outside the cage.”
It’s a beautiful sentiment, and one that one that definitely rings true. For example, Nasona wears a purple ribbon on the back of all of his personalised shirts. The MMA Vanguard asked Johnson what that represented: “I wear it in honor of a girl, Kat Hendrickson, one of the toughest people I have ever met, in and out of the cage! She has Crohn’s disease and an autoimmune bone disease. I wear the ribbon because of her, in order to raise money to find a cure for this horrible disease that she unfortunately has.”
Hopefully, and some day soon, that cure will be found. But it is a mark of the man that, while striving to be the best that he can be, while working and improving his game in order to compete at the next level, other people are never far from his heart. With a background and upbringing steeped in learning, with a maturity and sense of responsibility well beyond his 22 years of age, the sky is the limit for Johnson Nasona. Whether his coach makes the call for Johnson to turn pro in 2017, or next year, one thing is for sure: MMA has a fighter it can be proud of, and an athlete of outstanding potential.
Closing out his Q&A with The MMA Vanguard, Nasona added: “I’d like to give a shout out to my sponsors Seattle Select Moving and Viktorious Clothing Apparel, Exso Lifetime as well; but most of all my coaches Clinton Radovich at North Shore MMA, and Marcelo Alonso in Seattle. Without them none of this would be possible. Also my teammates Sanny and Aaron Ibaniz, and all my family and friends, I love all you guys.”
At The MMA Vanguard, we are quite sure the feeling is mutual!