As the UFC awaits the chance to book the next lightweight title fight between Rafael dos Anjos and Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, another contender is quietly rising up the ranks and might be in the rearview mirror, closing in on both of them by the time the championship bout actually happens.
Michael Johnson has been putting together one of the most impressive resumes of any 155-pound fighter on the roster over the last year, and he hopes to tack on another victory this weekend when he meets Beneil Dariush at UFC Fight Night from Nashville, airing live on FOX Sports 1 this Saturday night.
Johnson cruised past Joe Lauzon, Gleison Tibau and Melvin Guillard before putting on a one-sided performance against flashy knockout-artist Edson Barboza in his last fight in February. Johnson has been begging for a fight against another top-five lightweight, but injuries and delays keep force him to look at alternatives.
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The same thing happened this time around, as Johnson was supposed to meet former lightweight champion Benson Henderson until an injury forced "Smooth" out of the fight, and he got No. 15-ranked Dariush instead.
"It's still a fight and he's still a tough guy," Johnson told FOX Sports about facing Dariush. "The top 15 guys in this division all have the ability to be in the top five. It's a stacked division and every fight from here on out is going to be tough for me. There's no motivation loss. I'm going to go in here and fight and no matter who my opponent is, I'm looking to dominate every second of the fight and make it look like that these guys don't belong in the cage with me."
Johnson admits it can get a little frustrating when he's zeroed in on a title shot, yet fighters such as Anthony Pettis and Khabib Nurmagomedov still sit in front of him in the rankings while both are injured and inactive for months at a time.
The way Johnson combats that annoyance is to win his fights in such a lopsided fashion against any lower-ranked opponent that it makes his case why he should be in front of everybody when it comes to title contention.
Johnson wants to be the boogieman of the lightweight division -- the guy lurking in the shadows who may not have the loudest voice but packs the biggest punch.
"I want to be the guy that everybody's afraid of to fight and nobody wants to. That's why I need to go in here and beat guys the way I am, to make sure that happens. You go in there and get a quick knockout, people might say 'Oh, you got lucky.' But if you go in there and dominate people from start to finish and make people look like they don't belong in there with you, then people need to be afraid of me," Johnson said.
"That's what I'm out to prove -- these fighters don't belong in the cage with me and they might want to think of a different career after fighting me. I want to strike fear in people's hearts. I'm on the path to doing that."
This weekend's matchup is another chance for Johnson to showcase his ability to make any lightweight fight seem like a mismatch. He's not discounting what Dariush brings to the table, but Johnson knows he's bringing a whole lot more.
"I don't think he's on my level. He's going to have his hands full with me," Johnson said about Dariush. "My last four opponents, you can look at their resumes and see what they've done in the sport. He might be coming into this fight really confident and I hope he does and I hope he does try to come after me because that's just going to make it a really bad night for him."
If all goes well for Johnson on Saturday night, it will mark his fifth win in a row and another step towards title contention. He already knows that even if he deals with Dariush in relatively easy fashion, a shot at the championship won't happen this year and maybe not even in the first part of 2016.
Johnson is realistic with his own expectations, but every time he fights and every time he wins, it's just another message sent to dos Anjos and the other lightweights who sit ahead of him in the rankings.
"I'm definitely not going to sit out and wait for these guys to get healthy. Time waits for no man and I'm not waiting for these guys," Johnson said. "Hopefully, the UFC feels the same way. I'm not going to sit back and wait. I want that title shot, but at the same time I want to fight and stay busy.
"If I have to keep collecting heads and putting them on the mantle, then that's what I'll do."
Catch Michael Johnson's fight and the rest of UFC Fight Night: Teixeira vs. Saint Preux with our viewing and schedule guide for this weekend's card from Nashville.