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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One of the UFC’s most decorated champions dreamed of being a Twitch star. Not anymore.

(The Washington Post illustration; John Locher/The Associated Press; iStock)

When it comes to the sport of mixed martial arts, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson has just about done it all. He holds the record for most title defenses in Ultimate Fighting Championship history. He won the flyweight grand prix in ONE Championship, the MMA organization in which he now competes. He’s finished opponents with techniques so unprecedented they seem like they’re straight out of a video game.

The latter fact fits Johnson as snugly as an MMA glove; for years, he’s worn his passion for games on his sleeve, regularly streaming on Twitch. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) But while Johnson used to dream of one day fully leaving the world of face-punching behind for Twitch’s less concussive pastures, he’s since had a change of heart.

Johnson, who has competed for MMA organizations in which income could easily be disrupted by injuries and fight cancellations, knows a thing or two about precarity. And yet, the sheer uncertainty of live-streaming has become too much for even the well-traveled, 35-year-old former champion.

“Wake up every day and stream full time? … Oh god no. I couldn’t do it,” Johnson said during an interview on The Washington Post’s Friday live stream, Press Play. “Sometimes I feel bad for some of the streamers; one moment they have a s---load [of subscribers], and then next thing you know, they take a little time off, and their subscriber numbers just drop. I’ll play video games because I enjoy it, but I don’t want it to be my livelihood.”

MMA's Demetrius "Mighty Mouse" Johnson, one of the UFC’s most decorated champions, once considered streaming full-time on Twitch after UFC retirement. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

MMA is not a sport one can compete in for long. Grueling in-cage battles of attrition leave the body with less to give each time, and even the safest fighters will eventually lose to Father Time. Johnson, who recently lost by knockout for the first time in his 15-year professional career, has long been aware of this. In 2017, he was already all-in on Twitch as his post-combat sports career, saying he planned to make the transition in “five or six” years. He even went so far as to stream games like “Dark Souls 3” immediately before and after defenses of his UFC flyweight championship. But as he got more serious and adopted a near-full-time streaming schedule in addition to his full-time training schedule, he realized that streaming is a different kind of grueling battle.

“My schedule basically consisted of this: I would go to the gym, train for a session, stream afterward, then get my second session in, come home, eat dinner, kiss my wife, and then go downstairs and stream for another two hours,” Johnson said. At the time, he was making around $3,000 per month from streaming, enough to cover his mortgage. “But then it came to a point where I was like, ‘Why am I doing this? I don’t get to go to bed with my wife. I’m absolutely exhausted. It’s just not worth it.’ ”

Johnson’s family responsibilities have only grown since then. He now has three kids, and he doesn’t want to saddle his wife with the burden of raising them while he streams as much as humanly possible to grow and maintain an audience. Plus, an unreliable income is the last thing you need when you have mouths to feed.

“Relying on subscribers to pay your bills is just something I don’t want,” Johnson said.

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While Johnson, who now streams for fun late at night when his kids are asleep, says the audience he’s cultivated continues to have his back even when he goes on hiatus, he takes issue with the general fickleness of live-streaming audiences.

“I’ve talked to so many other streamers who are like, ‘Man, I want to get in shape,’ and I’m like, ‘Go to the gym. You don’t have a set schedule,’ " Johnson said. "[But they say], ‘Well, I do.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, if your subscribers don’t care about your health and well-being, then maybe you shouldn’t worry about streaming.’ ”

There is some hope for streamers who want to lead more balanced lives; platforms like YouTube are offering contracts that demand fewer streaming hours than Twitch, and content creators can proliferate their greatest hits across multiple platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter as well as Twitch, thus diversifying their income. But still, it’s more apparent than ever that only an incredibly small percentage of creators at the top actually succeed, leaving the rest to toil ceaselessly in pursuit of an erratically moving target. Johnson is not the only sports star to embrace that grind — Formula One racecar drivers like Lando Norris achieved bona fide Twitch stardom as a result of the pandemic. And other MMA fighters like Sean O’Malley, Max Holloway and Quinton Jackson have followed in Johnson’s footsteps. But Johnson has been doing it longer than most, and he’s hit his limit.

He plans to continue streaming when he finds time, but it will remain a hobby, rather than his future.

“I just like to stream for fun and interact with fans and leave it that way,” Johnson said. “I see people grind all the time. I’ve watched from when they’ve had five viewers to, like, 682, and then next thing you know, they want to play a different game and their viewers leave. It’s like, f--- that noise.”