Brett Johns: From sleeping in a gym to the Ultimate Fighting Championship

By Tom BrownBBC Wales Sport

It was more important to be at the place he could train than the place he could sleep.

Swansea's Brett Johns was so poor he could not afford to travel home from the gym. So he stopped there.

As a man desperate to reach the top of MMA, there was no way he was letting a lack of money stop him from training.

"I went through a phase when I had nothing," he told BBC Wales Sport. "I couldn't afford the bus ticket home.

"I lived in the gym for the winter where there was no heating and all I had was a sleeping bag."

Jack Marshman - UFC's first Welshman

That might explain the outpouring of emotion when he was told he had been called up to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

His manager filmed the video call he made to Johns and uploaded the Welsh fighter's moving reactionexternal-link to Facebook.

"When I got the call, it just put me into tears," says Johns. "That seven years of hard work I've had to put in all came out in that moment.

"I'd hate to see what I'm going to be like when I win that UFC title if I'm like that when I'm getting called up."

The 24-year-old, who trains in Fforestfach, will make his debut at UFC Fight Night 99 in Belfast on Saturday.

He brings with him a record of 12 wins from 12 professional fights and is a two-time MMA world champion. Johns says the call-up was "a long time coming".

"It was very frustrating," he admitted. "I was thinking 'what more do I need to do?' Now I've achieved my dream."

Two Welshmen in Belfast

Johns was not the first Welsh fighter to be signed by the UFC. That title goes to a soldier from Monmouthshire.

Jack Marshman was signed just weeks earlier in October and he will debut on the same bill as Johns this weekend. Like his Welsh counterpart, the road to the top has been a long and difficult one.

Marshman estimates he was locked up 30 times as a teenager, but joining the Tillery Combat MMA Academy in Blaina kept him "on the straight and narrow".

"I was on the wrong path," he confesses. "But without a doubt MMA changed my life. I'm not trying to be cheesy but it genuinely did.

"Instead of going out on the weekend I was training Friday night and sparring Saturday morning."

Marshman has served in the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, for nearly a decade and he toured Afghanistan twice but the middleweight says his call-up means he will soon leave the forces to fight full time.

"You can't get any bigger than the UFC," he says, ahead of his fight against Sweden's Magnus Cedenblad. "It's the highest we can go in our sport."

The impact back home

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor beat Eddie Alvarez in the first UFC event at New York's Madison Square Garden on 12 November

Wales waited a long time for its first UFC fighter. Now two have turned up at once.

The UFC calls itself the fastest-growing sports organisation in the world and both Welsh fighters believe it will transform the sport in their home country.

"It's huge for Welsh MMA and huge for Welsh sport," says Johns. "Going back a few years, MMA in the UK was very basic. Then we had a bit of help from [Republic of Ireland's] Conor McGregor.

"They go wild about those Irish fans but the Welsh fans can be crazy as well. So I'm hoping they'll transfer from football and rugby fans into MMA."

Marshman believes it will not be long before MMA becomes as popular in the UK as boxing.

"We've already got a massive cult following," he continues. "But now it's starting to get a bit more mainstream more people are going to watch it.

"In America I think it already is [as big as boxing]. The UFC just had its first event in Madison Square Garden and that's an historic boxing venue. It just goes to show how big the sport's getting."

For Brett Johns, those cold nights in the gym will seem a long way away when he walks out to fight South Korean Kwan Ho Kwak in Belfast. The bantamweight has signed a four-fight deal, but wants to stay much longer than that.

"One of my idols was Joe Calzaghe. He fought Mikkel Kessler at the Millennium Stadium. I don't see why I can't do that too."