A rodent and a snack.
Those images together seem better suited for a Beverly Cleary children’s book than nicknames of two of the baddest fighters in the world.
Hailing from rival high schools within the same school district, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Miesha “Cupcake” Tate are worldwide mixed martial arts stars and current champions in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Johnson is a 2005 Washington High School graduate who turns 30 next month. He is the champion in the UFC flyweight division (125 pounds). Capped by a first-round technical knockout victory over Henry Cejudo last April, his eight successful title defenses are the most in divisional history.
Tate graduated from Franklin Pierce High School that same year and is five days younger than Johnson. She won the title in the UFC women’s bantamweight division (135 pounds) last March over Holly Holm by fifth-round technical submission. Tate defends that championship for the first time Saturday night in the historic UFC 200 card in Las Vegas against dangerous Brazilian striker Amanda Nunes in the co-main event.
Wendy Malich, the Franklin Pierce School District athletic director, cannot begin to explain how Parkland has become the MMA capital of the West Coast.
“I don’t think we have a lot of back-alley fights or anything like that,” she said with a chuckle. “There is no other reason except for the fact we have great kids who are interested in those (combat sports). They start young in wrestling, and have a love for it.”
A Kentucky native, Johnson and his two siblings were raised in a single-parent household by their mother, Karen, who is deaf.
He ran cross country and track and wrestled in the winter. And he was a good wrestler, too. Johnson finished second in the WIAA state championships as a junior at 119 pounds in 2004, and third at the same weight as a senior.
Despite his success, it was a loss — the only loss in his senior year — in the Class 3A state semifinals that has had a profound impact on his fighting career.
Facing talented Sedro-Woolley ninth grader Kevin O’Neil, Johnson was not only scored upon for the first time all season, he was pinned in the third round.
“He got an outside single (leg takedown) on me,” Johnson said. “Right there and then, I was broke mentally. And he got me in a cradle and ended up pinning me.”
Former Washington coach Todd Pouliot recalled the exchange he and his star wrestler had afterward.
“I talked to him in the locker room … and he was pretty quiet and not his usual upbeat self,” Pouliot said. “We told him to just focus on the next (consolation) match and that he had a great season, so end it on a positive note.”
Johnson won his final two matches to finish third.
“I know he knew losing was a possibility,” Pouliot said. “But he was able to come back and compete again. That is the perfect attitude to have toward competing — not being afraid to lose.”
It was while a student at Pierce College in Lakewood when he first saw an MMA fight.
“I didn’t care about beating people up or hurting people,” Johnson said. “I was more intrigued by the workouts, and making people defend themselves — like karate.”
He won all 21 of his fights as an amateur, then turned professional in 2007. That’s when he joined forces with trainer Matt Hume, out of AMC Pankration in Kirkland.
“I’ve always been pushed toward a sport where the result — the outcome — revolves around me,” Johnson said. “I picked up on (MMA) really well. And I liked it because, one, I am very athletic, and my coaches say I pick up things easy. I always came into it with an open mind. And I had no ego.”
Johnson won the Alaska Fighting Championships, which landed him fights in World Extreme Cagefighting starting in 2010. Late that year, the WEC merged with the UFC — and Johnson began competing in the world’s most prestigious fighting association.
In 2012, Johnson became the UFC’s inaugural flyweight champion with a split-decision win over Joseph Benavidez.
Blessed with fast moves, a high work rate and fantastic body control, Johnson hasn’t lost a fight in nearly five years. Many consider him the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world.
It doesn’t hurt that he has one of the most likeable, approachable personalities in the sport. He has turned into a worldwide celebrity.
“When I travel to Japan, or go overseas, that is when you more realize (your celebrity status),” Johnson said. “They are more respectful to the smaller guys.
“When I go over there, they are like, ‘Holy (crap), you are huge!’ And I am like, ‘Dude, I am 5-3 and 140 pounds. In America, I am considered a midget.’ ”
He has had his celebrity moments in America, too — right on his own front porch. One morning, he was in the front room of his house in Orting when the doorbell rang.
He opened it. There stood his next-door neighbor with an awestruck fan from Australia.
“They asked, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I am playing video games, what do you want?’
“Unless the guy is a murderer, I am all good with it.”
Johnson will take a 10-fight winning streak into his ninth title defense July 30 against Wilson Reis at UFC 201 in Atlanta. He knows he won’t keep winning forever. “In this sport, there is always an expiration date.”
If he loses, whether it’s later this month, or over the next few years, Johnson said he knows it won’t be because he is ill-prepared. He learned that from his last loss in wrestling.
“Now since I am a grown-ass man in mixed-martial arts, I told myself I’d never be broken again in my life,” Johnson said. “That wrestling match has … been with me for a long time.”
NO ‘CUPCAKE’ FIGHTER
Growing up, there wasn’t a tree too tall to climb, or a stone too heavy to overturn for Tate.
She was a self-proclaimed tomboy and lover of the outdoors. Most of her friends were boys.
It wasn’t a charmed life, she admits. Times were tough. She remembers the water in her house being so cold, it was frozen in the toilet.
“Mom made it all light-hearted,” she said. “I remember we lost power, so we used candles and called it a camping trip.”
Tate participated in soccer and track. It was the winter months when she couldn’t figure out what to do.
One day in freshman honors English class at Franklin Pierce, Sharon Dell — one of her best friends — suggested they take up a different activity.
“She said, ‘Neither one of us can play basketball – do you want to go out for wrestling?’ ” Tate said.
So she went home and asked her mother, Michelle.
“She said, ‘Well, just don’t tell your dad,’ ” Tate said. “She thought it was a phase, too.”
So they tried out for the wrestling team. And there were plenty of hard knocks that came with it initially.
“It was so incredibly difficult that I became addicted to the challenge,” Tate said. “Each day, when I got through practice, it was such an accomplishment.”
Tate stuck with it. By midseason, her mother suggested that they tell her father, Rob, what she was doing.
“My dad, honestly, was mortified at the idea of (me) wrestling around with teenage boys,” Tate said. “When he went to my first match, he had a hard time with it. He wanted to pretend I wasn’t doing it.”
Tate never had to wrestle against Johnson during her four years. She was up a few weight classes. But Dell did.
“She always hated it, because he was so quick,” Tate said. “You know, he’d touch your ankle, and make you fall on your face.”
By the time they were seniors, not only were they good — they advanced to the state championships at Mat Classic.
At that time, the girls tournament was still evolving. Tate was placed in one of the 28 four-wrestler pods, based on weight.
She pinned her way to the state title, including a final victory over Davenport’s Danielle Olds in the championship match.
Tate liked wrestling so much, when she went off to Central Washington University the next fall, she wanted to continue it on the college’s club team. Instead, she was turned to the better-attended MMA club on campus.
“I reluctantly went to it,” Tate said. “But I learned (submission-based) jiu-jitsu — arm bars and chokeholds. It was an addition to wrestling.”
Tate attended an amateur MMA fight card on campus where the promoter announced he was set to host an all-female card the next month.
With no fight experience except wrestling, Tate signed up to be in one of the bouts. It became a life-changing experience.
Against Elizabeth Posener, a more experienced fighter, Tate got in all sorts of trouble in her fight. Her nose was broken. And cuts were opening all around her face.
“I remember she was kneeing me in the face, and I didn’t know how to get out of it,” Tate said. “I wrestled, and I was shooting into her knees essentially.”
It was after Tate took a punch on her ear that she got mad.
“I lost my temper,” Tate said.
She bucked her opponent off of her, then got on top and hit her mercilessly with blows in the face until the second round ended.
“It was a bloody, disgusting mess,” Tate said. “And that is when I realized what I was there to do — I wasn’t there to wrestle, I was there to fight. And then I had no problem punching her.”
Tate ultimately lost the match when her corner threw in the towel at the end of the round — her only loss in three bouts as an amateur. She would turn professional 20 months later.
To this day, Tate claims MMA chose her, not the other way around. It is easy to see why that is, starting at Central where she met her longtime boyfriend Bryan Caraway, also an MMA fighter.
After competing in smaller tournaments professionally, Tate eventually joined Strikeforce in 2008 where she became the bantamweight champion.
But it wasn’t until 2012 when women’s MMA got the jolt it needed. Tate fought up-and-coming superstar Ronda Rousey in a title match – won by Rousey in the second round.
A year later, after Strikeforce folded, the UFC launched a women’s division. UFC president Dana White credited the past Tate-Rousey fight as the reason it made that move.
“It’s been a pretty fast turnaround,” Tate said.
Tate, who now trains out of Las Vegas-based Xtreme Couture, has been one of the UFC’s most marketable fighters.
She is brash yet well-spoken. And she oozes sex appeal, having modeled for various publications, including ESPN the Magazine, and been featured in films and video games.
After Holm shocked Rousey to win the UFC women’s bantamweight title, her first title defense was against Tate.
Trailing on the scorecards, Tate choked Holm out in the fifth round to claim the belt.
Since then, she has been on media whirlwind tours promoting the UFC 200 fight. And she returned to Washington in April as the grand marshal of the 83rd annual Daffodil Parade.
“It is part of it,” Tate said. “In my interviews, I always try and be very honest in my answers. I don’t sugarcoat anything, or shy away from controversy. So many people want to be so politically correct, and I am not.”
While home, one of Tate’s publicity tour stops was at her favorite bakery — Celebrity Cake Studio near the Tacoma Dome.
She said her “Cupcake” nickname stemmed from her love of making cakes with mom growing up. She sees the irony in it, too.
“It is a comedic nickname now,” she said.