Interview with a Champion: Aaron Johnson

Photo via John Crosby.

Aaron Johnson is a fantastic grappler with an excellent wrestling background. He’s been a Pan Am champion, a 5 Grappling champion, and the Army National Guard Combatives champion. He is currently a brown belt training out of Indiana.

JJT: You’ve been involved in some form of grappling for just about your

Photo via MP Sports Photography. Used with permission.
Photo via MP Sports Photography.

entire life. What is it that really got you started in it?

Aaron: Well, I started wrestling at age five because I couldn’t start playing Little League Football until age 6 and my Dad, who was a well accomplished Football player and coach, wanted me to be involved in a sport that got me used to tackling.  This began my love for the sport. I have had my ups and downs in all forms but contribute it to my success in life.

JJT: What led your focus from wrestling to Jiu-Jitsu?

Aaron: After I competed in the 2007 World Trials in Greco Roman style wrestling, I had some unfortunate medical issues that led to my retirement.  After a year away from wrestling, the doctors cleared me to begin training again. Because I had spent so much time away from wrestling, I decided that it was best if I turned my interest to other forms of grappling since I wanted to compete in Mixed Martial Arts.  After searching for a few years and training at several different MMA gyms and Jiu-jitsu schools I found a home at Indiana Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Academy where I met James Clingerman. He helped me regain a passion for competing again, now in the form of Jiu-jitsu. I still call IBJJA my home; Coach Clingerman turned me from just a wrestler to a complete grappler.

JJT: Now, you were the National Guard Combatives champion a few years ago, going completely undefeated in all of your fights. Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like?

aaron 5Aaron: That was definitely one of the highlights of my grappling life. I was new to the Army and really didn’t know much about what the Combatives program was, but after some research on it I realized I already had lots of experience in Combatives, I just hadn’t shown my skills in the Military. I found out about the tournament through a friend I served with. I pushed it up my chain of command and they approved me to go to Fort Benning, Georgia to compete.  It was a two day event starting with a grappling tournament similar to Jiu-jitsu; it scored the same and most submissions were legal.  After the grappling tournament was the semi-finals where they added open handed strikes along with grappling, better known as Pankration.  After winning the grappling tournament and Pankration fight on day one, I had to come back on day two for a three, 5-minute round MMA fight in a cage.  I eventually won the fight in the second round via armbar.

JJT: Recently, you’ve been making a big push in your grappling career. You’ve won some Pan Am titles and even won the expert no gi division for Five Grappling. What does training look like for you when you’re getting ready for something like this?

Aaron: Well this season I am heading to Las Vegas for Master Worlds. This will be a good test for me since I have been a Brown belt for a little under a year and most of my competition has been among Brown belts for some time anyways.  I have made strides in my guard game and my submission abilities with the gi, but as a wrestler at heart, my push has been to get a lot of hard rounds with as many high level competitors as possible leading up to Worlds.

JJT: How do you manage to balance your military career with your family and your intense grappling schedule?

Aaron: It’s not easy at all.  Being full-time National Guard has me up early

Photo via MP Sports Photography.
Photo via MP Sports Photography.

every day putting in my duty hours.  I usually get a PT session before I leave work then head to IBJJA for Jiu-Jitsu practice with some wrestling mixed in most days. I am usually home late, but because my wife and kids are so involved in activities throughout the week I don’t see them much until Saturdays, which is my day off most weeks. Sunday I go to competition training and then I have the evening to spend with my family.  I am truly blessed. I have a good wife that lets me chase my dreams and continue my love for grappling.

JJT: What are you looking to do next as far as your competitions are concerned?

Aaron: Well, Master Worlds for sure, but after that I would like to pursue some invitational, winner-take-all type tournaments.

JJT: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

Aaron: I will still be competing for quite a while still, but I would love to move more to a competition coaching role and lead young grapplers to championships; let them experience some of the successes that grappling has led me too.

Those of you grapplers who live outside of California know that it isn’t easy to get noticed or sponsored. Some of the best grapplers I have ever seen never receive the recognition they deserve simply because they don’t live in an area where our sport is well-known.  If you would be interested in sponsoring Aaron Johnson, you can email him at

Photo via John Crosby
Photo via John Crosby



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