Former USC and NFL wide receiver Johnnie Morton was eating at a Corona del Mar health food restaurant three months ago when he struck up a conversation with another avid follower of mixed martial arts.
"I'm a huge fan of it," Morton said. "I know more about MMA guys than I do NFL players. I know everything about most guys: their stats, who they lost to, who they won against. I've watched it since the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] first came out."
Armed with the knowledge of Morton's enthusiasm and impressed by the 35-year-old's lean and muscular frame, mixed martial arts athlete agent Joey Sakoda introduced himself and extended a training invitation to the receiver who last appeared in the NFL with the 2005 San Francisco 49ers after being a first-round draft pick (21st overall) of the Detroit Lions in 1994.
After watching a PRIDE Fighting Championships card in Las Vegas earlier this year, Morton was sold.
He spent more than two months practicing the MMA principles of striking, wrestling, kicking and submitting with other Sakoda fighters at the Joker's Wild Fighting Academy in Lake Forest, and tonight, Morton will make his fighting debut at the venue where he grew comfortable playing USC home games, the Coliseum.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Johnnie Morton: In an article in Saturday's Sports section about former NFL wide receiver Johnnie Morton's mixed martial arts debut, he was credited with 614 career receptions. Morton has 624 career receptions.
Morton, of Torrance, ranks third on USC's career receptions list with 201. He also scored 23 touchdowns.
"It helps being familiar with the territory, especially in this first fight," he said. "As opposed to Japan, this is an ideal place for me to start. I had good experiences [here], and I'll have lots of friends and family watching."
The Japan-based Fighting and Entertainment Group is co-promoting a nine-fight K-1 Heroes show it hopes will draw a North American record crowd for an MMA event. Morton's fight against Bernard Ackah (1-0) of the Ivory Coast will be televised on FEG's pay-per-view portion of the show.
"It's called learning on the fly," Morton said of his new sport. "The training is infinitely harder than in the NFL, where you can take a week off and still be in shape to play. With this, you can't miss a day. And the pressure's greater because it's an individual sport. You lose, not your team. The anxiety level is a lot harder on me."
The card has a novelty feel to it, given that the main event features a former professional wrestler, Brock Lesnar, making his MMA debut.
Yet, Morton's MMA talent "is pretty legit," said former UFC light-heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, who has crossed training paths with Morton.
Juanito Ibarra, the trainer and manager of new UFC light-heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson of Irvine, was Morton's high school football trainer nearly 20 years ago, and he'll wrap Morton's hands for tonight's fight.
"As a teacher, the first thing I look for in new guys is if he's an athlete," Ibarra said. "Johnnie has great athletic ability."
Morton said he is pushing for one more tryout with an NFL team this summer. He's clearly in shape, and the 6-foot, 180-pound Morton boasts credentials of 614 receptions, 8,719 yards receiving and 43 touchdowns. He had 80-catch seasons with the Lions in 1997 and 1999, and caught 77 balls in 2001.
"I'll try to get in a camp right after my fight," Morton said. "If I don't, I'll retire."
He'll also have a better idea after his first fight about his prospects in his new, emerging sport.
"He's a good-looking, marketable kid," Ibarra said. "We'll see if he can fight, though. The main question is, does he have a chin?"
The sport's dominant organization, UFC, has shown little interest in adding "celebrity athletes," such as boxer Tommy Morrison or former college wrestler Kurt Angle, to its stable.
"UFC is a sport, not a place for circus acts," Ibarra said. "These guys have to show they can fight. If [Morton] knocks someone stone out [tonight], we'll see. ..."
Morton said he isn't thinking that far into the future.
"This is all about challenging myself," Morton said. "At 35, I only have a small window to still try something like this.
"I know I have no history of fighting, but it's still athletic competition, which I love, and a chance to experience life, like seeing hang gliding or cliff jumping on TV and saying, 'I want to do that.' "
Morton said his opponent is a "good striker" and a tae kwon do specialist.
"He's probably automatically thinking we'll get in a ground game, me being from a game where there's tackling, but I think I'm pretty well-rounded," Morton said. "My strength is my competitiveness. All my life, that's all I've ever done, knowing that you either hit or get hit."