He steps onto the mats wearing a Team Russia gi — a gift given to him by an opponent he defeated at United World Wrestling‘s World Grappling tournament — and begins to warm up. Class is small but grueling, covering the padded floor with sweat. Almost immediately after the last bell rings, he sheds his gi, dons his wrestling shoes, and follows up his own training by teaching a private session to a youth wrestler. Aaron Johnson never stops moving.
“Embrace the grind” is something often said in the grappling community. But no one embraces the phrase quite as strongly as Johnson, owner and head coach of Indiana Combat Grappling. A wrestler since childhood, Johnson found his way onto Team Foxcatcher and ran through his divisions at so many tournaments that he now doesn’t have space for all of his medals.
But none of his accomplishments have come easily, and he is no stranger to hardship. At one point, Johnson, who was struggling financially at the time, competed for a spot on Team USA’s Olympic Greco team as a walk-on. He made a drive out to Iowa, sleeping in his truck, and competing the next day in the trials as an unseeded prospect. He easily won his division.
This granted him the opportunity to compete in the final selection process, where he made his way through the bracket, losing in the semi-finals. For a time, he believed this was the end of his dreams of joining Team USA.
His focus eventually shifted into BJJ and MMA. Training stayed a priority for Johnson, even when his employment was unsteady. For years, he took odd jobs and work in various professions that would still allow him the time to train. “I used to drive a produce truck that delivered to restaurants. One day I dropped off [an order] and the guy tells me he’ll pay later. I called my boss who told me to stay until he paid. But the guy got irritated and ended up chasing me out of his restaurant with a big butcher knife,” Johnson says with a laugh.
Eventually, he found steady employment in the Army National Guard and has been consistent in his grind ever since, even going on to be the Army Combatives Champion. But the hard times weren’t over. Johnson suffered two pulmonary embolisms over a short span of time, which nearly ended his life. He worried that his training days might be behind him.
However, Johnson was able to receive the medical care he needed to recover. Fast forward just a year later in 2016, and he caught wind of Team USA’s Grappling team, an arm of Team USA Wrestling that participates in Jiu-Jitsu competitions using a modified rule set. They were holding trials in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Johnson was ready.
“I had three matches. Won them all,” he says. Since then, Johnson’s résumé has grown. At 42 years old, Johnson is now a world champion and a multiple time Pan Am champion for both the IBJJF and Team USA Grappling.
With such a list of accomplishments to his name, it would be easy for Johnson to retire from competition, but he is currently preparing for his next World Championship as a member of Team USA. When asked why he still does it, “These guys,” he said, motioning to the athletes training in his gym. “And all the kids [who train here]. I figure if I ever stop learning, then I should quit. But as long as I’m still learning, I want to go try out what I’ve learned. And when I learn something, I get to share that. I get to pass that on… At one point I felt like I had to earn the credentials in order to feel like I could coach people, but I know where I’m at now. I’m doing things for the right reasons. I’m helping other people achieve their goals.”
And Johnson has done just that. Having opened his gym less than a year ago, he has already coached multiple children onto the podium at a number of wrestling tournaments, as well as a number of his adults to gold in IBJJF, grappling, judo, and BJJ tournaments.
As UWW Grappling Worlds approach, Johnson stands as an example of what hard work, humility, and dedication mean, both on and off the mats.