Those who describe Aaron Johnson as being about 5 feet 4 inches tall are being generous.
“If you want to give me an extra four inches,” Johnson said. “I’m probably about 5-1.”
Over a lifetime of competing in wrestling, mixed martial arts and jiu jitsu, though, Johnson has been an extremely large presence. Later this year, the Center Grove wrestling program will begin to see the benefits.
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Johnson, a former world jiu jitsu champion and Pan Am grappling champion who has called Greenwood home for the past 15 years, is set to travel to Baku, Azerbaijan next month as part of Team USA for the UWW Grappling World Championships.
It’s likely the final big-stage competition for the 40-year-old, and once it’s over, he’ll be running the Center Grove youth wrestling program and serving as a varsity assistant for the Trojans under head coach Cale Hoover.
“I’m beat up, and I’ve done a lot,” Johnson said. “I don’t need to really prove anything else to anybody or myself.
“Now I’m to the point where I want to just sit back and focus on making world champions instead of being a world champion.”
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Johnson has been in Indiana since his junior year of high school. After graduating from Pike in 1995, he wrestled for three seasons at the University of Indianapolis, where he was friends with current Center Grove strength and conditioning coordinator Marty Mills.
Mills reached out to Johnson shortly after last year’s Grappling World Championships in Belarus — Johnson lost after breaking his foot — and asked if he had any interest in coaching at Center Grove.
“He’s my friend from college,” Mills said, “but beyond that, the type of person he is, I just want him around our kids. I want his high energy, high intensity, you can’t have enough of those high-effort guys around.”
Johnson has been displaying that effort his entire life — perhaps never more so than when he came back from a pair of pulmonary embolisms (blood clots in the lung) in 2007 and 2015.
The first time around, he was told he wouldn’t be able to compete anymore.
“I guess I was a little stubborn and wasn’t willing to accept the answer,” Johnson said, “and I decided I was going to go back and start training again.”
Having been away from wrestling for a year and deciding he wouldn’t be able to fare as well after the time off, Johnson took up MMA and jiu-jitsu.
He was placed on a new medication after his second pulmonary embolism, and he has excelled on the mat since. Johnson actually qualified for a pair of international events this fall, but a combat wrestling competition in Japan that he qualified for is scheduled for the day after the UWW Grappling Worlds end, so doing both is out of the question.
Instead, he’ll come home from Azerbaijan and dedicate himself to coaching locally. As a token of appreciation, the Center Grove wrestling program recently put together a fundraiser to help cover Johnson’s upcoming travel expenses. That event raised $3,300.
“We just wanted him to understand the Center Grove family more than anything,” Mills said of the fundraising effort. “He’s got a need, and even though he hasn’t officially been here, we’re here to support.”
A full-time mechanic with the Indiana National Guard and formerly a wrestling coach at Pike, UIndy and Decatur Central, Johnson sought out the permission of his daughters — the oldest will be a freshman at Center Grove next year — before signing on with the Trojans.
Now that he’s on board, those within the program are excited about what Johnson can bring to the table. Hoover is most looking forward to having Johnson work firsthand with some of the wrestlers in the lower weight classes.
“One of the big things for us is that he is a small guy,” Hoover said. “It’s hard to find adults who are under 150 pounds to try to work with some of these smaller kids, so he brings that to the table to go along with the fact that he’s a knowledgeable wrestling guy.”
Though he’s grown tired of training for competition, Johnson says he enjoys being hands-on when it comes to instructing younger wrestlers.
“Wrestling’s all about feel, so you have to feel what a kid’s doing wrong,” You can see it and you can tell them, but showing them and having them feel what you’re talking about, it’s a big difference between being a good wrestler and a great wrestler.”
Keeping up with opponents roughly half his age has become an everyday thing for Johnson, and he’s ready to give it one more big shot in Azerbaijan before he (probably) hangs it up.
“They’re going to be stronger than me, faster than me,” Johnson said, “but if I can use my experience — it’s what I’ve been doing lately, and it’s been working.”