FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- The noise and cheers from the crowd made it feel like watching an after-school brawl in a parking lot. The energy rose to a fever pitch as the two titans struggled to gain an advantage. His opponent’s knee presented an issue and the match was paused while it was tended to. When the action resumed, he moved in quickly to pull off a Herculean throw, winning the match 21-12.
The action was intense during the 2017 Armed Forces Wrestling Championships at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, where Senior Airman Brandon Johnson proved to be a force to reckon with.
“A match feels like a test,” said Brandon Johnson, 92nd Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle maintenance journeyman. “It’s a test of your endurance, strength, flexibility and speed. You need to be smart, to have the strategic ability of a chess-player predicting an opponent’s next move. Using everything you have is what makes a great wrestler.”
Johnson would know; as a four-time team member of the U.S. Air Force wrestling team, he has proven his abilities on the mat.
By day, Johnson can be found grappling with a torque wrench on a broken engine, not a fellow wrestler, preforming his duties as a mechanic at the LRS garage.
Being part of the Air Force Wrestling Team is a responsibility and a privilege, and it gave me the experience to lead others on how to improve, Johnson said.
“If given the opportunity, Brandon has the potential to be one of the best wrestlers in the United States,” said Floyd Winter, Air Force Wrestling Team head coach.
Johnson got his start in wrestling as part of the Vista Heights Middle School team in his hometown of Moreno Valley, California. The third of four children in an athletic family, Johnson grew up surrounded by sports and kin who supported his athletic efforts.
“Physical fitness was important all throughout my upbringing,” Johnson said. “My father was a bodybuilder and played football, so all of us took up sports as kids. When I chose wrestling, my mother and big sister would always try to attend my matches and cheer me on.”
Johnson was undefeated until his wrestling coach put him at varsity level during his freshman year, the tougher opponents handing him his first losses, and giving him a lesson about his athletic shortcomings.
“It was hard to lose at first,” Johnson said. “I liked how it felt to compete. I knew that if I wanted to win, I had to keep at it.”
Johnson continued to improve his abilities throughout the rest of high school, earning positions on state-level teams by graduation. Opting to follow in his older siblings footsteps after graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force straight out of high school.
“I honestly thought that I wouldn't have an opportunity to continue wrestling once I was in the Air Force,” Johnson said. “I was lucky to run into some fellow wrestlers at my first duty station at Aviano Air Base [Italy].”
The Aviano Wrestling Club adopted Johnson and he was able to continue to train, eventually daring to compete in an international wrestling tournament in Annecy, France, in 2010.
“Athletes from Russia, France, Spain, Italy and more were there and I was a bit in awe,” Johnson said. “We were the only military team attending, so when I managed to place at the competition, I felt really good about doing well at my first world-level match.”
The Aviano Wrestling Club wasn’t an official USAF wrestling team, so the Airmen had to pay out of pocket to attend the French tournament, yet it proved to be a vital step for Johnson’s future wrestling career.
“The tournament really reignited my fire to wrestle more, to compete and be better at it,” Johnson said. “I learned how much of a gap there was between high school and international athletic competitions, and what I needed to adjust in order to attain a higher level of wrestling skills and techniques.”
Johnson would go on to compete in the United States Air Forces Europe Tournament a year later in Germany, where he would secure a second place medal in Greco-Roman style.
Master Sgt. Sherwin Severin, a fellow competitor in both the French and German tournaments and a former member of the USAF Wrestling team, saw Johnson’s performance and was motivated to recommend him to the Air Force Wrestling Team head coach, Floyd Winter.
“Unfortunately, I had hurt my ankle and couldn’t apply to the Air Force team that year,” Johnson said. “It was devastating for me to be denied the opportunity.”
Johnson relocated to Ramstein AB, Germany, the following year and immediately joined the local wrestling club, relishing in the opportunity to mix cultures through his sport. It wasn’t long, however, before Coach Winter started looking for him.
“While wrestling with the German club, Coach Winter contacted me,” Johnson said. “He wanted me to try out for the Air Force team. I put in my paperwork and made it onto the team at my first try-out in spring of 2013.”
Johnson continued to compete as a top-athlete in the years to follow, successfully making it onto the Air Force Wrestling Team for four separate competitions, his most recent at the 2017 Armed Forces Championship in February.
“I thought a lot about my grandfather during my last bout,” Johnson said. “He is fighting a few illnesses, so I wanted to give him hope and a feeling of pride by winning some matches for him. If I am out there fighting on the mat, maybe he can fight his illness too.”
Johnson faced persistent shoulder and ankle injuries that caused excruciating pain during the two months of training leading up to his latest competition.
“I couldn’t let an injury stop me, so I just kept looking toward my end goal,” Johnson said. “I went through therapy for and it was hard, but I kept thinking to myself how badly I wanted to win despite the pain I faced.”
Johnson’s perseverance would earn him two silver medals in freestyle and Greco-Roman style by the end of the tournament.
“I want that number-one spot,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about giving everything I have. If I do that and lose, then I learn and grow so I can win the next one.”
Johnson will have another chance to take the number-one spot, as he is set to compete with the U.S. Air Force Wrestling Team for a fifth time at the U.S. Open Senior Greco-Roman World Team Trials in Las Vegas later this year.
“You don’t walk on the mat a champion,” Coach Winter said. “It takes years of fighting for it, but Johnson is well on his way.”