We had a chance to catch up with Bellator heavyweight Tim Johnson, who will make his promotional debut in a big way against Cheick Kongo at Bellator 208 this fall.
Tim Johnson (12-4) is the newest big name to join the Bellator MMA ranks, pun fully intended. The heavyweight joins a division that recently re-signed former heavyweight champion Vitaly Minakov (just shortly after we spoke), and that has been reinvigorated by the ongoing World Heavyweight Grand Prix. In fact, after the heavyweight division was nearly an afterthought for years with Minakov in exile, in 2018 it has been the face of the company.
Fedor Emelianenko. Matt Mittrione. Frank Mir. Roy Nelson. Cheick Kongo. Sergei Kharitonov. Even Mirko Cro-Cop was looking to get in on the action, though due to injury, who knows when or if he’ll appear for the promotion. Still, Johnson is in good company as he makes the transition to Bellator MMA, with his debut set to come against Cheick Kongo at Bellator 208 this October.
“It seemed like you were numbers on a sheet of paper, not an actual person.” – Tim Johnson, on dealing with UFC.
“So far it’s been pretty smooth,’ Johnson told Cageside Press of the transition to his new home. Right off the bat, Johnson was introduced to everyone behind the scenes. “So far everyone I’ve been talking to seems very nice,” he said. “Very one-on-one oriented.”
Which is a bit of a difference from the UFC. Though Johnson got along well with people behind the scenes at the UFC, he pointed out that when it came time to make certain phone calls, “it seemed like you were numbers on a sheet of paper, not an actual person.”
While mulling over the decision leave the UFC, Johnson told us he was “in pretty close contact with Roy Nelson,” another fighter who recently made the move to Bellator. “I go out there and train with him quite a bit. And we talk quite a bit,” Johnson explained. “From what he was telling me, and his wife was telling me, the switch-over — it’s not a bad organization to fight for. Having them tell me that, if anyone knows Roy, if you’ve seen a Roy interview, he’s not going to sugar coat anything.”
It’s rare to see a heavyweight with a winning record in the UFC jump ship, given how hard quality heavyweights are to come by. Johnson went 4-3 with the promotion, and leaves the UFC on a win over Marcelo Golm at UFC Belem in February. Yet despite working his way into the top fifteen, the UFC’s interest was mild at best. Johnson isn’t 100% sure they even made an offer to retain his services.
His agent, however, said there was interest elsewhere, and after presenting Bellator’s numbers, told the heavyweight that “the UFC wouldn’t be coming close to that.” That made it an obvious choice. Plus, “I had some grievances and gripes about the UFC though, too,” explained Johnson. “So maybe it was best that we split our ways at this time.”
Those grievances boiled down to booking matters. “Every fight that I won, I worked my way up into that top fifteen, and I hovered around there. I think I went from like fifteen to fourteen to twelve to thirteen, for quite a few fights,” Johnson explained. “After the wins I’d have, I’d want to fight someone a little bit higher, instead of fighting debuts all the time. So I’d offer, I’d call and be like ‘hey I want to fight Andre Arlovski, or Stefan Struve, or Aleksei Oleinik, or Derrick Lewis. I asked for Derrick Lewis like three or four times. And it never went anywhere, they’d just come back with ‘oh we have another debut for you to fight.'”
It’s a problem that was solved instantly with Bellator. “When Bellator got back to me with Cheick Kongo, I was like ‘yeah I’ll take that!’ Finally. I’ve been waiting three years to fight a guy with a name.”
Money, sponsorships, it all factored in. And Johnson, who had followed the promotion throughout his career, “appreciated Belaltor, what they kind of do, the platform they use.” He understands where they’re trying to take the company.
The upcoming fight against Cheick Kongo is actually Plan B, mind you. Bellator had originally offered Johnson a chance to face Valentin Moldavsky in Oklahoma at Bellator 202. Moldavsky trains with Fedor Emelianenko, and wound up defeating Ernest James on that card. However, Johnson was injured, and couldn’t take the fight. “I learned my lesson fighting injured from the Junior Albini fight. I wasn’t going to do that again,” Johnson said.
It’s hard not to see Kongo as an upgrade anyway. While it’s a bit too soon to be doing any game planning, Johnson did say that “hopefully I can get the takedown or something, get back to my old wrestling roots a little bit.”
The fight has the feel of a possible alternate for the heavyweight grand prix. “That’d be a great way to start off a contract, wouldn’t lie to you,” Johnson said of that possibility. Sharing a card with Fedor Emelianenko, meanwhile, is something he “most definitely did not” think would ever happen. “That was a nice surprise. That was also another perk when they offered it to me. I looked it up and I knew who the headliners were, and I’m like ‘yup absolutely, I’m fighting on this fight card.'”
For that main event, Johnson is going with what he acknowledged might be an unpopular opinion, and picked Chael to win. As for his own fight, a win over Kongo, who “is definitely on the best streak of his career, if nothing else, it definitely puts me on the map a little bit.”
Bellator 208 takes place at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY on October 13, 2018.