In a perfect world, mixed martial arts should be about results. Yet heading into Bellator 239 this weekend, heavyweight Tim Johnson is a reminder that we do not live in a perfect world. Johnson (12-6) left the UFC in 2018 off a win over Marcelo Golm, with little fanfare surrounding the possibility of him re-signing with the organization. Like Jared Rosholt and others before him, his style — efficient but not entertaining to the casual masses — appeared to have sealed his fate.
“No one’s going to yell at a football team if all they do is run the ball, and they win the game,” Johnson told Cageside Press recently. “But fans, they want to see high scoring games. They want to see NFL teams air the ball out.”
So it doesn’t always come down to wins and losses — especially in MMA. “You’ve got to win with flair,” Johnson later put it. No matter what comparison you make, he noted, an athlete is putting pressure on themselves. Football, MMA, hockey, it’s there no matter what. “Even hockey players probably, depending on the position they’re in, if they’re not scoring a lot of points, they’re putting pressure on themselves to score a little more.”
The difference in MMA, of course, is that only one athlete is in the spotlight when it comes to the outcome. A team sport, your teammates can take the pressure off.
Johnson, like pretty much every other fighter, has put pressure on himself to perform. Beyond just notching the W. “It’s always there. It’s always been there. Ever since I started fighting, I’ve been trying to develop more KO power, KO punches. Be more entertaining, [show] more activity.”
Of course, it doesn’t always work out. “There’s always wishful thinking that I’m going to do that, but then when you get in there, you revert back to yourself,” he admitted. Years of wrestling will do that. “So it doesn’t always work out that way, but you kind of make it work.”
A lot of it is simply reaction, Johnson added. “You’re thinking about things you want to do while you’re in there, but ultimately it’s your body that’s reacting to what your opponent is throwing back at you. You’re always going to revert back to what you know.”
If ever there were a Plan B, it might be on the mic. Any number of fighters have reinvented themselves through trash talk. Chael Sonnen, Colby Covington, Henry Cejudo, even Ben Rothwell these days. “That’s never been too high on my priority list,” Johnson replied to the suggestion that he talk it up a little.
“What you see is what you get,” Johnson said when it comes to his persona, or lack thereof. “That aspect of it, I don’t even think I could naturally do it. Fans would pick that apart right away, they would know I was being fake.”
With the UFC’s interest in his services lukewarm at best, Johnson jumped to Bellator as a free agent in 2018, where he’s at least been able to secure bigger fights. Cheick Kongo. Vitaly Minakov.
Neither went his way, resulting in a case of “be careful what you wish for,” Johnson admitted. And while he’s paired up with the young, unbeaten Tyrell Fortune at Bellator 239, “I don’t look at Tyrell as a prospect,” he said. “If he is a prospect, I think he’s the highest-rated prospect in any organization right now. He’s just a heck of a fighter.”
Not that it changes his approach too much. “No matter who’s in front of you, just go out there and try to implement the best fight that you can.” Although he is watching more tape these days.
The match-up is also a bit of a compliment to Johnson. At least in this case, he’s being used to test someone who many see as the future of Bellator’s heavyweight division. And he’s not worried about getting stuck in place as a gatekeeper. “They have given me a chance, and I haven’t lived up to that chance yet. But I’m still 34, still got a couple of years left in me, so we’ll see what I can accomplish in that time.”
This isn’t the first time Johnson and Fortune have been lined up, which is one of the storylines surrounding this bout. The pair were expected to face off last year, but almost as soon as the fight was announced, Johnson withdrew.
Fortune was vocal about Johnson avoiding the scrap, but Johnson was quick to set the record straight. After the Vitaly Minakov fight at Bellator 225, “I had a fairly substantial tear to my MCL that I had to let heal. I informed everybody of that but apparently he didn’t get the message. So he called me a scared-y cat I guess,” responded Johnson. “That’s his perception. I won’t say [he’s] ignorant, but I’ve literally driven down the road in Iraq, and fought top guys in the world. I’m not scared.”
Tune in this Friday, February 21, 2020 for Bellator 239, live from the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma. The main card airs live on Paramount Network.