FARGO-Tim Johnson has to go through a 6-foot-7, 240-pound Russian fighter to take the next step in his mixed martial arts career.
Johnson, a former Minnesota State Moorhead wrestler, could move closer to being a top-10 heavyweight with a win Saturday, Nov. 19, at UFC Fight Night 99 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Johnson (10-2) is the No. 15-ranked heavyweight heading into his fight against Alexander Volkov (26-6) that is part of the main card.
"Once you get around that 15, it's a little tougher to jump up spots," said Johnson, who is from Lamberton, Minn., and now trains in Fargo. "If I get a win, then I'm right in the ballpark to where I want to be, in the top 10."
This is the fourth and final fight in Johnson's current UFC contract. He has a 2-1 record in his previous three UFC fights.
"It's a good defining fight," said Dylan Spicer, Johnson's coach and the owner of the Academy of Combat Arts in Fargo.
"If I win, definitely it would be a better contract," said the 31-year-old Johnson, who served 10 years in the Minnesota Army National Guard until recently. "It's a contract fight no matter how I look at that."
Johnson, who is a bouncer, didn't get serious about his mixed martial arts career until about two years ago. He ramped up his training before a fight against heavyweight Brian Heden in January 2014.
"I took that fight, and his level of experience and his danger made me start training," Johnson said. "If I don't train the right way for him, I'm probably looking up at the stars."
Johnson earned a second-round technical knockout against Hedin and has only lost once since. He won his UFC debut against Shamil Abdurakhimov on April 4, 2015, via TKO. He followed that by losing a unanimous decision against Jared Rosholt on Aug. 8, 2015. Johnson rebounded with a unanimous-decision win against Marcin Tybura last April in Zagreb, Croatia.
"I thought that was pretty important because I was coming off a loss," he said.
Johnson did all of his training in Fargo for this fight. In the past, he's gone to other gyms to help prepare, including Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas where he trained with UFC veteran heavyweight Roy Nelson.
Volkov is a former Bellator heavyweight champion whose strength is kickboxing, Spicer said.
"It's kind of a classic matchup between the striker and the grappler," he added.
Johnson traveled to Northern Ireland eight days in advance of the fight, a day earlier than he did for his fight in Croatia. He wanted to give himself an extra day to get acclimated to the time difference.
Johnson's roommate, Nick Phillips, is a 6-foot-6 kickboxer who helped Johnson train for the matchup against Volkov. Johnson also trained with former college wrestling teammate Jake Bruns, who is 6-foot-6, and Zach Thumb.
"It gives you an idea of range," Johnson said. "It gives you a pretty good feeling of what to expect."
Earlier in his mixed martial arts career, Johnson relied primarily on his wrestling, but he feels he's become more well-rounded over the past couple years.
"He keeps maturing with each fight," Spicer said. "With each fight, he's learning a lot more and gains that experience. I'm really proud of Tim. He's put in a lot of work."