FARGO — Tim Johnson, a former Minnesota State Moorhead wrestler, is going to be part of mixed martial arts history, Saturday, Oct. 10, in Europe.
Johnson is in the heavyweight main event for Bellator Paris at Accor Arena, marking the first time a major MMA event has been held in France.
“No matter what happens, I’ll be attached to some sort of sports history,” said the 35-year-old Johnson, who is from Lamberton, Minn. “This is probably the most important fight of my career without a doubt.”
Johnson (14-6) is set to face French heavyweight Cheick Kongo (30-10-2) with a chance to earn a Bellator title shot with a victory. Johnson has won his previous two fights against Matt Mitrione and Tyrell Fortune with first-round stoppages.
“I kind of got a little more attitude back into my style,” Johnson said. “I think I was fighting to fight, didn’t have a lot of grit maybe behind myself. I’m a gritty fighter. If I don’t do it that way, it’s not going to end up very well.”
A full-time move to the desert helped Johnson rediscover his grit as he now trains full time in Las Vegas at Xtreme Couture with some of the best heavyweights in the world. At the top of that list is Francis Ngannou, one of the top heavyweights in the UFC.
“He hits like a Mack truck,” Johnson said. “Francis is freakishly strong, so you have to always protect yourself against Francis. I’m not going to get hit any harder in a fight than I do in the practice room.”
Johnson has lived in Las Vegas for nearly two years. He had trained at Fargo’s Academy of Combat Arts prior to that. Dylan Spicer, who owns the Academy of Combat Arts, still coaches Johnson. Spicer said Johnson has grown into a more confident fighter since he started training at Xtreme Couture full time.
“I think it was his move to Las Vegas. We did a lot considering what we had. We made due without much,” said Spicer, who will be in Johnson’s corner in Paris. “We didn’t have a lot of high-caliber heavyweights, world class fighters for him to train with. … The thing that changed the most, that I’ve been able to notice, is that his confidence has gone way up. Now he believes that he can hang with the best in the world.”
The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Johnson is fighting Kongo for a second time. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Kongo won the first fight with a first-round knockout at Bellator 208 on Oct. 13, 2018, in Uniondale, N.Y.
“He’s a wily veteran,” Johnson said of the 45-year-old Kongo. “He’s been at this a long time and he’s super smart. His fight I.Q. is through the roof. You’re not going to get any mistakes out of him and he’s going to counter your mistakes.”
Johnson scored a first-round knockout against Fortune last February and followed that with a first-round technical knockout against Mitrione in early August. He was on a two-fight losing streak before those back-to-back wins. Now, he’s on the verge of potentially earning a title fight against Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader.
“That’s what’s crazy about MMA,” Johnson said. “Two fights ago, I was almost on my way out. Two wins, here I’m knocking on the door of a title shot.”
After redshirting one season at MSUM, Johnson wrestled for the Dragons for two seasons from 2008-2010. Spicer said Johnson is primed to have a strong performance in Paris.
“Historical is kind of a key word here for all of us,” Spicer said. “It’s a big deal and we’re all really excited. Tim is probably in the best shape he’s ever been for a fight.”
Johnson is also expecting his first child with wife Jessica, who is due less than a week after Saturday’s fight.
“We’re holding our breath,” said Johnson, hoping he’s able to return home in time for the child's birth. “We do have a little bit of a contingency plan.”