FARGO — Less than 17 months ago, Tim Johnson was one loss away from the potential end of his professional mixed martial arts career.
Three victories later, the former Minnesota State Moorhead wrestler is one victory away from a heavyweight title.
“If I would have lost that fight, I probably would have been done,” Johnson said of his first-round knockout against Tyrell Fortune in February of 2020.
The 6-foot-3, 264-pound Johnson is set to headline Bellator 261 on Friday, June 25, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The five-fight main card is scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m. CST and be televised on Showtime.
Johnson (15-6) faces Valentin Moldavsky (10-1) in the main event for the promotion's interim heavyweight championship. The winner is slated to later face Ryan Bader, the current Bellator heavyweight champion. Bader is currently taking part in the Bellator light heavyweight tournament.
“I’m not looking at this as the interim, I’m looking at this as the title fight and I know Moldavsky is too because he’s definitely a championship-caliber fighter,” Johnson said.
Johnson is on a three-fight winning streak heading into his fight against Moldavsky. Johnson scored a technical knockout against Matt Mitrione and then earned a split decision against Cheick Kongo after his knockout victory against Fortune. The Kongo victory was last October in Paris.
Johnson’s first pro fight was in 2010 and he said he started to take training seriously in 2014. Johnson had seven fights in the UFC, posting a 4-3 record, before he ended up in Bellator. He lost his first two fights in the promotion before his current streak of three consecutive victories.
“This one is definitely the biggest fight of my career,” Johnson said. “It’s been 10-11 years in the making. It’s nice seeing all the years start to pay off.”
Dylan Spicer, who owns Fargo’s Academy for Combat Arts, has remained Johnson’s coach, even though Johnson now trains out of Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. Johnson, from Lamberton, Minn., moved to Las Vegas about 2-1/2 years ago.
“It is a big deal and a huge opportunity for Tim,” Spicer said of the interim title shot. “Once you have that belt, a lot of other doors will start to open in terms of sponsorships or other fight opportunities. It’s a good thing.”
Since his last fight against Kongo, Johnson has become a father. The 36-year-old Johnson and his wife, Jessica, have a daughter, Georgia, who is eight months old. Georgia was born less than three weeks after Johnson’s fight in Paris.
“This fight camp was definitely a little different, having a baby in the house,” Johnson said. “We definitely had to learn as we went. I threw a whole bunch of new challenges and rewards my way.”
Johnson said Jessica and Georgia are planning to be in attendance for Friday’s championship fight, which is scheduled for five rounds.
“I used to fight for my paycheck, myself and whatever happened, happened,” Johnson said. “It’s changed my perspective. I’m not just providing for me, I’m providing for my family.”
The 6-foot-1, 233-pound Moldavsky is on a five-fight winning streak.
“This guy will be unique in the sense he’s a lot like Tim where he can strike and he can wrestle,” Spicer said of the Russian fighter. “He will probably want to take Tim down to the mat.”
Spicer said Johnson has become a more confident fighter since his move to Las Vegas to train at Xtreme Couture, which has some of the premier heavyweights in the world, including current UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.
Johnson said he’s become a more well-rounded fighter in recent years, improving in areas like his striking.
“I’m pretty comfortable wherever the fight is going to end up and I think that allows you not to make as many mistakes,” Johnson said. “You’re not worried about trying to make a fight go somewhere.”
Spicer said training at Xtreme Couture has helped unlock Johnson’s potential.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Spicer said. “He’s such a stud athlete. He’s got the mindset, too. He’s a teddy bear, but he is a tough guy, too. He’s certainly capable of winning the belt and he’s certainly capable of keeping it for a while, too.”
Johnson said a win against Moldavsky for the interim championship would provide validation for his pro career.
“That would solidify all the sacrifices I’ve made over the years,” Johnson said. “I’ve missed so much time with family and friends and missed out on all kinds of stuff.”