FARGO — Former Minnesota State Moorhead wrestler Tim Johnson has always wanted to visit Russia and that trip will coincide with Johnson fighting a mixed martial arts icon in the country’s capital city.
“I get paid to travel to a country I’ve always wanted to go to and get to fight one of their country’s greatest fighters ever,” said Johnson, who wrestled for the Dragons from 2008-2010.
The 36-year-old Johnson is set to fight legendary Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko on Saturday, Oct. 23, at RTB Arena in Moscow, headlining Bellator 269. The four-fight main card is slated to be televised on Showtime at 2 p.m. (CST).
Emelianenko, known as “The Last Emperor,” is widely considered the top heavyweight in MMA history with a 39-6 career record, including an unbeaten streak of 28 consecutive fights.
“It’s kind of hard to relay the significance of it to people that don’t really know who Fedor is,” said Dylan Spicer, who coaches Johnson. “People who are new to the sport, they weren’t around during the Fedor era where that guy dominated the sport for 15 years.”
The 45-year-old Emelianenko hasn’t fought in his home country since 2016.
“We’re used to going into enemy territory so to speak, but this is going to be on a different level,” said Spicer, who owns Fargo’s Academy of Combat Arts. “Not just the national pride that Russia has, but because it’s Fedor, there is going to be that much more of it.”
Johnson (15-7) has won three of his past four fights. He lost to Russian fighter Valentin Moldavsky last June for the Bellator interim heavyweight belt. Moldavsky won by unanimous decision with Emelianenko in his corner. Emelianenko picked Johnson as his opponent Bellator president Scott Coker told the mixed martials arts website "MMA Junkie" last August.
Coker said Emelianenko wanted to fight a top contender instead of an opponent based solely off name recognition.
“I give him a lot of credit,” Coker told MMA Junkie. “Tim Johnson is no joke."
Johnson called the Moldavsky fight the biggest of his career since it was for a championship, but the Emelianenko fight is his most notable.
“Name power, eyes (on the fight), and who, opponent-wise, this definitely is the biggest fight of my career,” said Johnson, who is from Lamberton, Minn., and now lives in Las Vegas.
Johnson is set to leave for Russia on Sunday, Oct. 17, after a weekend of training for the Army National Guard near Little Falls, Minn.
Johnson said once he lands in Russia this is going to be unlike any of his professional fights due to increased media obligations that come with fighting a legend like Emelianenko.
“It’s tenfold,” Johnson said. “There’s all kinds of extra stuff that we’ve got to do.”
The 6-foot-3, 264-pound Johnson said he focused on his strength during this fight camp after his cardio and endurance was his focus in preparing for Moldavsky.
“I wanted to have a little more pop in my punches,” Johnson said of preparing for Emelianenko.
Johnson said another key will not to get distracted by the fight buildup and fanfare.
“Don’t buy into it would be the easiest way to say it, which is sometimes easier said than done,” Johnson said. “I think I’ve got a pretty good filter not making a moment bigger than it is. … It’s two guys in a cage, trying to showcase their fighting ability.”
The 6-foot, 235-pound Emelianenko hasn’t fought since December 2019 when he earned a first round technical knockout against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at Bellator 237 in Saitama, Japan.
“It’s definitely a bucket-list fight and I’m not even fighting,” Spicer said. “It's a bucket list opportunity for me to face off against a legend like that for our gym or Tim.”
Johnson is the No. 2 contender in the Bellator heavyweight division. A victory against Emelianenko could place him back in title contention.
“A win in this fight sets me right back up with getting into a title contention fight,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to get myself back into the win column.”
Spice added: “It’s just another huge opportunity for Tim. I think it will do more for Tim’s confidence and his persona than it will in terms of his ranking in the promotion. … If you beat a legend like that, that goes on your paper and that’s permanent. That’s forever.”