Atop the rankings of a Bellator heavyweight division that has been largely stagnant for the past year, Johnson (15-6 MMA, 3-2 BMMA) topped off a three-fight winning streak with a split decision victory over Cheick Kongo at Bellator Europe 10 last October.
When Bellator relaunched in 2021, the promotion announced the light heavyweight grand prix that included heavyweight champion Ryan Bader competing at 205 pounds. After wins over three contenders, Johnson thought he earned a title shot regardless of whether or not it would be against Bader. Johnson mentioned it every chance he could, through interviews, fight negotiations, and beyond – and it all paid off.
“Just kind of don’t play the overplay the game, I guess,” Johnson told MMA Junkie when asked what advice he’d give fighters advocating for opportunities. “I know everyone thinks they’re going to do the (Conor) McGregor thing. I’ve never been that kind of in-your-face kind of person. … I got something that I think I earned. It wasn’t because of my big following on Instagram or me talking crap on Twitter. I got this opportunity because I earned it.”
In 2018, Johnson departed the UFC and joined Bellator. Friday’s event will mark the first time he has competed for a major promotion’s title, which is the whole reason he elected to switch promotions in the first place. Given the UFC’s landscape at the time, Johnson didn’t think his abilities would be valued as much as someone who talked a good game.
“Right after I signed on, I remember this question, too, like, ‘What made you want to sign?'” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘I came over because I didn’t want to be just a gatekeeper.’ I had goals and aspirations to reach the top and want to be known as one of the best fighters.”
If he defeats Valentin Moldavsky (10-1 MMA, 5-0 BMMA), Johnson plans to wait until undisputed champ Bader moves back up to the heavyweight division. The two have displayed much respect toward each other despite Bader’s hiatus and, according to Johnson, they have a gentleman’s agreement.
“I think it was like two weeks after (my Kongo fight), we were communicating back and forth on social media,” Johnson said. “We made a gentlemen’s agreement, ‘Hey, let’s fight (in) like February. I’m like, ‘All right, let’s do it, you know?’ So it’s nice. It’s just like Moldavsky. We’ve communicated via Instagram back and forth. And it’s respectful, and we’re good sports. I like finding people that have good sportsmanship rather than jerks. It’s just a matter of respect for this competition.”
Bellator 261 takes place Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena. The main card airs on Showtime after prelims on MMA Junkie.