A Minnesota National Guardsman will make his UFC debut Saturday in Fairfax, Virginia, though he'll do it without his cheering section.
Dozens of fellow soldiers frequently made the trip from Minnesota to see Sgt. Tim Johnson fight in Fargo, North Dakota, where most of his mixed martial arts bouts have taken place. Johnson, 8-1 as a heavyweight (265 pounds) and riding a six-fight win streak into the major league of MMA, will try to build a new support base.
"I think I can win some fans," Johnson said. "I am fighting a Russian, after all."
The Russian in question, Shamil Abdurakhimov (15-2) also will make his UFC debut after fighting for multiple Russia-based promotions as well as in Abu Dhabi. The two will square off as part of the preliminary bouts for Saturday's UFC Fight Night card — more of a fight morning for Johnson, as the prelims will begin airing live on Fox Sports 1 at 11 a.m. Eastern.
Johnson enlisted in 2007, signed up by a friend in uniform who received a bonus for the recruiting effort. His time in uniform included a deployment in support of Operation New Dawn, working convoy security from a Kuwait-based unit as the bulk of U.S. forces left Iraq.
Before that deployment, the collegiate wrestler has started working out at Fargo's Academy of Combat Arts, alongside some fellow heavyweights.
"They were into MMA, and basically, they were looking for a couple bodies," he said. "I went in there as a practice partner. ... I kind of got hooked, started training a little bit. Before I knew it, I was kind of like, 'Let's give a fight a try, see how I like it.' "
Johnson won his debut match by first-round stoppage in October 2010, according to his Sherdog.com stat sheet, then suffered his lone loss before beginning his current win streak in November 2011. A victory over UFC and Bellator veteran Travis Wiuff on Oct. 24 appears to have raised the right eyebrows: Johnson signed with an agent shortly after the win, then inked a four-fight deal with the UFC.
"Everything happened, one thing after another, without really thinking about it," he said.
While his wrestling background carries over into the cage, Johnson has worked to improve other aspects of his fight game. He's recorded four submission victories, sometimes relying on a grappling technique he describes as, "Oh, that looks like it hurts, I'll grab it and twist it this way." And kicking hasn't come naturally — the 6-foot-3 heavyweight said his legs "are about as long as a 5-foot-7 guy."
Johnson, 30, recently left his full-time truck-driving job to focus on training, though he still works as a bouncer. He's got about 16 months left on his National Guard contract, he said, and hasn't decided whether to re-up.
A win Saturday could give him some career clarity. He enters the fight as about a 2-to-1 underdog to Abdurakhimov, whom he's scouted via YouTube ("He's got endurance for days") and met for the first time the week of the fight.
It was a short conversation.
"He does not know one word of English," Johnson said.
• Former Marine Liz Carmouche (8-5) also will fight in Saturday's prelims, taking on 8-1 Lauren Murphy in a 135-pound bout. Carmouche, who fell to UFC champion Ronda Rousey in a February 2013 title match, is looking to snap a two-fight losing streak.
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.