But he does have a secret weapon.
"Maybe my mustache will win them over," the Minnesota National Guardsman joked Friday in a phone interview, saying he's fielded questions on his facial hair from the international press as part of the pre-fight festivities leading up to Sunday's "UFC Fight Night" card.
Fans in the U.S. can watch Johnson (9-2, 1-1 UFC) take on Marcin Tybura (13-1, 0-0) as part of the main card airing on Fox Sports 1 at 2 p.m. Eastern. His UFC debut last April was also an early start on the East Coast, during which commentator and former Marine Capt. Brian Stann remarked that Johnson's "glorious mustache" was impressive enough to swing judges if the fight went to a decision.
"I was a little too big-headed, wouldn't change my tactics [until] the last two minutes of the third [round], which I should have been doing the entire fight," Johnson said of his last time out. "I've kind of matured a little bit. I'm in the category of, I don't mind the loss as long as I take something away and I learn from it."
Sunday's fight has more in common with the Abdurakhimov showdown. Like the Russian, Tybura will make his UFC debut against Johnson, will enter the fight as a slight favorite, and he brings an impressive resume that includes time as heavyweight champion of the Russia-based M-1 Global promotion. Tybura never lost the belt, vacating it before signing in January with the UFC.
Johnson said he hadn't been overseas since 2011, when he deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation New Dawn. He thanked his unit, the 134th Brigade Support Battalion, for supporting his UFC dream, and said he planned to re-up this summer.
Along with his Guard duties, Johnson still picks up some hours as a truck driver and bouncer when he's not in training. He's in his third fight of a four-fight UFC deal and hopes a win on the global stage will give him some negotiation leverage.
It could also give him a platform to spread the Guard's message to a target audience, but he's had no talks with Army officials on assuming such a role.
"If opportunities present themselves, I definitely would take them," he said. "I just don't like [suggesting it]. It doesn't feel right, me saying it."
Johnson's featured in one of four heavyweight (265-pound) fights on the six-fight main card, including the main event of Ben Rothwell vs. Junior Dos Santos. Zagreb Arena, which can seat around 18,000 for fight cards and hosts top-tier musical acts — Justin Bieber will play there in November — is expected to sell out, Johnson said.
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.