Former MSUM Wrestler Tim Johnson making waves in UFC Fighting
BY STEPHEN LARSON
Former wrestlers usually end up in combat sports, but not many of them rise to the level that former Minnesota State University Moorhead wrestler Tim Johnson has. The Lamberton, Minn. native is not only a professional fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, but he is ranked 15th in the heavyweight division.
“Wrestling was something that my parents always encouraged me to pursue. I got into it when I was about four or five years old,” Johnson said. “I did elementary basketball as well and then seventh grade came around and it was decision time, continue with basketball or wrestling.
“My parents were like, well, we’re not going to push you one way, and my dad was a wrestler, so you always wanted to do what dad did. They laid it out for me that I’d probably have more opportunities and wrestling if I stuck that out. So I went with wrestling and, you know, took my lumps as I was a pretty big kid when I was young but by my freshman year of high school I figured it out.”
After he graduated from Lamberton High School, Johnson found his way to a small two-year college in Willmar, called Ridgewater Community College, where he originally played football.
“I was recruited pretty heavily in the football department out of high school, and I didn’t really concentrate academically as much as I should have in high school, so I didn’t have all the right grades and all that fun stuff to go to a university right away. So I went to Ridgewater where I primarily played football until the D-line coach Jesse Nelson kept bugging me to go out for wrestling.
“Initially I didn’t want to because I was done with wrestling, but when football season was done I kinda got that itch to return to it, and decided to.”
It was a good thing that he decided to go back to wrestling, as he became an All-American with a fifth-place finish, culminating his tournament with a pin of Tim Paige from the School of New York.
“After I finished my academic eligibility at Ridgewater, I actually joined the Army National Guard, where I served for a few years. When I got out, Jesse Nelson, who at that time was the head coach at Southwest Minnesota State, started reaching out to other schools for me, and Keenan Speiss, who was the head coach at MSUM contacted me, brought me up for a visit, and not only did I like the school, but I got in, which was important.”
“I had no idea that Tim would end up as a MMA fighter,” said Speiss, who is now the head wrestling coach at Fargo Davies High School. “He was a tough kid, but he was always one of the nicer kids on the team.”
Speiss wasn’t the only one to underestimate Johnson, as during his first season at MSUM he didn’t get very much respect at the Super Region Tournament seeding meeting.
“I got seeded probably like six in the regionals, ended up taking third.That whole year I didn’t get a lot of respect for some reason. Keenan and a bunch of guys and even my old coach was in the seeding meeting, like fighting for me. So it was nice to hear a little guys that they’re fighting for me, but I didn’t get a very good seat and I ended up almost getting into the NCAA Tournament, which was nice.”
Once he exhausted his eligibility at MSUM, he left the school, entering immediately into the UFC ranks. He currently has a 12-4 record, with five wins coming via knockout. He remains in the Fargo area, training at the Academy of Combat Arts, which is owned by his manager Dylan Spicer.
While one of the perks of being a professional fighter is traveling, Johnson says that it can be difficult to get your body to adjust to the different time zones.
“When I fought over in Croatia and Ireland, I tried to get there about eight days before the fight, because I found that it takes my body about three or four days to adjust to the time change,” Johnson said. “For fights closer to home, like in Brazil, it’s only a three hour difference, so I only need to go down a week early.”
For his recent fight in Brazil, he left Fargo on Sunday afternoon, and arrived in the host city on Monday for a Saturday fight. He traveled with Spicer and the rest of his corner people, who only got to make the trip after Johnson set up a GoFundMe account, since the UFC only pays for the fighter and two other people to travel to fights. He exceeded his goal, and has promised to donate the overage to a unspecified charitable cause benefitting military veterans.
When he isn’t fighting, he works at the gym where he trains, as well as working as a bouncer at a club in Fargo.
Johnson says that despite the actions of a few fighters, not everybody is over the top with their actions.
“A lot of these guys aren’t head cases. It’s a sport, there are a few people, you’ll see it on regional levels where guys were a little bit of head cases,” Johnson says. “But most of us are normal people. It’s very common for fighters to be laughing and joking with each other backstage prior to the fight.
“Some guys try and get mad at their opponent, but everybody has respect for everyone. Nobody wants to go out there and injure somebody. You want to win, not injure your opponent. Like I respect the guy across from me, but I still want to win.”
Johnson’s training routine prior to fights is fairly simple. The closer that he gets to a fight, his workouts get more frequent, but not always high intensity.
“As you go, you enhance the technical part of your training, so the specialty arts like grappling, boxing, and wrestling,” Johnson said. “I tend to workout two or three times per day, but not all of them are all-out efforts. I really try and train in the specialty arts leading right up to a fight.”
Despite being a professional fighter, Johnson still battles nerves prior to a fight.
“I don’t like to think about the walkout or the fight itself because it creates unnecessary anxiety,” Johnson said. “I sleep pretty well the night before the fight, because my nerves don’t really kick in until i’m getting my hands taped, that’s when my anxiety hits the roof.
“After I get my hands taped, I will usually go off on my own and take a walk and get myself calmed down. Once the ref looks at me and asks if I am ready, and I have my opponent standing opposite me, all those nerves go away.”
Don’t let his size fool you, Johnson still maintains a sense of humor.
“One of these times when the ref asks if I am ready, I want to say no, just to see what he does,” he said with a smile. “I don’t think that he would have the same sense of humor as I would, but it would be pretty funny.”