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Heading into biggest fight of his career, Tony Johnson copes with his brother’s suicide


As Tony Johnson was in his final preparations for this Friday’s main event against Cheick Kongo, he got a most dreadful phone call. It was news that his little brother, William Johnson, had committed suicide in Cleveland, where he lived. Just like that, Johnson went from punching a heavy bag to the receiving end of one of life’s heaviest blows.

That was over Labor Day weekend, just two weeks before his scheduled fight at Bellator 161 in Cedar Park, Texas. Johnson traveled from Tennessee to Ohio for the viewing, and spent time with his grieving parents in Cincinnati. He processed everything as fast he could as he helped organize the memorial. He grieved along with his family and asked a lot of unanswerable questions. He tried to remain a pillar for those who expect it of him, though his bereavement hollowed out a place in him that will remain there for a long while.

Still, even with everything upside down, he never considered backing out of the fight — Johnson took his brother’s passing as a reminder to seize the moment.

"It’s definitely more motivating, man," Johnson told MMA Fighting. "It teaches me, you may have problems but somebody may have way worse problems. So at this stage, enjoy life. It’s definitely motivation, and it’s a wake up call just to enjoy life and cherish today. You’re never promised tomorrow. That’s what I’m doing now. I’m enjoying life, and I’m taking it all in."

The 27-year-old William, it turns out, was battling depression. Tony, just like many others who knew William intimately, didn’t realize it until it was too late. Everything came as a surprise.

"No one knew," he says. "He was hiding his tears behind the smile. But yes, he was depressed, and nobody knew through that. We talked every once in a while, but not as much as we should have. But at the end of the day, it’s unfortunate.

"It was a tragedy, but it’s life. That’s life, and life will hit you hard. Nothing hits you as hard as life. I have to find the strength to just get up and keep going."

Tony, a massive heavyweight who carries the nickname of "Hulk," has lived his whole life to reach the moment he’s arrived at. He will take on the longtime UFC veteran Kongo, most likely for the chance to fight for Bellator’s vacant heavyweight title. He has won three fights in a row, including a decision over former champ Alexander Volkov and most recently a TKO over Raphael Butler. He has stood in against some of the most feared names in the sport, people like Daniel Cormier (who beat him) and Derrick Lewis (who did not).

He’s fought to get to this chance, right at a moment when he’s forced to accept that his brother gave up a far more harrowing fight of his own. 

Maybe Tony has compartmentalized his shock, simply shoved it aside out of necessity to focus on the fight at hand, but he is handling things stoically. Even matter-of-factly. 

"You know, I have a job to do, and I’ve got to go step in the cage with Cheick Kongo," he says at one point. And, "I closed that chapter of my life last week, and I’m ready for this challenge in front of me," he says at another. He is a father himself, and says he wants to provide for him. Tragedy so close to home has to be internalized.

Still, he saw the grief on his parent’s faces, and pain has given him stronger resolve.

"I’m a back home family man, and it’s tough on my parents," Tony says. "We were there last weekend and I was kind of planning the memorial with my parents, and I could see it in my parent’s eyes. No parent wants to bury their child. It’s tough man. But my dad stayed strong, my mom stayed strong and they’re praying. And they’re both going to get through this. It’s tough, it’s a tough thing to have to go through.

"And especially, the timing is horrible. I’ve got a big fight. But, like I say, it’s life. It’s unfortunate. You’ve got to push forward. But the hardest thing honestly was going back home Monday and doing that first training [after]."

Johnson insists that each day has been better since that Monday after Labor Day weekend. He says by Tuesday he was rolling along. By Wednesday, he felt good in his training — like he has regained his rhythm. He told Bellator immediately that the fight was still on. He said there was nothing that would prevent it from happening.

"Not one time did I think about not fighting," he says. "Bellator was awesome. They said, hey, we understand this tragedy, if you don’t want to fight, we understand. But you don’t get these moments in life very much. And you’ve got to seize the moment no matter what happens. I’m headlining in one of the best organizations in the world. I never thought even one time I’m not going to do this. I just had to get my head right, and get ready for this fight.

"And I thank Bellator, they’ve been awesome, helping me out. They sent me flowers, and I’ve never been sent flowers before. But I never thought about not fighting, it never crossed my mind once."

The 6-foot-4, 41-year old Kongo has won two in a row, and six of eight overall since signing with Bellator in 2013. Johnson says he’s able to focus on Kongo, and to focus on him alone.

"I see a guy who has a lot of experience, a guy that know a lot of tricks," he says. "I respect Cheick Kongo. I think he’s a great fighter, but it’s my time now. It’s my time to shine, and I’m ready to seize this moment. I’m just ready to go. I’m not going to be that same guy he saw on TV. I’ve grown so much, and I’m ready.

"My confidence has never been more strong."

Kongo’s as formidable as they come in the division, and yet his clinch, his power and his range become abstract measures of strength when dealing with the loss of a loved one. Johnson just did vulnerable. It’s led to him feeling invincible.

"Last week was the hardest week of my life," he says. "That hurt so much personally. There’s nothing that Cheick Kongo can do that will hurt."

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