There’s an old professional wrestling saying about the ideal result of a match that goes, “One guy goes over. The other guy gets over.”
What that means is that in a competitive fight with a properly told story, the loser can gain just as much respect and popularity as the winner. That’s one of the principles of a form of entertainment where the outcomes are predetermined, but it can be applied to countless MMA bouts as well.
That’s the situation Kajan Johnson appeared to find himself in moments after losing a close split decision to Rustam Khabilov last Saturday at UFC Moscow. Aside from the fact that it appeared Johnson may have been able to steal a victory against a heavily favored opponent, his underdog status was cemented by his contentious relationship with the UFC, a conflict that stems from his noted complaints about fighter compensation and role in efforts to unionize.
MMA Fighting spoke to Johnson prior to UFC Moscow about public gestures he’d made that rubbed officials the wrong way and while he stands by the frustrations that he feels in regards to some of the company’s policies, he wanted to clear up certain misconceptions.
First and foremost, Johnson says that the idea that he could get a new contract with a win over Khabilov was floated to him by his management and was not in any way a formal agreement made with the UFC. In fact, Johnson clarified that he did not speak directly to matchmaker Sean Shelby or any company officials about his contract heading into UFC Moscow, nor did he and Shelby directly discuss any issues that may have been caused by the aforementioned gestures.
According to Johnson, a potential “win-and-you’re-in” deal was presented to him as a motivational tool by his management, and not necessarily something that was discussed between them and the UFC. It’s a decision that he is grateful for as he felt it led to arguably the strongest performance of his career, despite the loss.
“When I spoke to my managers, my managers told me some things,” Johnson told MMA Fighting this week. “And some of those things were said in order to motivate me into getting into this fight and putting my all into it and seeing a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
Had Johnson won, he’d be in a much better position to negotiate a return to the Octagon, but as of this past weekend he is no longer signed to the UFC. Johnson went into the last fight on his contract with an open mind, but he’s still feeling heartbroken over what appears to be his last chance (at least for the time being) to compete with the talent that he considers to be the best in the business.
“Even with what my manager was telling me, he wasn’t saying this was official, there was nothing in writing,” Johnson continued. “It was just something that they had told me, I figured that would make sense from (the UFC’s) perspective. If I beat Rustam, now you’ll re-sign me; if I don’t beat Rustam, okay I’m getting my walking papers, I can go become a free agent.
“As of right now I am definitely a free agent. I am no longer a UFC fighter, which is extremely disheartening to me because this is the best organization in the world. It has all the best fighters in the world. The vast majority of the most skilled guys — there’s a couple in the other organizations that could be in that top-10 list, guaranteed — but as a whole there’s no other organization that has the wealth of high level martial artists like the UFC. And I want to be the best in the world. I want to be the top. And I finally figured it out, I finally figured out how to do that. I feel like I really turned a corner in this fight and I know I can beat these guys now.”
If Johnson had any complaints to about his experience in Moscow, it was with the judges. The end result saw Khabilov earn a pair of 29-28 scores to take the split call, with the other judge scoring it 29-28 Johnson. All three agreed that the first round was Johnson’s and the second Khabilov’s, making the final frame the swing round.
Johnson has reviewed the fight closely and he went into detail about how the numbers were distinctly in his favor, both in regards to total and significant strikes. Citing FightMetric LLC, Johnson pointed out that he landed 57/137 total strikes (41 percent) to Khabilov’s 34/88 (38 percent), and 44/123 significant strikes (35 percent) to Khabilov’s 17/70 (24-percent). He regrets letting Khabilov gain top control in the fight, but believes that he generated more offense from his back than Khabilov did from inside his guard, and that he almost submitted the Dagestani fighter.
“If he is on the defense, he jumps into a hornet’s nest as soon as he gets inside my guard and it’s just defending triangle after armbar and I end the round with a heel hook that’s in catch,” said Johnson. “I locked up that heel, I got a bite on that heel at the bell.
“If there were three, four more seconds in that round, that man would be going back to surgery. He would be going back to have his knee replaced or he would be tapping out.”
Johnson stressed that he doesn’t bear any ill will towards the judges, only asking that there be more accountability when it comes to scoring fights based on the unified rules of MMA. He also reached out judge Ben Cartlidge in the hopes of receiving advice on how to adjust his strategy to improve his chances of winning a decision in a future fight.
Where that will take place is unclear. Johnson has not spoken to UFC officials yet, and though he doesn’t think the door is closed, he doesn’t expect them to be rushing to call his management given the complicated relationship he has with the promotion. His number one choice is to return to the Octagon; should that not be possible, he will seek out the most lucrative deal he can find.
That said, Johnson feels like it would be to their benefit to bring him back, given the strong performance he put on in defeat and his reputation for rocking the boat. He’s still a member of Project Spearhead, an organization seeking to even the playing field when it comes to bargaining between the UFC and its fighters, and while he takes that seriously, he also uses that goal to form his public persona, one that he feels the UFC can sell.
Using popular pro wrestling anti-authority figure “Stone Cold” Steve Austin as an example, Johnson intentionally veered away from the typical trash talk used to build up fights, instead constructing a narrative that he thought would drum up fan interest for both himself and the UFC in the long run.
“What does align with me? Fighter rights. The fight for unionization,” said Johnson. “The fight to unite the fighters under one banner so we have one voice so we can get a seat at the table. I don’t need to be promoting to do that. I can do that behind closed doors, quietly, in the way that the UFC would like me to do it.
“But that doesn’t put asses into seats. That doesn’t make the company any money. And if I’m not making the company money, if I’m not helping them, why would they help me? So me, I thought, ‘Okay, well this is f**king genius or it’s f**king crazy.’ But usually the first guy to do it is always thought of as crazy. So I f**king risked it, I f**king risked it all.”
That’s Johnson’s explanation for why he playfully faked out Dana White with a handshake in Calgary. Why he made a music video that appeared to mock a White proxy. Why he’s not afraid to be viewed as a malcontent. He sees it all as part of promotion for himself and the UFC, and as a way of keeping the issue of fighter pay front and center at the same time.
The problem is that while “Stone Cold” was part of a fictional television angle with real-life WWE owner Vince McMahon, White has expressed little interest in the “feud” that Johnson believes would be best for business.
“If Dana played along, understanding that ‘this may be a little annoying for me, but this is going to make me f**king money,’ if he played along, the money would be rolling in,” said Johnson. “Most people know me to this day because of these actions that I’ve done. And the more people that know me, the more people that see this story, they want to see the end of this story. They want to know what happens. So they tune into the fights. ‘Oh, what’s he gonna do now, what’s he gonna do now, this guy’s crazy, what’s he gonna do? We gotta tune in.’ A lot of people aren’t even tuning in to see my fights, they’re tuning in to see what I’m going to say on the microphone after I win. But who the f**k cares why they’re tuning in if they’re tuning in because that’s money for the company and if the company is making money, then I’m making money. That’s why I did this.
“Maybe I was wrong, but I still think that it was an incredible angle and that it was an intelligent angle and that it was working for them just as it was working for me. I hope that they can understand that, I hope that they can see that for what it is and they can understand that I’m not just some pi**ed off dude that’s wylin’ out unpredictably. These things are calculated and they’re calculated with mutual interest, with both of our interests in mind.”