Tony Johnson spent Labor Day weekend burying his younger brother, who killed himself a week ago.
The heavyweight mixed martial artist will spend next weekend fighting in the main event of Bellator 161, believing William Johnson wouldn’t want him to miss an opportunity that both fighting brothers craved.
“I had to go through my grieving really fast,” Johnson said in a phone interview from Cincinnati, his parents’ home. “I have beautiful daughters I’ve got to take care of. I can’t just sit there and wallow in my sorrow. I have to get over it. There’s no other way. I’ve always been the backbone of my family. I’m very strong. My family leans on me a lot for support. I’ve always grieved in private to be strong in public for my family.”
Johnson takes on French MMA veteran Cheick Kongo on Sept. 16 just outside Austin, Texas. A victory would change Johnson’s career, which has been following a winding path from college football to big-money fights.
The winner seems almost certain to get a shot at Bellator’s heavyweight title, which Johnson has been seeking for two years. At 30 years old, he is still relatively young by the wizened standards of MMA heavyweights, but this is his first headlining bout for the promotion.
Just days after his father phoned him to inform him of William’s death, Tony immediately told Bellator he would fight anyway.
“Bellator said, ‘We understand if you don’t want to take this fight,'” Tony Johnson said. “‘There will be no repercussions. We’re going to back you 100 percent.’ That’s all I wanted. I’ve got their support, but I told these guys I’m going to be there. I don’t know if I’m going to have another opportunity to fight Cheick Kongo. I’m ready now. I’m ready to go.”
Tony Johnson said William Johnson, who lived in Cleveland, was a 27-year-old aspiring fighter with two young children. Although he knew William had a tumultuous relationship with his fiancee, he didn’t realize the depth of his younger brother’s depression.
“Every time we would talk, everything was fine,” Tony Johnson said. “I was trying to give him direction. I was trying to be a big brother to him, trying to lead him toward the right path. He’d listen, but of course he’s young. He would fall off course, and I would have to put him back on course, but that was our relationship.”
Johnson attended last weekend’s viewing for his brother, but he will skip a memorial service at their high school this weekend.
“My parents want me to stay focused on the fight and winning the fight for my brother,” he said.
Johnson acknowledges his pain and confusion are still fresh and raw, but he is focusing on family and fighting.
“I guess he had been going through a lot,” Johnson said. “I never thought there was an issue. I never saw it. We still don’t know. There’s still no closure to figure everything out.”
Although they lived hundreds of miles apart, the brothers spoke regularly by phone and occasionally trained together. They even fought on the same card in November 2014, both earning victories in a regional Tennessee promotion before Tony returned to Bellator.
But William was still an MMA prospect, while Tony has long been considered a rising heavyweight with world title potential. He scored a touchdown for Iowa State in 2004 as a 300-pound freshman fullback before moving from wrestling into MMA.
After three years in smaller promotions, he made his Bellator debut in June 2011 with a decision over Derrick Lewis, now a serious contender for the UFC heavyweight title. But problems with his contract led him to take a two-year break from the cage before competing in Asia’s ONE Fighting Championship and in Nashville, his adopted hometown.
Johnson returned to Bellator last year, and he has beaten Alexander Volkov and Raphael Butler to earn a shot at the 41-year-old Kongo, the longtime UFC veteran who moved to Bellator three years ago.
“I’ve gone through adversity before,” Johnson said. “I’ve lost in MMA, and that helps you be strong in life. Things don’t go your way, and it hits you. I believe that Rocky Balboa quote: ‘Nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.'”