When does a boyhood fantasy give way to the realities and responsibilities of adulthood?
For Jordan Johnson, it’s when a $1 million prize becomes an option.
After a 4-0 start to his UFC career, Johnson jumped ship from the promotion when contract negotiations sank, entering free agency and landing in the Professional Fighters League.
“PFL was the only organization that had a contract that laid out how I can make a million dollars,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s journey toward PFL’s $1 million championship prize begins Thursday at PFL 3 at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. The former Division I wrestler faces Maxim Grishin in a light heavyweight bout to open their regular season.
With a traditional sports format unique to mixed martial arts, PFL has each fighter compete twice to earn points in the division standings, which determine playoff seedings. The winner of the playoff championship earns a prize of $1 million.
“They gave me some great money outside of the million dollars, so it’s a no-brainer,” Johnson said. “Still the only contract I saw that said, ‘Do your job, we’ll give you a million dollars.”
Coming from the UFC, where an entry contract often is for as little as $10,000 per fight before bonuses, Johnson, 30, said he was looking for the chance to earn what he felt was his true value in order to secure his family’s well-being. He turned down the UFC’s offers ahead of the final fight of his contract, a submission victory over Adam Yandlev last September that brought him to 10-0 in his professional career.
When the UFC’s bid didn’t change, he shopped around his talent and found a willing buyer in PFL.
“We went back and forth a little bit, and we just didn’t get to where I wanted to be at,” said Johnson. “I have a family, I want to really be able to provide and just create a great life, and I didn’t see that with those numbers.”
Johnson said he was only able to take that approach because of the high-leverage position he attained with his perfect record. If he’d suffered a loss during his UFC deal, he believes the lucrative offers from other promotions, including the invite to PFL, might not have come as easy.
Aside from his failed negotiation, Johnson said he enjoyed his time in the UFC, accomplishing one of his longtime goals just by entering the octagon.
But that goal isn’t unique to Johnson. It’s the goal of virtually every competitor who enters the fight game, save the unique prospect tied to a competing promotion.
“It’s the UFC. Before I was in the UFC, if the UFC called and said, ‘Come fight for us, but we’re not going to pay you anything,’ I would’ve been there and said, ‘Hell yeah, let’s go.’ But as I got older and started my family I had to do what’s best for us.”
That puts the negotiating leverage back in the UFC’s corner.
“Fighters there are kind of interchangeable,” Johnson said. “Once someone’s gone, they're going to sign some new young guy that would do the same thing I was talking about. People want to fight in the UFC, kids want to fight in the UFC, that’s what we grew up watching, that’s where our idols [competed].
“Now there’s other organizations and new idols will be made in other organizations and the next generation will grow up, but I don’t know, the UFC, that’s where kids want to go.”
The million-dollar opportunity prompted Johnson to change not just promotions, but divisions as well. After three UFC wins at light heavyweight, he dropped down to middleweight for his last bout against Yandley, a move he wanted to make permanent.
PFL sponsored a middleweight division in its first year, but scrapped it for 2019 while adding a women’s lightweight division, forcing Johnson to return to 205 pounds.
Johnson didn’t seem fazed by the move.
“I wanted to make it to 185, but with PFL there’s a million dollars, and that million-dollar option wasn’t at 185 because they got rid of the division,” Johnson said. “I’m not scared to fight up a weight class.
“If PFL said, ‘Hey, you’re going to do this tournament, but you’re going to have to do it at heavyweight,’ you would see me at heavyweight. It’s a million dollars. If they said, ‘You have to do this at welterweight,’ you would see one skinny Jordan Johnson standing in front of you.”