Kajan Johnson isn’t afraid to express himself.
It’s a trait that has served the 16-year MMA veteran well for the most part as it has helped him stand out from the crowd, which is of great value when you’re in the thick of the UFC’s deep lightweight division. But it has also put him directly at odds with his employers, including company president Dana White, and that conflict has threatened to overshadow his in-cage accomplishments.
Johnson is currently the interim vice president of Project Spearhead, one of the fighter-led organizations seeking to establish a more even playing field in negotiations between the UFC’s athletes and their employer. It’s not the kind of extracurricular activity that puts one in the good graces of the higher-ups. Even before the Project Spearhead initiative was formed, Johnson was vocal about what he feels is unfair compensation for the fighters.
He memorably ruffled feathers at the UFC Athlete Retreat back in May 2017, speaking out during a presentation by Reebok sponsors. Johnson had to be escorted out afterwards.
His tune hasn’t changed, and a four-fight win streak gave him enough job security to comfortably maintain his stance. However, that streak recently came to an end with a first-round submission loss to Islam Makhachev at UFC on FOX 30 in July, which put Johnson at the same risk of having his contract terminated as any losing fighter.
It didn’t help that at the ceremonial weigh-ins for the show, he decided to have some fun with White.
It was a brief, playful gesture, one that White appeared to take well for the most part, but it didn’t sit well with the officials who Johnson spoke to later. Perhaps if they’d known about the gesture that Johnson didn’t do, they might have appreciated it more.
Before stepping on stage, Johnson was energetically pacing back-and-forth, looking like he was getting hyped for a faceoff. And he was, just not with his opponent. Johnson’s original plan was not to go for a fake handshake, but to stare White down and throw up a fist, traditionally recognized as a sign of protest.
He talked himself out of it.
“My ego really wanted me to do it because I had so much anger within me directed at Dana White because of the things that he’s done,” Johnson told MMA Fighting. “A lot of people don’t know some of the things that have happened behind the scenes, like him going to Donald Trump to try and shut down the whole case that was going to be launched against the UFC through the NLRB because of (Project Spearhead founder) Leslie (Smith)’s case. There’s been so many instances.
“How can this guy do this and get away with it? How can he say whatever he wants to the toughest men on the planet and then everybody just kisses the ring? I just had so much anger within me and frustrations and I really wanted to make a public display of my stance and show the world that you can’t just do that. You’re going to be held accountable for your actions by somebody.”
Johnson is pleased with his decision, and not just because it probably saved his job after the Makhachev loss. One of the reasons he called the audible is because he took into account how having a negative attitude rarely yielded results for him in his career and in life. So while the playful gesture he did go with didn’t have the impact of a raised fist, it was satisfying enough for him.
“It just made me laugh. It made my heart smile,” said Johnson. “They still saw it as disrespectful, it still put me on a shit list, but I think if I had gone and done what I intended to do then I probably wouldn’t have even had this fight in Russia. They probably would have cut me.”
Up next for Johnson, he takes on highly touted Russian lightweight Rustam Khabilov (8-2 in the UFC) on Saturday at UFC Moscow.
Much like with the Makhachev bout, it looks like the deck has been stacked against Johnson. That’s nothing new for the 34-year-old Canadian, who has had anything but a smooth rise up the MMA ranks. He won just seven of his first 16 pro bouts before rattling off a 12-2-1 run that led to a spot on Team Canada on the Nations season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2014.
His run on TUF ended after a semi-final loss to eventual winner Chad Laprise, a bout that left Johnson with a broken jaw. He was then knocked out again in his official UFC debut — which came in his 32nd pro bout — before being given another chance and embarking on his surprising four-fight win streak.
“I think I’m really gonna shock the world this time, I really do, and I’m gonna get a new contract and I’m gonna be here and I’m not going,” said Johnson. “I’m not going anywhere.
“People thought I was done in 2005. People thought I was done in 2010. People thought I was done in 2013. People thought I was done in 2014. I’m still here, 17 years later. Nine facial fractures, I have seven plates in my face. I’ve been starving, I’ve been hopeless. They can’t get rid of me. You put me in a corner, you put my back against the wall, that’s where I shine.”
That “cornered animal” mentality manifested itself in literal fashion in a recent music video that Johnson put together, which caught the attention of UFC officials and not in a good way.
Warning: Video contains explicit lyrics
In the video, titled Hustle Makes Muscle, Johnson plays the leader of a pack of werewolves who attack and kidnap a money-grubbing bald man. Asked if the victim in the clip was intentionally meant to resemble a certain bald man associated with the UFC, Johnson answered, “That’s what they assumed and I can’t say they were completely off base.”
Suffice to say, if Johnson intended to needle his employers, the message was received loud and clear. Johnson didn’t experience any backlash initially, but when it came time to do business, UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby let him know that he should cool it with the shenanigans.
“They didn’t say anything to me, but when we were in talks with Sean Shelby about getting this new contract and everything, he brought that up,” said Johnson. “He’s like, ‘We’re completely okay with the whole unionizing effort and you organizing and all the things you’re saying in your podcast, things you’re saying in your interviews, we don’t have a problem with that. But that handshake thing and that music video, that’s how you get cut.’ That was their words.”
On the plus side, Johnson said he’s received “so much love” from his peers for being open about their issues — and for faking out White in Calgary. It’s something he appreciates, even if fans haven’t been as supportive. Johnson has experienced a lot of vitriol from commenters telling him that he’s raising a stink about nothing and that he should be appreciative of his spot in the UFC.
Johnson knows he’s not a superstar by any stretch of the imagination, not one of the UFC’s indispensable cogs, and that has given him much-needed perspective when it comes to dealing with those who are critical of his efforts.
That same perspective is also what has him ready to accept whatever happens should this weekend mark his last hurrah in the Octagon.
“I think if you took the exact same things that I do and I say and you made them come out of Conor McGregor’s mouth, then you would see a lot less hatred towards him,” said Johnson. “But because I’m not in a position of power, people see that as me being stupid or something and not understanding the game and not understanding the risk that I’m putting myself under, like, ‘Aw, you’re an idiot, you’re gonna get cut. F*cking dumbass, why would you do that? You should be more popular before doing something like that.’
“People just don’t understand that you get fed up and there’s only so much a person can take before they reach that breaking point, and I’ve gotten there many times in my career over different issues. A lot of times over this issue specifically and I’m still here. I’ve said a lot of things, I’m still here. They may cut me, but if that’s what happens, I’m okay with it, because if that’s what’s meant to be, that’s what’s gonna happen. Everything happens for a reason.”