Even in the midst of one of the most difficult economic slumps in U.S. history, Michael Johnson had no problem quitting his job.
"I walked up to my manager with a huge smile on my face and said, 'I'm outta here.' It wasn't a tough call at all," Johnson said of walking away from waiting tables at Cheddar's, a family restaurant, in Springfield, Mo. "I was like, 'I'm going to make it on this show, and I'm not going to be serving chicken tenders to the local crowd anymore.' "
Johnson was leaving behind school and the steady hours of slinging casual American cuisine to join the cast of Season 12 of "The Ultimate Fighter."
Six months later, the decision appears to have worked out fine. Johnson will fight Jonathan Brookins for the season title and lucrative Ultimate Fighting Championship contract on a card at the Palms tonight.
"It feels good to be here in the finals, knowing that all my hard work and sacrifice has paid off," he said. "I'm really excited to make a name for myself in the UFC."
Johnson said he plans to finish school eventually but has his focus now entirely on fighting.
While he has won over fans around the country with his success on the reality show, Johnson said not everyone in his hometown is behind him.
"Some of the college kids that see me out, I hear the whispers behind my back: 'He doesn't deserve to be there. He's not going to make it. He's not that great of a fighter,' " Johnson said. "It's just haters. The world has them. They've got to hate on somebody."
Even the UFC and the producers of the reality show took time to come around. Johnson tried out for seasons 8 and 9 but didn't make the cast.
He said that has made his run to this season's finals that much more special.
"It's definitely rewarding. It kind of shows the people from the show, 'Why'd we pass this guy up? He's doing so well,' " said the 24-year-old, who goes into the final as a plus-190 underdog. "I'm loving it."
Stephan Bonnar and Kendall Grove, who both appear on the card in separate bouts, can relate to Johnson's situation.
Bonnar lost to Forrest Griffin in the Season 1 title bout, one of the most memorable fights in UFC history. He takes on Igor Pokrajac tonight, looking for his second straight win after three consecutive losses.
The 33-year-old Las Vegan admitted it is easier to do interviews coming off a win but said it doesn't matter much inside the cage.
"I've never been the most confident person in the world, I'll admit that," he said. "Coming off a win, it does give you a nice boost of confidence, but, then again, coming off a loss gives you a lot of motivation, so there's a way to channel both of those."
Grove was successful in his Season 3 title bout against Ed Herman. He has experienced ups and downs in the organization but said his fiancee is expecting the couple's second child to go along with his two stepchildren.
Grove also has moved back to his native Hawaii from Las Vegas, where he had lived and trained for some time. He said he thinks the changes in his life have helped bring him stability, which could re-energize his career.
"I haven't had the most consistent career, but I like to fight. I'm not afraid to fight anybody," he said. "I've come to a point where I want to start being known as a top-10 fighter, and in order to do that, I have to start beating some of those guys in that ranking."
Demian Maia, his opponent tonight, would qualify. He challenged middleweight champion Anderson Silva for the title in April and is coming off a win over Mario Miranda in August.
The card, which starts at 3:20 p.m. and airs tape-delayed on Spike (Cable 29) at 9, also features bouts between Nam Phan and Leonard Garcia and Johny Hedricks and Rick Story.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5509.