In his first stint in the UFC, Anthony Johnson, who now walks around at 230 pounds, was competing as a welterweight. Though this never seemed like anything other than an act of defiance, Johnson didn’t exactly have a yogi’s gift of physical reduction; he struggled mightily to make 170-pound limit. He struggled to make 185 too. Sometimes he didn’t make it. Too often, in fact.
That’s where the trouble began. Four times he showed up to the scale heavy. The last miss on the scale led to Johnson’s dismissal from the UFC in January 2012. And yet it was in the self-imposed hell of those struggles that “Rumble” came to really know what happiness was. At some point, after years of restrictive dieting, he began eating again. His eyes opened up. He began smiling. The sauna, for so long a house of horrors, became just a sauna. He embraced “bigger,” and the weight of the world slipped off his shoulders. He started winning all kinds of fights.
Now Johnson is back.
And this version of Johnson—the comfortable-in-his-skin light heavyweight with enough power to light up his native Dublin, Georgia—is the one people had a hunch existed all along. According to Johnson, he’s the same “Rumble,” only with an important twist.
“Before when I was fighting I didn’t actually love the sport,” he says. “I was just a guy who had the athletic ability to get by. Now I actually love what I do and I’m having fun. I never think about anything else but just fighting.”
The simplicity of Johnson’s new lightness of being was on display in Baltimore this April when he thwarted, vexed and drubbed Phil Davis at UFC 172. Talk about a revealing return fight. Davis, who was vying for a title shot, was the overwhelming favorite because of his Penn State wrestling pedigree and his ability to turn dictator in the Octagon. Johnson, who back in the day lost to a much smaller wrestler in Josh Koscheck, was quietly unimpressed. After all, he comes from a wrestling background himself, going back well before his days at Lassen College in California. And when the bell rang against Davis, he presented himself, to the surprise of nobody in his camp at the Blackzilians, as an immovable object.
“I knew Phil couldn’t take me down from the start. And that’s not me being cocky, I just know my ability,” Johnson says. “I was already confident going in. He took Rashad down one time [when they fought], and that was when Rashad was tired. And it’s definitely hard for Rashad to take me down in training. When me and Rashad wrestle, we go at it pretty hard. So I was full of confidence, and I just knew I had his number from the start. I knew in standup I had his number, and I knew in wrestling it was going to be tough, but I was determined not to let him get anything for free.”
Not only did Davis get nothing for free, he got nowhere in general. Johnson dominated Davis for three rounds en route to a decision.
And in the post-fight press conference, “Rumble” was completely humble. He didn’t tell media “I told you so” for looking past him, and he didn’t demand a crack at champion Jon Jones after having supplanted Davis, who at the time was ranked No. 4 in the division. Instead, Johnson very courteously said he’d fight whoever the UFC wanted him to, still high on the idea of second chances.
“When I got into the situation that I got in, it was nobody else’s fault by mine,” he says. “That was me being young and dumb—not caring and thinking I know everything. But after that it made me come down to reality. It made me calm down, and I just had to grow up. I was hurting too many people. I was hurting myself, I was hurting my family, I was hurting my team, my manager, everyone. I couldn’t do that anymore.”
A big part of Johnson’s turnaround has been due to his Blackzilians coach Henri Hooft, who has stood by him through it all. Hooft was one of those who Johnson disappointed when he missed weight against Vitor Belfort at UFC 142, and then again in his first fight outside the UFC against David Branch. The latter, Johnson says, was the low point of his career.
“He felt very guilty for letting a lot of people down, especially me,” Hooft says. “For Vitor we worked through Christmas: I didn’t see my family, my wife, my daughter. We worked very hard, and then to end up like that, not making the weight cut, everything was very bad. After that we went through the small shows. He was down. I said let’s just suffer, find a new weight class, and go through the small stuff to legitimize you going to the big show again.”
After missing weight against Branch, Johnson made up his mind to fight guys his own size. He even went the other direction, fighting Andrei Arlovski as a heavyweight. He won. He’s been doing a lot of that lately. Ahead of his July fight with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in San Jose, California, Johnson was reinvented at the weight class he was always destined for. And while Hooft was not overly impressed with Johnson’s performance against Davis—“I wanted him to kick more, but it wasn’t a very difficult fight…it’s not the wrestling game, it’s MMA”—Johnson says he’d be nowhere without his Dutch coach.
“Henri to me is just a lifesaver,” Johnson says of Hooft, who’s been with him since he faced Charlie Brenneman in 2011. “He’s never turned his back on me through thick or thin. He’s been right there with me. Honestly, if Henri were to leave, this team would be lost. He’s the ringleader. He’s the heart and soul of the team, and everybody respects him.”
Johnson also has a very close relationship with his 78-year-old grandmother, Pearlene, who—because her grandson is a famous fighter—walks around as the queen of Georgia. Rentz, Georgia, to be exact: a town of only a few hundred people, all of whom are very familiar with the fact that her grandson beats people up for a living.
“She’s the biggest influence I have. She’s awesome,” Johnson says. “She gets more of a kick out of it than I do. She loves the fact that I do this. The town that I’m from isn’t really that big. Before, everyone knew my granddad from high school because he was always in my corner. Wherever I went, my granddad was around. But, since he passed, people know who my grandma is now. And she walks around town with her head up in the sky, like she’s Miss Thang. But she enjoys it, and she’s just proud of me.”
When Johnson was born, his parents were unfit to care for him properly, and he had a rough infancy. Pearlene and Johnson’s granddad Morris raised him from the time he was two years old. They have been Johnson’s bedrock ever since. Unlike some mothers and grandmothers who can’t watch their sons take punches, Pearlene never misses a bout. She’s glued to the action. That her grandson is making a living in the public eye—and succeeding at it—is enough for her to let everyone know that she played a key role in the finished product.
“I don’t blame her for walking around town with her head up,” Johnson says. “I was in pretty bad shape when she adopted me from my mom. So she’s seen me go from bad to…I can’t say great, but good. So she’s happy. She feels like her goal was accomplished. She never once imagined that I’d be on TV or any of this stuff. She’s on cloud nine whenever it comes to me and fighting. She gets superexcited.”
And like all proud grandmothers, Pearlene—who is the Mother of the Church at Greater New Friendship Baptist—is not above dishing wisdom Anthony’s way before he makes the walk out to the Octagon.
“Her advice is, ‘Don’t get hurt,’” he laughs. “She always says, ‘Don’t get hurt, and don’t hurt that other boy too bad, because that’s somebody else’s baby.’ Those are her exact words every single time. And I’m, like, Ma, he’s not going to be hitting me as hard as I’m going to be hitting him, so don’t worry.”
There’s no telling how high her pride will soar if Johnson one day wears a UFC belt. If that day comes, she might even wear it to church.
And to hear Hooft tell it, Johnson becoming the UFC’s light heavyweight champion is not so much a question of “if” as “when.” He puts Johnson right there with Alexander Gustafsson, Daniel Cormier, Evans and Jones as the crème de la crème of the division.
But first Johnson will get a chance to showcase at UFC Fight Night: Lawler vs. Brown against one of the game’s most sturdy veterans, Nogueira, who upset his training partner Evans at UFC 156.
“I think ‘Lil Nog’ is a little bit more dangerous than Phil Davis, in the sense of he has some boxing,” Hooft says. “But I think Anthony is just too much for these guys. He’s a southpaw, so it’s a little bit of a different fight. I respect him a lot because I know both of the Nogueira brothers are warriors, so it won’t be a walkover. He’s a tough guy.
“I respect all fighters as opponents, but Anthony is something different—he’s a different breed. He likes to go for explosive knockouts. He’s got good hands, good legs and his wrestling is good. His jiu-jitsu is OK, but with his wrestling, he doesn’t need that. He’s the real deal.”
Whatever the case, Johnson says he’ll take it slow. He says he won’t be calling anybody out anytime soon, because he’s seen too many “knuckleheads” regret getting what they asked for. At this point it’s more in the journey than it is the destination for “Rumble.” In talking to him, you get the feeling that as an original member of the Blackzilians he can’t get enough of just being in the gym every day with his coaches. There’s Jorge Santiago, whom he credits for elevating his ground game. There’s the new wrestling coach Greg Jones, whom he says teaches a no-frills style that makes sense to the mentality in Boca Raton. “Don’t show us anything fancy because we won’t do it,” he says.
And there’s Hooft, the caterer to styles, whom he admires for zeroing in on what’s important both inside and outside the Octagon. Hooft has made a special reclamation project of Johnson, who after years of depleting himself just to make weight and suffering the strain of that cut on fight night has gotten settled into his own skin.
It’s a whole new Anthony Johnson in 2014.
“I think one day I will be champ, but I’m not rushing anything,” Johnson says. “I’m taking it one fight at a time and getting better and better and better, and I’m hopeful that all my hard work in the next couple of years will pay off. I just want to be the guy who earns everything he gets, and whenever it’s my time, it’s my time.”
Spoken like a true Southern gentleman.
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