Whether it’s called a title eliminator or not, when two of the very best in the division are fighting - a win is one step toward the belt and a loss is one step away.
And that goes double for this Saturday’s main event on FOX, as No. 4-ranked light heavyweight Ryan Bader is putting his impressive five-fight win streak on the line against destruction artist and No. 2-ranked Anthony “Rumble” Johnson.
“If he wins this fight then he gets a title shot and, if I lose, I don’t get a title shot,” Johnson said. “All I know is that I have to go out there and do my thing. That’s what I’ve been focused on. I just have to go out there and be myself. Of course, I believe I can knock out anybody that I fight. I’m not saying I’ve always been successful, but I believe 95 percent of the time I have a good chance of knocking you out. But I’m not going in there thinking I’m just going to knock him out. I’m going in there and thinking I seriously have to fight this guy and beat him up so I can win. That’s it.”
At 31 years old with 14 striking stoppages to his name, Rumble knows knockouts and the myriad of ways they can occur. In his return to the UFC, Johnson has earned three KOs with three Performance of the Night bonuses against top-ranked opponents. The first two saw him simply dusting Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Alexander Gustafsson in almost no time. Most recently at UFC 191, he tangled with fellow heavy-hitter Jimi Manuwa and it took Johnson to the second round to get the finish, but he displayed more depth to his attack with the extra time inside the Octagon.
“With Jimi, I was just so focused,” Johnson said. “I knew it was going to be a stand-up fight, so that made me happy. I knew it was going to be a great fight for the both of us. It motivated me even more when Jimi said he wasn’t going to back down. I put pressure on guys and a lot of guys don’t fight my fight when I’m coming forward. I was definitely looking forward to seeing what Jimi had to offer because he’s a knockout artist too. I knew it was a risky fight. It was a fun fight. I just went out there and had fun with it. I mixed it up a bit more, but I was still willing to knock him out regardless.”
Besides improving his pro record to 20-5, The Blackzilians’ superstar showed off the product of his world-class training. From grappling coach Neil Melanson, there was Johnson’s fence and clinch work, as well as the pair of devastating takedowns in the first period. From striking coach Henri Hooft, there was Rumble’s comfort in switching stances and attacking from different angles, and the coup de grace came from Johnson’s lead right while standing in the southpaw stance. Basically, if he is within arm’s reach - he’s dangerous.
“I’m always trying to reach out and touch somebody,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to say it was a part of the game plan, but it was whenever we saw an opening, we were going to take it. Wherever I feel comfortable at that time, that’s how I’m going to stand. It just happens that way. Every day, I’m becoming more of a well-rounded fighter. I’ve always been improving, but people don’t realize it.”
More on Fight Night New Jersey: Watch it on FOX this Saturday | Reasons to watch | Bader focused on fights, not chasing title | Sage Northcutt's secret to success | Barberena happy to derail Super Sage's rise | Ortiz ready to cement comeback in Newark | Watch: Under-the-radar fights this weekend | Watch: Rothwell's rise | Watch free fight: Ryan Bader vs. Keith Jardine | Watch free fight: Anthony Johnson vs. Yoshiyuki Yoshida | Watch Road to the Octagon: Alcantara vs. Rivera, Barnett vs. Rothwell, Johnson vs. Bader
Up next, Johnson is set for a five-round affair with one of the most successful UFC light heavyweights ever in Bader. The Ultimate Fighter 8 winner has had his hand raised 13 times inside the Octagon with only former champs Rashad Evans, Jon Jones, Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell ahead of him on that all-time wins list at 205 pounds. The former two-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler is currently enjoying a five-fight win streak dating back to 2013, with his most recent victory being a unanimous decision over Evans, Johnson’s teammate, at UFC 192. But don’t expect a lick of trash talk from Johnson about his opponent, as Rumble has a healthy respect for Bader and is simply excited to battle him.
“Bader is a hell of a fighter,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I don’t think anybody in the division besides Jon Jones has fought the who’s who of the light heavyweight division like Bader. He’s fought everybody besides me, which is coming soon, Alexander Gustafsson and Daniel Cormier. The man has fought everybody. To me, he’s a living legend in my eyes because of the things he’s accomplished in the cage already. What I think when it comes to us, styles make fights. I think my style matches up great with his. He thinks his style matches up well with mine. It’s not going to be a boring fight. I know that. I think it will be a little bit of everything. A little bit of wrestling, a little bit of grappling, a little bit of striking. I think we’re really going to have to mix it up to catch each other in a bad position or situation and try to get the upper hand in that way. It’s not going to be an easy fight for either one of us.”
This Saturday in Newark, New Jersey, two elite 205-pounders will collide to challenge themselves and, hopefully, challenge for the belt someday soon.
“I just go out there and do my thing and let the dice roll,” Johnson said. “How it lands, that’s the way it lands. I just want my fans to have fun and to know that I love them. They’re enjoying my fights and I’m enjoying fighting in front of them.”