“I just wanted to fight Gustafsson because he’s such a great athlete. When I asked to fight him, it wasn’t anything personal. It’s me wanting to know where my level is." - Anthony Johnson
Sitting in his car on a Floridian roadside during a journey to join his Blackzilian Team colleagues, Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson took UFC.com on a trip through his eventful career.
The setting for this conversation could not have been a more perfect contrast to the subject matter: the biggest fight of his life at the UFC’s second biggest arena show in Stockholm, Sweden, with a golden ticket lying in wait at the end. Johnson, as we discovered, is familiar with this goldfish bowl environment after being the subject of many column inches over the years. But those experiences have shaped him and prepared him for light heavyweight excellence.
The UFC’s light heavyweight division has historically been considered the jewel of the organization. Epic battles and rivalries with Hall of Famers such as Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and Forrest Griffin factored into the meteoric rise of the UFC. These days, the lighter weight classes share as much attention, which is by no means a bad thing. But the deep-rooted animosity between the current light heavyweight champion, Jon Jones, and his most recent challenger, Daniel Cormier, thrust the weight class front of stage under the bright lights and focused lenses.
> READ: Fight Night Stockholm Preview | Predictions
There was regretful behavior, a commission hearing and all-out verbal warfare. There was also a brilliant contest.
On Saturday, No. 1-ranked Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson and the No. 3-ranked Johnson will do battle, and the sentiments could not be more different. For those who like their drinks shaken not stirred, Jones versus Cormier was a jackpot win. However, for the stirrers, the main event in Stockholm is a perfect contrasting chapter in the light heavyweight’s history book.
This time, it’s competition glazed with respect, fighting for nothing more than mixed martial arts superiority and a future opportunity for gold in the glamor division. It’s quite brilliant scheduling by the UFC, setting the stage inside the Tele2 Arena in Stockholm that will host around 30,000 fans, which makes it Europe’s biggest-ever UFC event.
The Jones-Cormier rivalry embraced the drama. It also made for a fantastic fight with Jones asserting himself as arguably the greatest of all time. Drama, however, is something that hasn’t profited Stockholm headliner Johnson.
Following a spat of missing weight, he was released by the UFC and during the period of re-signing, he was suspended due to allegations of domestic abuse. That is all behind him and now he has clarity. After beating Phil Davis in April 2014, Johnson was on a quest to measure where he was at against the rest of the division. When he emphatically dispatched Antonio Rogerio Nogueira three months later, he analysed the light heavyweight landscape and through a process more of availability, one man stood out: Gustafsson.
“I just wanted to fight Gustafsson because he’s such a great athlete,” Johnson told UFC.com. “When I asked to fight him, it wasn’t anything personal. It’s me wanting to know where my level is. Plus, I was ranked in the Top 5, he was what he is ranked now, DC and Jones were fighting, Rashad (Evans) and Glover (Teixeira) were injured, so it was me and him.
“So hey let’s fight! Let’s test each other’s skills out. It wasn’t ‘I wanna beat you up because you suck,’ That’s not my thing. I came up from (No.) 14 right up to No. 5 and that’s a big jump. Ok, I wanna see if my level is really here and that is why I wanted to fight him.”
Anthony’s campaigning clearly paid off and the confirmation of the bout was an emotional victory for the light heavyweight contender who has endured some considerable turbulence in his UFC career.
> WATCH: Anthony Johnson: Why I Fight
“It’s an honor to be able to be the main even in such a large venue,” Johnson said. “It means the hard work has been paying off and the UFC believes in me. To help them grow and to help me grow.
“I’m excited about it. I can’t imagine fighting in front of 30,000 people. That’s not something you hear about everyday, especially in mixed martial arts.”
It is an opinion shared with UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, who brought Johnson to the organization after he proved himself on the regional scene.
“He has all the attributes to be a champion,” Silva said of Johnson. “I see so many fighters with potential in this sport but very few make the most of it. We are now seeing what Anthony Johnson is truly capable of. I am happy to see him do so well.”
When Anthony walks you through his life, it is evident there have been many challenges. But it was the values that his grandparents taught him that have consistently seen him grow. One of the more prominent instructions was to “never give up.”
Said Johnson, “My mom was a drug addict and my dad was an alcoholic, so that was rough, but my grandparents adopted me and I escaped from that kind of life. I got blessed. My grandparents raised me and they did an awesome job. They kept me in sports. They taught me right from wrong, like most parents would do. Told me never give up in life. Everything I know, it is all because of them.”
Johnson showed real promise on the wrestling mats. He started when he was eight years old and won his first state championship in the eighth grade. He made it to the finals in all four years of high school, becoming a two-time state champion and two-time runner up.
He also succeeded as the first national champ from Georgia, finishing high school with a record of 177-8, including 104 wins in a row, beating the previous record set by his coach, Gerald Carr.
> READ: Alexander Gustafsson's Resilience Breeds Focus In Life, Success Inside The Octagon
During his freshman year at Lassen College, Johnson soared to a No. 3 ranking and placed third in nationals. As a sophomore, he achieved a No. 1 ranking and a national title.
Wrestling has long been accepted as one of the very best bases for a successful mixed martial arts career, instilling work ethic with athleticism. This has provided an optional vocation for a wrestler who perhaps is not motivated to climb the dizzy heights of an amateur wrestling career and the Olympics.
And this was apparently true for Johnson, who at the urging of his neighbor, Moses Valentine, agreed to join him at a mixed martial class at a small gym owned by Valentine’s father. That kick started his career.
“I stayed there for a couple of months and then I went to Ken Shamrock,” Johnson recalled. “Then I went to LA and started with Chute Boxe (Academy) USA and then I went up to San Jose and Cung Le. After that I went to Florida. I was trying to get the best training that I could get. I’m just an athlete that really enjoys competition and this is a challenge for me. I’m not there to hurt anybody.
“MMA is just an alpha male, alpha female sport. If you think you’re the best at being tough, I think you should do mixed martial arts. I see myself as an athlete trying to be tough.”
> WATCH: Fight Night Stockholm - Inside The Octagon
Incredibly, it took only three MMA outings for Johnson to get picked up by the UFC, a late notice (less than one week) call up to face Chad Reiner on June 12, 2007 --a contest that lasted just 13 seconds with Johnson victorious via knockout.
That kicked off an 11-fight stint with the UFC, including seven wins with victories over Dan Hardy and Yoshiyuki Yoshida. All but one of these bouts were contested at welterweight, 170 pounds. Considering Johnson’s physique and devastating power, it is quite difficult to comprehend just how he managed his weight.
He would train at 210 pounds and make the long journey down to 170, which dictated a lot of his preparation time. However, he was not always successful at achieving the weight limit, for which he came under a lot of criticism. With that sort of pressure, you would conclude that he was being ill advised.
“I would cut from 210 to 170. Sometimes I made it sometimes I didn’t. Everything was on me. I can only blame myself. I was the only one that wanted me to do it,” Johnson conceded. “I didn’t think I was doing any damage to my body. I knew I was making things hard on myself. I knew I was fighting a tough battle.
“Actually, if I hadn’t had fought at 170, people probably wouldn’t know me right now. I would not have had the journey that I have had so far. I look at it as part of the journey and a learning experience.”
And they were hard-learned lessons. Johnson would be released from the UFC after not making the middleweight limit in Jan. 2012 at UFC 142 against Vitor Belfort in Brazil, a time he remembers well.
“Brazil helped me out … changed my life,” Johnson recalled. “After fighting Vitor and going through the things there and seeing how the system really works, that changed my life around.”
A sequence of events at this difficult time led to the evolution of Anthony Johnson, the light heavyweight contender. UFC cutman Brad Tate advised Johnson that he should speak to Glenn Robinson, who was organizing a facility where high levels guys could train in Florida. One visit later, Johnson instructed his friend to pack all his belongings and throw them into a trailer bound for Florida.
At first, this ensemble of fine combat fighters had no fixed abode or even a team name, but soon Johnson and the group became known as the Blackzilians. Side-by-side with such elite fighters as Evans and Michael Johnson, Anthony worked on his game, eventually aligning with the trainer for Evans, Henri Hooft.
Hooft and Johnson have forged a strong relationship based on trust, respect and results.
“(When I arrived) Anthony was still a 170 pounder”, Hooft said. “After the Vitor Belfort fight and from that moment I took over a little bit and told him that I didn’t want to coach him at that weight class anymore, just to be a coach for a weight cut. (I told him) ‘I really believe you can be champion in a different weight class.’
“At that moment he was still young. I’m training him now for three years and he and a couple of other guys are my projects. AJ is one of my top projects. I’ve been doing this 30 years. I’ve been with the best fighters in the world: Ernesto Hoost, Peter Aerts, even myself, but I’ve never seen somebody who is so talented and picks up stuff so fast. I never saw somebody like that, compared to all these other guys.”
It is quite the endorsement from a 100-plus fight veteran and coach to nine-time world Dutch kickboxing champion, Tyrone Spong, and it’s clear the respect is reciprocated.
“When Henri came along, he really got me thinking and got my mentality at a different level with my fighting,” Johnson said of his coach. “I threw (everything I had learned) out of the window.”
Following the Belfort fight, Johnson tuned into Hooft’s instructions and set about new short-term goals to prove himself all over again.
Hooft said the formula for success is a return to “simple basic stuff.
“After the Vitor Belfort fight he’s gone 9-0 with 7 brutal knockouts,” the coach said of Johnson. “He’s getting better and better everyday. He now throws the punch and the kick the way I wanted to see him do it. Now he’s there.”
There are few criticisms anyone can cast over Anthony’s ability to chose and execute a strike, manifested most prominently in his last fight against Noguiera, a 44-second campaign of striking excellence.
That not only unlocked the door to the upper echelons of the division, but saw Johnson smash the door down to the top five in the world. It seemed improbable after so many challenges, including a career-threatening eye injury. As an elite performer, Johnson is coming off his best year.
And he is consistently beating his toughest opponent.
“I’m always my toughest challenge, both mentally and physically. I’ve been my toughest fight,” Johnson said. “The reward is having a smile on my face, on my team’s face, my coaches, manager and grandmother’s face.”
Just before he enters the Tele2 Arena Saturday night to the tune of “The Moment” by Lil Wayne, he will follow a routine, Johnson said, that means everything to him.
“I will say the Lord’s prayer. I’m Baptist and my grandmother gave me a cross that I’ve had since I graduated high school. So I’ve had that for twelve years, the same cross. I say the Lord’s Prayer probably 10 times. I always call my grandmother right before I go out.
“She reads me a scripture from the Bible and tells me to do my best and she always tells me not to hurt my opponent for some reason: ‘Don’t hurt that boy because that’s somebody else’s baby.’”
Johnson is looking to break that particular promise to his grandmother. He will do so in the name of pure competition.