Following a 2012 loss to Vitor Belfort that saw him come in at 197 pounds for a middleweight bout, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson had hit rock bottom, at least professionally. But on the flight home from Brazil, Johnson got a little advice from his trainer Henri Hooft that went a long way.
“I had just come over from the Netherlands to America,” Hooft recalled. “I was like, ‘Why are you cutting so much weight?’ And after the Vitor Belfort fight, we had a conversation on the airplane on the way back. I said ‘Go to a higher weight class.’”
A former pro kickboxer, Hooft never subscribed to the notion that “bigger is better.”
“I know it’s a little bit different, but in kickboxing we don’t really cut weight,” he said. “We just fight each other, and if you’re bigger, it doesn’t mean you’re better than me and that you can beat me. You can be very strong, but if you can’t hit me, then you have a problem. So it’s not always an advantage to be so much bigger.”
Johnson, a former welterweight whose first run in the UFC came to an end with the Belfort fight, took Hooft’s words to heart. Twelve wins and a little over five years later, Johnson is not only back in the UFC, but he’s one victory on April 8 away from becoming a world champion should he defeat light heavyweight titleholder Daniel Cormier in the main event of UFC 210.
What a long, strange trip it’s been, and now it’s on the verge of something many wouldn’t have expected back in 2012.
“He deserves (the title),” Hooft said of Johnson. “He put a lot of effort in, he always shows up and he’s a real student of the game and a real good guy. He will be a good champion too and will be representing the UFC very well. But for me, it’s also personal. For so many years working together, we became close, and it’s always nice to have a belt.”
Hooft laughs, noting that on Monday morning he ran 17 UFC and four Bellator fighters through their paces in South Florida, all chasing gold for themselves.
“Then you see another coach that has one fighter and he wins the title,” he laughs.
“Rumble” is next up though, and he’s got as good a shot as anyone to take the belt, even though he lost to Cormier in their first fight in May 2015. In that bout, Johnson, three fights and three wins into his second UFC run, drilled Cormier and dropped him early, only to get submitted in round three. It was a disappointing night, but one that taught him a lot.
“The last fight, as AJ explained a bit, there was a lot of stuff going on,” Hooft said. “The main event, first time for the title, and he also rushed in a little bit when he had DC hurt because DC is not a guy you knock out like that. (Cormier) fought all these heavyweights and is a tough guy who never got knocked out, so it was all a bit of a learning lesson, and hopefully this time around he’ll be a little bit more patient and will be better.”
Since the defeat, the 33-year-old Georgia native has looked unstoppable thanks to a trio of knockout wins over Jimi Manuwa, Ryan Bader and Glover Teixeira, making him a no-brainer for another shot at the belt. But Hooft wants to make sure his charge approaches this as just another fight.
“I try to make it as normal as possible for him,” he said. “Of course it’s a title fight, it’s for the belt, and that can get to you when you finally fight for the belt, but he’s a really competitive, strong guy. He wanted to wait for DC, he wanted the fight, so now he wants to show that he got what he really wanted.”
But how do things change the second time around? Cormier is an Olympic wrestler and Johnson is a knockout artist of the highest order. So the game plans should remain as they were in the first bout, and Hooft doesn’t dispute that.
“It’s all about the guy who really wants it the most,” he said. “Both of these guys are a long time in the game, and they also know how each other fights. There’s no real secret. Anthony, of course, is working on some stuff, but he won’t be an Olympic wrestler in a couple of months and DC won’t be a striker like Anthony. So it’s who wants it more the second time around.”
Will it be Hooft’s guy? He believes it will be, and it’s not just trainer-speak, because if you know anything about the Netherlands native, he will give it to you straight. That goes for breaking down the fight, being in the gym getting ready for it, or in the Octagon between rounds. The way he sees it, the truth always goes a long way.
“That’s one of the things that’s in my heritage because I’m Dutch,” he laughs. “We’re really straightforward and sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth. But especially if you’re fighting, you’d better listen to what your corner says to do. He knows what I want to see from him and I know what I want to see from him.”
Yet eventually, a trainer has no control and has to trust that his fighter will follow the game plan and get the job done.
“I had a lot of fights myself so I know how it is,” he said. “Some fights you’re in there, some fights you’re not. And if you’re not in there, sometimes your coach can do that extra thing to pull you back in there. But most of the time, when the bell goes, you’re on your own. That’s the thing about fighting. It’s a very lonely thing. You train with your team, you have coaches around you, but when the bell goes, it’s your own thing and you need to deal with the stuff you need to deal with. And I think Anthony did that most of the time in the DC fight. I told him, ‘You fight ten times and you beat nine guys, you’re not doing so bad. You lost to a champion.’ Hopefully, this time we can turn it around.”
If they do, the plane ride back to Florida will look a lot different than it did in 2012.