In many ways the upcoming light heavyweight championship bout between Anthony Johnson and Daniel Cormier is a battle of second chances.
For Johnson, the fight represents the culmination of his recent career resurgence in the 205-pound weight class.
The vicious striker originally made waves in the UFC's welterweight division, but struggled to reach the 171-pound limit for non-title affairs. After an ill-fated move to middleweight in early 2012, which saw Johnson weigh in 11 pounds heavy prior to being submitted by Vitor Belfort, he was cut from his UFC contract.
While some fighters would fail to recover from such a downward spiral, Johnson turned the negative into a positive by methodically rebuilding his career. Upon returning to the UFC last year, he picked up spectacular victories over Phil Davis, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Alexander Gustafsson.
As for Cormier, the fight marks his second consecutive shot at the light heavyweight championship after coming up short against then-kingpin Jon Jones in January. The Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix winner stepped back into the title picture after Jones was stripped of the belt and removed from a scheduled bout with Johnson following an alleged felony hit-and-run last month.
In Johnson's eyes Cormier translates into a more difficult opponent than Jones because, just like himself, the former wrestling Olympian aims to make good on a second chance.
“He's just more difficult because … this is his second opportunity at a title shot,” Johnson said on a recent media conference call. “So he's going to bring everything he can to win that title. People get second chances in life and this is his second chance — just like it's my second chance in life, when I returned to the UFC.
“I know what it takes to be at this level. So when you get a chance, you've definitely got to hop on it. We're a little crazy because we are wrestlers. It's just going to be one of those fights — I assume it will be an all-out war.”
Johnson and Cormier will battle to crown a new light-heavyweight champ in the headliner of UFC 187 in Las Vegas on Sat., May 23. The stacked show will also feature a middleweight title bout between Chris Weidman and Belfort. The main card will be available on pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET, with the prelims airing on TSN 5 at 8 p.m.
Though Johnson and Cormier represent the 205-pound elite, it's hard to deny Jones' shadow hovers over their impending clash.
With eight consecutive title defenses to his credit, Jones remains among the most dominant champions in UFC history. As a result, his performances inside the octagon won't be easily fogotten. He also lost his title due to an incident outside the cage.
Johnson said he still considers Jones the best light heavyweight in the world, but admitted he's frustrated by critics who claim his bout with Cormier isn't for the real title.
“For me, it does get a little bit annoying because people aren't showing the respect Daniel and I deserve,” Johnson said. “It's almost like they see us as chumps or something like that. Once again, we didn't make Jon do what he did. That was his own doing. We're athletes; we're top of the food chain right now.
“So it does get aggravating when people say, 'Oh, you're the paper champ.' But in my eyes and in my heart, whoever wins this title isn't the paper champ. (He will be) the absolute champion of the weight class.
“So I'm just going to keep moving forward and keep doing my best. I try not to pay attention to it, but it does get aggravating.”
It goes without saying that should he get past Cormier, Johnson will care little about the detractors. Not only will he have captured his first world championship, he'll have taken out one of the most dangerous fighters on the planet in the process.
A decorated wrestler and heavy-handed kickboxer, Cormier holds wins over heavyweight fighters Josh Barnett, Frank Mir, Roy Nelson and Antonio Silva. He also went the distance in a thrilling light-heavyweight title fight with Jones earlier this year.
Johnson admitted he made some small adjustments in preparation for Cormier, but said his overall approach hasn't changed.
“Well, I went from (six-foot-four) to (five-foot-11),” Johnson laughed. “But we still have our guys (in the gym). We still have the wrestlers, strikers and ground guys. So it hasn't really been that much of a change. I've had to sharpen up some extra tools, but that's about it. When I fight, I don't really come up with a game plan. I just take whatever they give me. If they leave something open, trust me, I'm going to take it.
“Daniel has power, he has speed and good technique. I mean, his wrestling is topnotch. Nobody can deny that. For me, that's great. And for him, that's great. I just think he's going to be a tougher opponent. He might be shorter than me, but the dude packs a lot of power.”
Should he get the job done against Cormier, Johnson will have solidified his comeback as one of the most unexpected in MMA history. In less than four years, he'll have gone from a talented welterweight prospect struggling to make weight, to UFC light heavyweight champion.
“I had to mature, reevaluate some things and get my act together,” Johnson said. “As soon as I did that, everything started paying off and now I am where I am.
“This is a good thing for everyone, at the end of the day. You've got two guys who are hungry to get the belt. That's what it's all about.”
Following a disastrous weight cut and submission loss to Vitor Belfort in early 2012, Anthony Johnson has hit a remarkable career resurgence. He is currently riding a nine-fight win streak.
Def. Alexander Gustafsson via TKO (Jan. 24, 2015)
Def. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira via KO (July 26, 2014)
Def. Phil Davis via unanimous decision (April 26, 2014)
Def. Mike Kyle via KO (Jan. 18, 2014)
Def. Andrei Arlovski via unanimous decision (March 23, 2013)
Def. D.J. Linderman via KO (Nov. 3, 2012)
Def. Jake Rosholt via TKO (Sept. 21, 2012)
Def. Esteves Jones via TKO (Aug. 24, 2012)
Def. David Branch via unanimous decision (May 25, 2012)