In 2015, nine years after he turned pro, Anthony Johnson finally arrived.
With the troubles of his past, both in and out of the Octagon, in the rearview mirror, “Rumble” got down to business and showed why he’s one of the best light heavyweights in the world.
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “Like I said in a post on my Facebook page, regardless of the ups and downs, this year has been amazing, something I’ll live with and cherish forever, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The fight record will read 2-1 for the past 12 months. Johnson knocked out Alexander Gustafsson and Jimi Manuwa, with his only loss coming to Daniel Cormier in a May bout for the vacant UFC 205-pound title.
Most important, it feels like these days the focus is on Johnson as a legitimate world championship threat, and not on the erratic nature of his past efforts or his issues with the scale.
“I definitely feel like everything was for the better as far as my career and things like that,” he said. “Hopefully I showed everybody how much I’ve matured. I had my moments, but who doesn’t.”
At 31, the Georgia native is hitting his prime at the perfect time. On Jan. 30 in Newark’s Prudential Center, he headlines the UFC on FOX event against Ryan Bader. The winner is likely to meet the winner of next year’s Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones rematch, and while a chance to even the score with Cormier would be nice, Johnson would really like to match skill and will with the man he was supposed to face at UFC 187.
“I want to fight DC again, but at the end of the day, Jon is the original champion and he’s still the champion in my eyes,” Johnson said. “So I definitely want a chance to fight him. He’s the greatest ever at light heavyweight, and I’m all about challenges, so I want to see what I have to offer Jon Jones and I want to test myself and see what I can do against a guy of that caliber.”
For a guy nicknamed “Rumble,” Johnson sure is humble, but that’s always been his way when it comes to his opponents. Bader is no different.
“He’s improving day in and day out,” Johnson said of his foe. “He used to just be a wrestler, but he knows how to strike now, he knows how to mix it up very well, he’s got good stamina and he’s a strong guy and a big guy who moves very well. There’s not anything that I can say that’s negative about Ryan. Ryan Bader is an awesome fighter.”
These days, so is Anthony Johnson, setting the stage for quite the main event in New Jersey next month. And should he win and then hold championship gold later in 2016, it would be the culmination of a journey, one he doesn’t know how he’d react.
“Conor McGregor, and I’m using him as an example, did work his way up to being a champion,” Johnson said. “He beat the right people, but he also talked his way to the top. I feel like I had to grind my way to the top more than anybody with the highs and lows and ups and downs. So if I’m able to win the title, I wish I could describe how I would feel, but honestly, I don’t know.
“My emotions would probably be all over the place. I don’t know if I’d want to laugh, to cry, to stay quiet or scream. I don’t know if I’d want to stand up, I don’t know if I’d want to sit down,” Johnson added with a laugh. “I’ll probably just be the most confused person on the planet if that ever happens.”