Brutally powerful kickboxer, Anthony Johnson, is set to take on former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title challenger, Alexander Gustafsson, this Saturday (Jan. 24, 2015) at UFC on FOX 14 inside the Tele2 Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.
Johnson's career is unlike any other. After being known as a huge, powerful, but very inconsistent welterweight, "Rumble" decided to try his hand at the middleweight division in order to make the weight cut easier. Despite being allowed an extra 15 pounds, Johnson still missed weight by quite a bit, losing his post on the UFC roster in his defeat the next day.
Yet Johnson is back, and at light heavyweight. Finally at his proper weight class, Johnson has proven himself an elite fighter and truly looks like a destroyer. If he manages to get by Alexander Gustafsson, Johnson will have earned a shot against the division's ruler, Jon "Bones" Jones.
Let's take a closer look and find out if Johnson has the necessary skills to do so.
Johnson has hit with power since the start of his career, but he has grown tremendously as a kickboxer under the watchful eye of the Blackzilian's striking coach, Henri Hooft. He still chases the knockout vehemently, but "Rumble" is now much more fluid with his combinations, movement, and defense.
One clear improvement to Johnson's game is his ability to stay balanced and keep his feet underneath him. Not only does this significantly bolster his takedown defense, but it allows him to throw with power on any occasion. Whether "Rumble" is stalking his opponent, slipping strikes, or feinting, he's constantly ready to fire off his punches.
Speaking of, Johnson feints quite well. He's frequently shifting his hand position and reaching out a bit towards his opponent, which allows him to parry attacks, judge distance, and disguise his own offense.
Though he's not very active with his lead hand, Johnson is definitely still dangerous. Every so often, Johnson will stab at his opponent with a nice jab. Plus, he commonly begins combinations with his left hook, a strike which definitely packs heat.
Above all else, Johnson is a tremendous knockout artist, and he's well aware of that. Much of Johnson's power sits in his right hand, so Johnson throws it frequently, both as a lead and in combination.
Recently, Johnson really began working his right uppercut. Against Phil Davis, Johnson was able to easily anticipate the NCAA champions shots, as Davis took one nearly every time Johnson committed. Johnson recognized this early and began following his jab with a mid-level uppercut aimed to punish Davis during level changes.
Even more recently, Johnson quickly dispatched of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira with a series of uppercuts. When a fighter covers up against the fence and doesn't move, he's allowing his opponent to land free shots. Against "Rumble," that's an incredibly bad situation to be in.
As mentioned, Johnson very commonly stalks his opponent, looking to explode forward with a power shot or three. While he moves forward, Johnson is also ready to counter anything his opponent tries to attack with. Usually, Johnson will avoid/deflect his opponents attack and then explode into about three punches of his own. Often, Johnson finishes his counter flurry with a kick, which is an excellent strategy.
In order to counter strike, it's often important to slip, block, or parry at least one blow. Johnson does this quite well, frequently coming out of slips or rolls with heavy punches. Overall, the Blackzilian is quite difficult to hit, as he reacts well and is violent with his returns.
Additionally, Johnson will simply meet his opponent's attack with punches. There are very few men in an division who would happily go punch-for-punch with "Rumble," and Johnson is confident that his opponent will get the worst of the exchange or at least back away.
Finally, Johnson has a pretty effective kicking game overall. He mostly throws low kicks, attacking the inside and outside of his opponent's leg after setting up the strike with some feints. In his victory over Davis, Johnson twice used an oblique kick, except to his opponent's body. That clearly makes the term "oblique kick" wrong in this situation, but it's the easiest comparison I can make and definitely an interesting tool in Johnson's arsenal.
Outside of his right cross, Johnson's switch high kick is his most common fight finisher. Against a fighter like Johnson, it's not uncommon for fighters to slip away from his powerful right hand often, as a single blow could change the fight dramatically. This, combined with simply being put out of position by Johnson's punches, is what allows Johnson to find a home for his switch high kick so often.
Johnson was a junior college wrestling champion, though he often uses those skills in order to keep the bout standing. When he does look to drag the fight to the mat, Johnson doesn't use any overly complicated techniques, just excellent timing and physicality.
For the most part, Johnson likes to use the single leg takedown. After securing the grip, Johnson will looks to turn the corner. If his attempt is in the center of the Octagon, Johnson will sometimes use his inside hand to rotate his opponent's upper body.
In addition, "Rumble" will attempt a reactionary double leg if his opponent really charges him with strikes. This doesn't happen very often (who wants to rush Anthony Johnson) but Johnson will definitely mix it into his game. For example, Johnson attempted this on Vitor Belfort during his trademark blitz a couple of times and even shot in on Phil Davis when "Mr. Wonderful" pushed forward with some punches.
Defensively, Johnson has a number of things going for him. First and foremost, the man is an athletic specimen. His hips are incredibly strong, which often causes opponents to simply bounce off of him. Plus, he's so physically strong that attempting to grind him in the clinch is very difficult.
In addition, Johnson likes to maintain a pretty decent amount of distance when he strikes. He'll definitely stalk his opponent, but he's rarely fighting from a phone booth. Instead, Johnson is striking from a range in which he can land his straight right, kick effectively, and anticipate his opponent's movements.
Those factors, Johnson's ability to remained balanced while punching, and his improved conditioning are all major components of why Johnson is so difficult to take down.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
If Johnson has an offensive submission game, no one outside of his training partners has seen it. Outside of a couple half-hearted choke attempts on Dan Hardy all those years ago -- 2011 for those curious -- I cannot recall any submission attempts coming from "Rumble," who is unranked in jiu-jitsu.
Defensively, Johnson has experienced his problems, but it's hard to pinpoint the actual issue. Could his three rear naked choke losses be due to weak defense? Definitely possible. However, it's equally likely that fatigue played a serious role in each of those losses, as Johnson was killing himself to make weight, which slows responses and is demoralizing.
Similarly, it's impossible to know whether Johnson has improved his defense, since no one has been able to take him down recently. Hopefully, answers about Johnson's grappling will arise in his next couple bouts.
Best chance for success
As is the case in most of Johnson's fights, he wants to keep this bout standing. Gustafsson has shown a willingness to drag it to the mat when faced with powerful strikes, and unlike Phil Davis, has the striking tools to distract Johnson from that strategy.
Therefore, it's very important that Johnson keeps his feet under him at all times. If he reaches for the tall Swede too often, he may find himself underneath "The Mauler." On the bright side, it would give Johnson a chance to demonstrate his defensive grappling.
In addition, Johnson needs to be careful not to get over-aggressive in stalking Gustafsson. The Swede will have a slight reach and decent height advantage, meaning he could land shots as his opponent moves into range without fear of the counter. To nullify this, Johnson needs to be prepared to parry at all times.
Finally, Johnson does have the overall power advantage. Whenever Gustafsson comes towards him with a combination, Johnson needs to be ready to slip/block punches and explode forward with counters. Those exchanges are his best chance to land big shots, as Gustafsson sometimes keeps his head too high when he moves forward with punches.
Will Anthony Johnson continue his rise toward the title, or can Gustafsson earn a second scrap with Jon Jones?