One of the heaviest hitters in the sport, Anthony Johnson, will rematch with Olympic wrestler, Daniel Cormier, for the Light Heavyweight title this Saturday (April 8, 2017) at UFC 210 inside KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York.
It’s been said before, but “Rumble” is a scary, scary man.
It’s also true that Johnson came up short opposite Cormier a little less than two years ago. Despite some positive moments early, Johnson was eventually tired and overwhelmed. The question heading into this rematch is whether or not enough has changed. Has “Rumble” gotten better? Maybe, it’s tough to say considering he’s pretty much melted each of his opponents with the first clean shot landed. Just like the first fight, we’re very likely looking at a situation where Johnson either scores the knockout quickly or slowly succumbs to his opponent’s wrestling ability.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
There’s a method behind Johnson’s brutal knockouts. Natural ability is definitely a big part of it, but Johnson has gotten far better at setting up the big shot, in large part thanks to his work with Henry Hooft.
For the most part, Johnson does not throw a ton of variety. It’s largely about landing his massive right hand in any form — over, straight, uppercut, hook etc. — and then watching his opponent wilt.
To find a home for the right hand, Johnson likes to reach out and hand-fight with his left. It’s a huge part of his game that has a large number of effects and benefits, so that’s the strategy that I chose to analyze in this week’s technique highlight.
Here’s a perfect example from his actual fights (GIF). Or another (GIF). One more (GIF). Even in Johnson’s most recent win, he used the left hand to raise Glover Teixeira’s guard before watching his reaction and crushing him with an uppercut (GIF). Notice that even after landing the kill shot, Johnson uses his left to frame Teixeira away and prevent any takedown attempt.
In short, this is Johnson’s bread and butter.
Aside from the feinting and hand-fighting, Johnson will occasionally mix in a sharp jab to keep his opponent honest. Additionally, on the rare occasion he does load up on a left hook, it’s a potential knockout punch like anything else.
While looking to land his right, Johnson will attack by throwing it as a lead as well, simply stepping towards his opponent with the potential knockout blow. Whenever Johnson looks to counter or build up a combination, his straight right should be expected.
Outside of his boxing, Johnson makes use of a few key kicking techniques. Namely, Johnson loves to step forward and fire off his switch high kick (GIF). This kick has landed on numerous opponents desperately trying to get there head out of line of Johnson's punches, making it a great tool for the Blackzilians-trained fighter. Plus, it helps prevent his foe from circling away from the right hand, trapping them in place.
In addition, Johnson has a strong low kick that he should look for more often. Since few are willing to stand and trade with Johnson, he very often has the option to kick out his opponent's trailing leg as they flee from the boxing range. He did this several times opposite Phil Davis, but Johnson could definitely take greater advantage of his strong low kicks.
At this point in his career, Johnson has proven to be a pretty difficult man to hit cleanly. He's commonly slipping, rolling under punches, or merely interrupting them with his reaching hands, and he'll always come back with heavy punches of his own. He’s not impossible to hit, but Johnson is absolutely willing to exchange, a dangerous situation for just about anyone.
Johnson's background is actually in wrestling, as he was a very successful wrestler in junior college. In the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), Johnson rarely looks for his own shot, but his takedown defense is being tested very often.
When Johnson is initiating a takedown, he usually looks for a single-leg. Once he locks in the grip, Johnson will turn the corner and dump his opponent. If the shot isn't up against the fence, Johnson's inside hand will sometimes slide up to an inside collar tie to rotate the upper body.
Additionally, Johnson will occasionally shoot for a reactionary double-leg if his opponent chases him with punches. That's rarely necessary for obvious reasons, but Johnson did put Vitor Belfort on his back a couple of times during a trademark "Phenom" blitz and shot in on Phil Davis a couple of times when "Mr. Wonderful" got extra aggressive. The reactive takedown is actually a very strong technique for strikers -- which is most certainly what "Rumble" is at this point in his career -- as it can make an opponent rethink his forward pressure, even if he is the superior grappler.
The more important part for Johnson is his takedown defense. To that end, Johnson's athleticism, distance control, more balanced striking, and improved conditioning have made him a very difficult man to take down at Light Heavyweight.
Johnson understands distance well. If he's at long range, then he's got plenty of time to react and sprawl to his opponent's shot. When he's stalking his opponent, "Rumble" generally does a good job to ensure that he's rarely fighting from inside the clinch. At that range, Johnson is using his left hand to frame his opponent and prevent shots/clinch attempts. Instead, Johnson is striking from a range in which he can land his straight right, kick effectively, and anticipate his opponent's movements.
The main exception to Johnson’s strong takedown defense came in the first fight opposite Cormier. In that bout, Johnson wound up on his back multiple times because he pursued too aggressively, lunging with punches and leaving his stance behind. He may have been able to fight off those shots or scramble back to his feet early, but letting Cormier into deep shots so often soon exhausted him.
Since Johnson has yet to score -- or to my knowledge, even attempt -- a submission inside the cage, there's obviously not a ton of offense to analyze. Considering Johnson's ability to suddenly and violently end his opponent's night with a few ground strikes, it's not hard to see why he hasn't prioritized his offensive grappling.
Defensively, four of Johnson's five losses are via submission. Since they're all rear naked chokes, it's pretty clear what the issue is. On the whole, Johnson is not being submitted JUST because of a lack of jiu-jitsu knowledge, as he did manage to defend himself from a few of Cormier's arm locks.
Instead, it's a matter of fatigue, as Johnson tends to give up his neck when completely drained.
This may just be a make-or-break fight for Johnson’s title dreams. He’s 33 years old and an 11-year professional fighter. That’s quite a bit of wear-and-tear even before factoring in his dramatic weight cuts, even if Johnson has looked incredible in his last three fights. Still, that’s not the sort of streak that lasts forever, and he may be unable to earn another shot while still in his prime if he comes up short once again.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.