Anthony “Rumble” Johnson died over the weekend at the young age of 38 after a long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH). While Johnson had hinted at serious health struggles for more than one year, few knew just how serious the situation was until his manager came out in October and asked fans to, “pray for Rumble.”
Johnson had been attempting to put together a combat sports comeback with Bellator MMA, but only managed to compete once for the promotion in May 2021. In typical “Rumble” fashion, it was a nasty knockout win (watch it).
“It’s just unfortunate,” Bellator president Scott Coker said at a press conference for its upcoming event (via MMA Junkie). “I knew he was in and out of the hospital. I have texts, me and him talking two months ago. He was like, ‘Hey, man. I’m getting ready. I’m out of the hospital. I want to fight.’ And I was like, ‘Hey, there’s more to life than just fighting. Take your time and when you’re ready, and the doctors clear you.’
“I had no idea he was this ill,” Coker continued. “I think he didn’t know, maybe, I don’t know. I’ll give the family some time and I’ll try to get some more information. But right now, this came as a shock to us and the whole company. Everybody loved that guy. Our entire staff really, really cared about him. It was devastating. It was a big loss.
“Let me tell you, that was not an easy phone call to get,” he added. “I just love that guy. He was like a gentle giant. People that really got to know him, they all loved him. I was getting reports from the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times of Italy, France, anywhere where we were out there promoting fights, the local newspaper did a story on him. I’m starting to collect it, and it was fascinating. The guy was loved around the world. I think he was loved more than he knew, how much fans he had, how much impact he made.”
Coker remembers Johnson from his early days in the sport when “Rumble” was competing at 170 pounds. In 2006, Coker held his first mixed martial arts (MMA) event: Strikeforce: “Shamrock vs. Gracie.” At the time, Johnson was a teammate of one of Coker’s prospective stars, Cung Le.
“I met Anthony, I’d like to say when his career started,” Coker said. “He was at Cung Lee’s gym fighting at 170. I don’t even think he was in the UFC at that time. He was just in our community and I got to know him and follow his career and we stayed in touch, and when he became a free agent we said, ‘Oh, let’s get this guy because I think he’s a tremendous talent, and I’d really like to work with him.’
“Just getting to work with him in the last couple of years, you never think it’s going to have an ending like this so short,” Coker concluded. “So, it was a devastating day. But I’ll tell you what, we’re going to put on a great, kick-ass show for him tomorrow and attribute it to him. Bellator is going to present a big fight card, a great night of fights in honor of ‘Rumble’ tomorrow.”
Bellator 288 goes down tonight (Fri., Nov. 18, 2022) from inside Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Illinois — check out the full preview of the show here. It’s headlined by two title fights: a Light Heavyweight scrap between champion Vadim Nemkov and Corey Anderson, and Patricky Pitbull defending his Lightweight strap against Usman Nurmagomedov.