More than two years after being excised from the UFC and left to pick up what was left of his tattered mixed martial arts career, Anthony Johnson proved once again it's never too late for a comeback story.
Johnson, in his first UFC fight since January 2012, shocked the world with his unanimous-decision victory over Phil Davis, beating high odds and slowing the momentum of perhaps the sport's most red-hot light heavyweight. With a flurry of punches from the opening bell and ice-cold disposition, one would have never guessed which one of these men was fighting for his career.
Johnson was dominant from the opening bell. He left nothing to chance. He stalked around the ring and waited for his openings in the first round, and when Davis let his guard down for a second, Johnson began striking like he was trying to recreate the lyrics to Jay Z's "Heaven." Arm, leg, leg, arm, head, this was indeed God body but not by the man anyone expected.
Davis, who to his credit showed great toughness, saw a huge cut above his eye by the end of the first five minutes. Johnson's combination of power, speed and sterling strategy made it clear from the opening seconds he was not to be taken as an underdog. By the time the bell rung to close the first round, the entire narrative focus had shifted.
The next two rounds didn't go much differently. Johnson stalked, punched and kicked Davis to near-knockout status multiple times, as the No. 4 contender in the light heavyweight division merely tried to stay off the ground. Davis rarely mounted anything resembling momentum. Not one of Davis' eight takedown attempts was successful—a death knell for a former collegiate wrestling star so reliant on his ground work.
When the judges came out with the scorecards, it was a mere formality. There would be no C.J. Ross in this judging pool—it was impossible. With three consecutive 30-27 scorecards, Johnson staked an early claim in the light heavyweight division while sending a message that his second UFC chance would not go like the first.
“Every win is a great win, this one included,” Johnson told reporters, per MMA Junkie. “He had good movement; he’s a very evasive fighter—not to mention he has an incredibly hard head. I didn’t have any octagon jitters. I felt right at home back in the UFC."
"Home" would not have been the word to describe Johnson's relationship with UFC prior to Saturday night.
Johnson's last fight in the UFC was a first-round submission loss at the hands of Vitor Belfort at UFC 142. A former rising contender, Johnson's issues with making weight became so pronounced that UFC president Dana White had enough. When Johnson came in overweight—resulting in a catchweight bout—and then turned in a borderline embarrassing performance against Belfort, White released him from the promotion.
“That was one of the most unprofessional things I’ve ever seen,” White told reporters at the time. “The guy was at 170 pounds. He moved up to 185 pounds so this wouldn’t happen anymore, and this is the worst weightcutting disaster he’s ever had. He almost ruined the co-main event here in Brazil. I don’t know what else to say about that one. I’m not happy about it.”
It was the third time Johnson missed weight in his first 11 UFC bouts. White promised to cut and ban Johnson, who bounced around from Titan Fighting Championship to the World Series of Fighting during his hiatus, if he failed to make weight again.
“That’s the man who changed me,” Johnson said of White. “He made me turn into a beast.”
Now, the question opens of what comes next. Johnson was one of the strongest underdogs on the card, per Oddsshark. Davis was the fourth-ranked fighter in the light heavyweight division. Johnson was fighting in his first light heavyweight division bout in UFC.
Yet Johnson was so good, it calls into question not only Davis' long-term status—he's probably at least three straight wins away from a title fight at this point—but also what White can do with his redemptive star.
Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who earned a unanimous-decision win over Glover Teixeira on Saturday, already has a rematch with Alexander Gustafsson in his crosshairs. Rashad Evans still has no set return date from his ACL tear. Maybe Dan Henderson could be an option if he defeats Daniel Cormier at UFC 173, or Teixeira and Johnson could agree to link up.
White needs to put Johnson in the ring against a test and attempt to capitalize on the momentum soon. I doubt he's trusting in Johnson enough to put him alone on a main card—he would probably be a co-headliner at this point—but what we saw Saturday night was the grounds for something special.
At age 30, Johnson is still more than young enough to compete toward the top of the division for the foreseeable future. His combination of hard striking and takedown defense presents a challenge to everyone he steps into the ring with.
The version of Johnson in Baltimore was not the man who left UFC two years ago. He was hardened, motivated by the two-year absence that nearly stripped his livelihood away. The man who talked before the bout was one far more mature than we'd seen him at any point. The result was bar none the best I can ever remember Johnson being in an Octagon.
For Johnson and the UFC, just one question remains: Can he stay motivated enough to keep it up?
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