It's hard to imagine a better comeback story than the one Anthony Johnson wrote for himself during the last four months.
Roughly two-and-a-half years after Johnson was fired for a chronic failure to make weight, his ascension into the UFC's light heavyweight elite is arguably 2014's biggest revelation so far. He cruised through back-to-back appearances against 205-pound stalwarts Phil Davis and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and now sits poised to play a big part in what the fight company hopes is a red-hot second half.
In fact, perhaps Johnson has been a little too good since rising from the ashes of his previous career. At this point, it's going to be tough for matchmakers to find him a third fight that doesn't feel like a step backward.
By flummoxing Davis over 15 minutes at UFC 172 and exterminating Nogueira in fewer than 45 seconds at last weekend's UFC on Fox 12, Johnson already looks like a worthy No. 1 contender. Yet with champion Jon Jones set to defend against Daniel Cormier in September and the injured Alexander Gustafsson waiting in the wings, Johnson is about to learn the unofficial motto of UFC title hopefuls:
It's an understatement to say the 30-year-old Georgia native has been impressive since ending his disastrous dalliance with extreme weight cuts. Now that he's stopped nearly killing himself trying to make 170 or 185 pounds, it turns out Johnson may be one of the best light heavyweights in the world.
Since May 2012, he's piled up eight straight victories—a tally that includes a 195-pound catchweight fight against Dave Branch and a one-night stand at heavyweight against fellow UFC returnee Andrei Arlovski. Mostly, though, he's terrorized the 205-pound division, amassing five stoppages during his six appearances there.
File poor Nogueira among those victims.
Their nationally televised bout had all the hallmarks of a showcase fight for Johnson given that Rumble rolled in as more than a 5-1 favorite, according to BestFightOdds.com. The UFC's promotional machine did its best to prop Nogueira up as a threat, but in the end, things went even worse for him than we feared.
Before the fight company's broadcast team could even get through its spiel bragging on the 38-year-old veteran's boxing skills, Johnson stung him with a pair of uppercuts. Already hurt, Nogueira backed against the cage, where Johnson finished the job with a series of winging punches, all but one of them coming from his right hand.
It was just the second time in 27 career fights that Nogueira conceded a stoppage, and despite the fact this was Johnson’s bout to win all along, the message was clear—Rumble version 2.0 means serious business.
And maybe that's the rub.
A brief glance at the UFC's official 205-pound rankings—where Johnson is currently No. 5—reveals there aren't many good immediate options for him that don't feel like letdowns.
There has been talk of matching him with the winner of Ryan Bader vs. Ovince St. Preux, but that only makes sense if you believe Bader-St. Preux passes muster as a main event in the first place. We already know Johnson won't fight teammate Rashad Evans, and that reduces the list of potential meaningful foes to a very short one indeed.
Basically, there's Glover Teixeira (No. 4) and Dan Henderson (No. 7).
Nobody wants to see Johnson take the legendary Henderson's head off his shoulders, and as Bleacher Report's Jeremy Botter noted on Monday, Teixeira is already reportedly headed for a matchup with Davis.
Botter wrote that fight's not a done deal yet, so it's possible the UFC could pull Teixeira and book him against Rumble instead. But that seems like a lot of trouble for a bout that has its own obvious drawbacks.
Teixeira just got steamrolled by Jones at UFC 172, and it doesn't make a ton of sense to match Johnson against a fighter coming off a loss. Why take the chance the slumping Brazilian might spoil the up-and-comer's momentum with one of his predictable but potent punching combinations?
No, from a pure, competition-based standpoint, the best next opponent for Johnson is actually pretty obvious: It's Gustafsson.
Conventional wisdom says the UFC will still want to save the 27-year-old Swede for a big-money second bout against Jones. However, considering the innumerable ways that plan could get fouled up between now and early January, there's plenty of upside in sending him back to the cage as soon as he's ready.
Gustafsson posted a video online on Tuesday saying the torn meniscus that knocked him out of his rematch against Jones will only take a few weeks to heal. If that's true, then it might make more sense to match him up against Johnson than have him wait on the sideline.
The winner would take sole possession of No. 1 contender status, and the loser wouldn't suffer a terrible blow to his reputation. It would merely take a fight or two to rehabilitate him.
In a perfect world, Johnson would be allowed to sit back and wait for the current logjam at the top of the division play itself out, but the UFC's breakneck schedule makes that impossible. With umpteen events still on the schedule for this year, the fight company needs bodies to fill them, especially fresh, popular talents with a penchant for knockouts.
Fact is, Johnson's going to land somewhere while Jones and Cormier settle their business.
No decision the UFC can make with him seems perfect, so it will be interesting to see which eggs matchmakers ultimately decide to break.
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