UFC Blows Latest Chance to Get It Right with Anthony 'Rumble' Johnson

Sydnie Jones@syd1138Featured ColumnistAugust 26, 2015

AP Images

Anthony "Rumble" Johnson has gotten more chances outside the cage than some fighters get inside it. In less than a year, the top-ranked UFC light heavyweight has emerged unscathed from two third-party investigations.

The latest probe centered on an incident Johnson self-reported in a Facebook post that he later deleted. He boasted about pulling a yoga mat out from underneath a woman and throwing it across the gym because she spoke to him in a way he didn't like. He promised to do the exact same if she got in his way again.

Screenshot of Anthony Johnson's Original FB post
Screenshot of Anthony Johnson's Original FB postScreenshot

Johnson belittled the woman, insulting her appearance and body with condescending and dehumanizing language, telling her not to run her mouth again, as it would be a battle she couldn't win.

The situation left the woman in tears, a reaction Johnson seemed to neither believe nor understand. He said he was unfazed that she may take to social media, claiming he'd been through worse, although he didn't specify what that was.

Maybe it was when he pleaded no contest to and was subsequently convicted for charges of domestic violence in 2010? Or when accusations from two different women came out last fall?

The UFC released a statement Monday night, in light of the fallout from this altercation:

Following a thorough investigation by a third-party law firm, UFC® is extremely disappointed with Anthony Johnson’s recent actions, as the organization does not tolerate behavior of this nature from any athletes under contract with the UFC. Johnson personally apologized to the woman he verbally offended at a Florida gym last week and for the insensitive comments he made on social media afterwards. The woman accepted Johnson’s apology and indicated a desire to put this unfortunate matter behind them. In order to ensure these situations do not happen in the future, Johnson has agreed to participate in counseling and UFC will support him through this process. Johnson has also agreed to make a donation to a Florida-based women’s charity.

In short, perplexing.

The UFC is "extremely disappointed" by his recent actions and "does not tolerate behavior of this nature" from athletes? Apparently, the UFC is operating on a special, secret definition of "tolerate," because that's all it has done with Johnson. We asked the UFC via email to elaborate on what it means by "zero tolerance," and the UFC declined to do so.

First, the company tolerated his 2010 conviction despite a supposed "zero-tolerance" policy. And now it is tolerating behavior of a nature it says it "does not tolerate." He hasn't been suspended or fined. The fact Johnson is getting counseling and making a donation of some sort to a Florida-based women's charity is great and all, but is that the UFC's definition of not tolerating his actions?

How does that ensure "these situations" won't happen again down the road? Hopefully it's a good counselor, because the 52 weeks of counseling Johnson reportedly received as part of his sentencing in 2010 haven't stopped "these situations" from happening.

And why does the statement lack any mention of the physical altercation that occurred, as detailed by Johnson himself? The rant is everywhere. Does the UFC think glossing over the most alarming aspect of his behavior lends its decision credibility?

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 23:  Anthony Johnson backstage during the UFC 187 event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 23, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

While some may take this act of aggression lightly, prosecutor Georgette Oden told me what Johnson says he did qualifies as assault.

From the The 2015 Florida Statutes: "An 'assault' is an intentional, unlawful threat by word or act to do violence to the person of another, coupled with an apparent ability to do so, and doing some act which creates a well-founded fear in such other person that such violence is imminent."

What Johnson did to the woman in the gym was unacceptable in and of itself. For any MMA promotion, an incident of this nature should be adequate justification for releasing a fighter. And given Johnson's alarming past, it makes it all the more damaging.

Johnson has been a red flag since June 2009, when he was arrested for domestic violence in California. He pleaded no-contest, a decision which, in California, necessitates both filling out a four-page document and having the court explain to the defendant that by not contesting the charges, he agrees the court can find him guilty of them.

But if you ask Johnson about it, as Brett Okamoto at ESPN.com did, he is the hapless victim of a confusing legal system and suboptimal counsel:

I didn’t understand the law as much as I should have in 2009. I pled no-contest because that’s what my lawyer told me to do. I wanted it to be over with. The courts kept pushing it back, pushing it back, and I said, 'Is there any way we can get this done, today?' I didn't know that saying no-contest would be taken in the public as, 'I did everything she said.'

His lawyer at the time, Michael Cardoza, described Johnson’s decision a little differently to me at WomensMMA.com: "We never make a client do anything they don’t want to do. That was his and his decision alone. He was advised of everything. He wanted it over with."

Following that conviction, two more women over the next five years accused Johnson of domestic violence, one of whom claimed to be the mother of his children. These allegations, which Johnson denied, resulted in nothing except a brief suspension by the UFC in 2014, which ended when both the plaintiff and the court dismissed charges stemming from the alleged 2012 incident.

Per the statement the UFC released on its website

The person who filed a civil temporary protection order against UFC contender Anthony Johnson last September voluntarily dismissed their complaint last week in the Florida Circuit Court. Before granting a dismissal of the case, the presiding judge independently questioned the alleging party regarding their voluntary intentions, and thereafter the judge dismissed the entire matter. 

Less than a year ago on Fox Sports Live (h/t David St. Martin of MMAFighting.com), UFC President Dana White claimed the UFC has always held a staunch position on domestic violence among its ranks:

"We've been like that since day one…There's one thing that you never bounce back from and that's putting your hands on a woman."

Except, the UFC hasn’t. Because Johnson is still there, despite the 2010 conviction Dana White seemingly remains ignorant of (warning: NSFW language). 

Johnson was arrested in 2009 for domestic violence and convicted in 2010. Allegations of an incident in 2012 came out last fall. A police report was filed alleging domestic violence in March 2014. And now, in 2015, Johnson is going on Facebook and boasting about terrorizing a woman at his gym.

This is the story of someone with a short fuse either losing control or feeling so entitled he thought his response was warranted. The conviction alone was justification for his release. This most recent incident more than justifies his release; it necessitates it.

Although he later deleted the post, his tweets that followed not only confirmed the incident but were just as damning (warning: NSFW language):

Anthony Johnson @Anthony_Rumble

@IanBainMMA I do my best but when ppl do dumb shit it annoys me. I only told the short version. I skip the part when she was talking shit

Anthony Johnson @Anthony_Rumble

@IanBainMMA to me before I got up and threw the yoga mat. Nobody fell down or got hurt or threaten anyone. I would've never let it go there

Just as he did in the Facebook diatribe, Johnson shifts the blame to the woman for doing "dumb s--t" and "talking s--t."

Anthony Johnson @Anthony_Rumble

@NakedGambling yup

Not only is the woman responsible for angering him, but she got what she deserved.

It’s no wonder Johnson doesn't understand why she was crying. This is apparently the transactional communication style of his hierarchy, where people who aren’t a threat to him must defer or accept the consequence they’ve earned.

The UFC already faces the perception that MMA is the most violent sport, with opponents routinely decrying it as bloodthirsty brutality. The division between sport and violence needs to be strictly delineated, and physical aggression outside the cage must be met with severe penalties. This is vital if the UFC wants its fighters to be considered professional athletes and MMA to be accepted as a professional sport.

The UFC's lack of action creates a negative space where Johnson's behavior speaks for the company. And what's being said is that certain behavior, displayed on a consistent basis, is acceptable. Despite what the UFC says are its policies and despite the stern language used in its statements, by doing nothing in actuality, the UFC is telling us everything we need to know about what it takes seriously. And it's not domestic violence or hostility toward women. 

According to warning signs meticulously laid out by various experts, Johnson exhibits traits of someone with an abusive personality. He operates within a culture that protects him and works for an organization that prefers to jerry-rig the patching up of looming PR disasters rather than execute policies that reflect the reality of domestic violence.

Former FBI Supervisory Special Agent Alan C. Brantley provides 16 warning signs of abusive personalities. Among them are:

  • Blames others for problems
  • Blames others for feelings
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Past battering
  • Threats of violence
  • Breaking or striking objects
  • Any force during an argument

The last four above are strong indicators of the likelihood of future physical abuse. We know one of them is true, and the other three were exhibited in the gym incident, with a stranger. All seven apply either to the incident Johnson wrote about or the rant itself.

list of characteristics of abusive men, summarized from The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics, includes several more signs that seem to apply to how Johnson has presented himself. In particular, though, are denial, minimization and victim-blaming, described as "Refusing to acknowledge abusive behavior (e.g. she fell), not acknowledging the seriousness of his behavior and its effects (e.g., it's just a scratch), blaming the victim (e.g., she drove me to it; she made it up because I have a new girlfriend)."

Johnson refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of his behavior and its effects, first in the rant, claiming she was "fake crying," and again on Twitter when he said, "nobody fell down or got hurt or threaten [sic] anyone. I would’ve never let it go there." He also blamed the woman—again, first in the rant, when he said she was running her mouth, and then again on Twitter, citing her "s--t-talking" and "dumb s--t."

This pattern is evident in what little he said to Okamoto about his conviction, as well: "We were both just young. Neither one of us got physical with each other. We were just doing whatever we could to get under each other’s skin. To this day, we still talk. We’ve both apologized."

Here he refuses to acknowledge the behavior, going so far as to deny it—despite police reports that Eric Kurhi of the Daily Review (h/t San Jose Mercury News) says stated they both had injuries. He minimized the seriousness of his behavior by suggesting they were equally culpable in the actions that led to his conviction, and he implies a degree of blame on her part by claiming she apologized.

The rationale his lawyer Cardoza provided to Kurhi at the time is literally textbook victim-blaming. "These charges are very easily made by a woman who is upset. She is upset because he was dating (her), then he met another woman and married that woman. Of course she's upset."

And overarching all of this is the common response Johnson has had when confronted about the conviction and allegations, calling them "pure comedy" and saying concerns about the allegations are "a f--king  joke(warning: NFSW language). While the two allegations not resulting in charges may have exonerated Johnson legally, his response to the topic feels pointedly flippant and smug.

But this time around, following the backlash, Johnson issued what he considered an apology:

Screenshot of Johnson's Apology on Facebook
Screenshot of Johnson's Apology on FacebookScreenshot

Not only is that a drastic turnaround in record time, and conveniently coinciding with the UFC announcing its investigation, but even within the apology, Johnson has failed to recognize the gravity of his actions. After admitting he was wrong, he says he responded the way he did because he’s human. He says he was "rude" to the woman and mentions the "pretty nasty things" he said about her. And he’s sorry to all of us that we witnessed him him "getting upset."

There’s no mention of pulling the yoga mat from under a woman and throwing it across the gym. Or scaring her so much she cried.

Johnson has given us ample information on his modus operandi. So what, exactly, was the UFC having the third-party law firm investigate? In this instance, it has a firsthand account from Johnson of what he did and said. Did the company hope to unearth enough circumstantial details to rationalize it? 

Happily (for the UFC at least), per the company's own statement, "the woman accepted Johnson’s apology and indicated a desire to put this unfortunate matter behind them." 

As before, the situation fading away on its own, following a third-party investigation, is apparently enough for the UFC to sweep it under the rug and move on as though nothing was ever dirtied.

Perhaps the UFC does have a "zero-tolerance" policy, and we've erred in assuming the conventional definition where everyone starts at zero. Maybe UFC fighters start at a negative. If so, it takes apparently more than two incidents to get a fighter to the "zero-tolerance" tolerance. So what will it take for the UFC to enact its soft-shoe zero-tolerance policy against Johnson? If video leaks of Johnson pulling the yoga mat from underneath a woman and throwing it across the gym, would that be enough? 

The conviction five years ago should have been enough. We really don't want another "unfortunate matter" to force the UFC's hand. Yet this latest situation wasn't enough of a line-crossing to force the UFC to draw its own lines about acceptable conduct from its fighters.

It's not too late for the organization to course-correct. It can still set a precedent. It should pull Johnson from UFC 191 (scheduled for Sept. 5) and cut him. Sending an unambiguous message that certain behavior won't be tolerated is the easiest decision it will ever have to make. 

Ideally, the UFC would cut him, in part as a gesture of sincerity regarding everything it has said about its policies. But given all the UFC has rationalized allowing so far, that seems unlikely. 

When I reached out to the UFC about its third-party investigation into Johnson, the company replied with a link to the statement on Johnson. Asked if we had any more questions, and, failing to have answered the first set, I replied back with more: 

1. Does the UFC in fact have a "zero-tolerance" policy for domestic violence? If so, could you point me to that? And if so, why has Johnson been exempted from it?
2. Did the UFC/third-party law firm not determine that this was an act of assault? The state of Florida would consider it an assault: From Florida’s Statutes: "An 'assault' is an intentional, unlawful threat by word or act to do violence to the person of another, coupled with an apparent ability to do so, and doing some act which creates a well-founded fear in such other person that such violence is imminent."

3. Johnson personally apologized to the woman he verbally offended at a Florida gym last week—Why does your official statement on the matter not mention that he physically pulled a yoga mat out from underneath the woman? Again, an act that would be considered assault by the state of Florida. 

4. Did the UFC decide not to penalize Johnson because the woman is not pressing charges? If the woman had decided to press charges, would that have affected the decision? 
5. Even if the woman is not pressing charges, what ultimately led to the UFC deciding to stand by Johnson once againwhen he clearly has a track record of hostile behavior toward women? Does the UFC not worry that its continued support of Johnson may seem like it is passively endorsing the behavior and in fact does not have a "zero-tolerance" policy?

The UFC responded back that it had no further comment on the matter. 

So it appears, for now at least, Johnson will fight on at UFC 191.

Perhaps the most honest part of the UFC's official statement on the situation was its decision to include a plug at the end for his upcoming fight: "Johnson will face Jimi Manuwa at UFC 191: Johnson vs. Dodson 2 on Saturday, September 5, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas."

At least now he'll be able to work off some of his anger inside the cage opposite a fellow 205-pound man, instead of on a crying woman and her yoga mat.