Worn out, beaten down and exhausted, Anthony Johnson succumbed to a choke from Daniel Cormier in the third round of their first meeting back at UFC 187 in May 2015. This Saturday, Johnson will get a chance at redemption as he faces Cormier for a second time.
Cormier has only defended the title once since that first meeting, taking out Alexander Gustafsson in an outstanding matchup in October 2015. Two scheduled meetings with Jon Jones have fallen through, once due to a Cormier injury and the other a result of Jones' failed test for performance-enhancing drugs prior to UFC 200 last summer.
Johnson has run through each of his three opponents in less than five-and-a-half minutes, smashing Jimi Manuwa, Ryan Bader and Glover Teixeira.
Until Jones returns to action, this is the best fight the light heavyweight division has to offer.
Record: 18-1 (6 KO, 5 SUB, 7 DEC)
Reach: 72.5 inches
Cormier has grown and evolved as a fighter since his first fight with Johnson, steadily shifting away from the mobile outside striking game he preferred as a heavyweight to the swarming pressure he has tended to use in his last several fights.
This is a better approach for Cormier. He's at his best grinding away in the clinch and on the ground, and pressure is the most reliable way to get him into his wheelhouse. A crisp jab covers Cormier's forward movement while sharp cage-cutting footwork limits his opponent's escape routes. This either brings Cormier into the pocket, where he does a good job of moving his head as he exchanges, or carries him into the clinch.
Either option is acceptable for Cormier. He's a good pocket puncher with a bit of pop in his hands and good instincts on the counter, and while his head movement and defense aren't exactly textbook, they are effective at minimizing the damage he takes at close range.
Still, there's no getting around the fact that this approach is more dangerous for Cormier. He doesn't fight like a short guy—he jabs and throws kicks to maximize his reach—but there's no getting around the fact that he has a long way to cover to get into the pocket or the clinch.
That means he's constantly there to be hit. His desire to throw combinations and not just get to close range but stay there as long as possible, in order to make his opponent as uncomfortable as possible and keep the pressure on, makes that an even more prominent issue.
Once he gets inside, though, Cormier is a monster. The clinch is his wheelhouse, and he especially excels at driving his opponent into the fence and pinning him in place with the combination of head pressure and an underhook or wrist control. Once under control, Cormier pummels his opponent with a steady diet of knees and powerful uppercuts to the body and head.
Takedowns add another potent dimension to this grinding inside game. Cormier excels at hitting go-behinds in the clinch and then dragging his opponent to the mat, and in straight wrestling exchanges, the former Olympian has a full arsenal of single-leg lifts, doubles, trips and throws. He's stifling, technically sound and exceptionally strong.
Cormier is a grinder on the mat. He prefers a loose style of control that allows his opponent to move under him as he switches smoothly between wrestling rides and more traditional work from the top. This loose control wears his opponent down, but when the mood strikes, Cormier is perfectly capable of being more stifling.
In either case, he drops bombing ground strikes with real power and passes with ease. He isn't a huge submission threat, but he'll try for the occasional kimura or arm triangle and he can finish with chokes from the back.
Record: 22-5 (16 KO, 6 DEC)
Reach: 78 inches
Johnson might be the most terrifying puncher in the sport. He's a bruiser, but one with a serious dose of technical skill to temper his natural aggression and apply his power in slick, repeatable ways.
Counters are the heart and soul of Johnson's game, but he's not a hang-back, wait-for-openings kind of counterpuncher; instead, he prefers to stalk his opponent, using his footwork and heavy round kicks to cut off lateral movement and escape angles. When his opponent starts to feel the pressure and fires off a shot or two to create space and back him off, Johnson is ready to respond with a vicious combination.
Johnson's timing, shot selection and triggers are all outstanding. It's almost impossible to throw a shot at him, whether a punch or kick, without eating something far more punishing and dangerous in return. In other words, Johnson excels at seizing and holding the initiative, even when he's not throwing the first shot.
There's nothing particularly fancy about Johnson's striking arsenal. He probes behind his jab and fires off hard low kicks, but makes most of his hay with his right hand, which he mixes up as an overhand, straight and uppercut. What's special is his ability to pick the right shot at the right time, moving around, under and between his opponent's defensive guard.
Things don't get any better for Johnson's opponents in the clinch. He's exceptionally strong and is perfectly capable of controlling with a single-collar tie or a frame, then landing uppercuts and hooks with his free hand. He rarely looks to spend much time there, though.
Wrestling is another strong suit for Johnson. He shoots an explosive and technically sound double-leg takedown that he could probably stand to use a bit more, while defensively he's shot-proof against all but the best wrestlers. The crux of his takedown defense is distance management, though, and when he gets overaggressive, he's prone to giving his opponent his hips.
Johnson is a monster from top position, delivering vicious ground strikes at a rapid pace. He moves smoothly between wrestling rides and more traditional top control and passes. Submissions aren't his specialty, though, and he hasn't attempted one in more than six years.
The real problem with Johnson's game isn't his skills or his physicality, or even his much-maligned endurance, but his ability to stay calm and centered if he loses his grasp on the initiative.
When things start going against Johnson, even for a moment, he tends to crumble under the pressure. He panics, which raises his heart rate and quickly tires him out as he desperately tries to escape whatever bad position he happens to find himself in. This is why four of his five losses have come by rear-naked choke: He gets tired and gives up his back in an attempt to find a way out.
Johnson -125 (bet $125 to win $100), Cormier +105 (bet $100 to win $105)
This is a razor-thin fight. Their first matchup featured Johnson blasting Cormier with heavy punches and head kicks, but giving up takedowns and clinch control that eventually wore him down and allowed Cormier to beat him up from the top before finishing with a submission.
It seems clear that Cormier will try to pressure: That has increasingly been his approach since their first meeting and the fact that Johnson crumbled the first time probably won't dissuade him. The real question is whether Johnson will try to meet pressure with pressure, exposing himself to the threat of Cormier's takedown and clinch grinding, or whether he'll try to fight against type and stay away.
The latter is the smarter game plan, but the former embraces Johnson's strengths, and it's not a given that a better-prepared Johnson couldn't stay aggressive and still manage to stuff Cormier's entries. That kind of measured aggression worked well for Johnson against Phil Davis, for example, though Cormier is more likely to stand his ground and commit to a firefight.
Cormier will have to be willing to throw hands with Johnson to set up his clinch entries and takedowns, and that's both his path to victory and where he's vulnerable. He's hittable and has been knocked down in two of his last three fights, so the real issue is whether he can survive long enough to impose his inside game.
With some serious reservations, the pick is Johnson by knockout in the second round.
Betting odds courtesy of OddsShark and current on Tuesday, April 4.
Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. For the history enthusiasts out there, he also hosts The Fall of Rome Podcast on the end of the Roman Empire. He can be found on Twitter and on Facebook.