Nick Baldwin discusses what Anthony Johnson’s MMA return means to the UFC heavyweight division and potential matchups for his first fight back.
Anthony Johnson’s retirement was rather brief.
The former UFC light heavyweight contender’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz of Dominance MMA Management, revealed on Monday’s The MMA Hour that “Rumble” is planning a return to mixed martial arts. But there’s a twist: should he come back to the Octagon, it won’t be at 205 pounds. Instead, Johnson is expected to make his debut in the UFC heavyweight division.
Johnson, who suddenly retired after a second-round submission loss to champion Daniel Cormier at UFC 210 in April, surprising the entire MMA world, has a familiar story. It’s a story we hear about often. Fighters retire, but they can’t stay away. They try something else, but don’t like it. Or maybe they simply don’t have anything else; fighting is what defines them. Whatever the case may be, many fighters who step away from MMA, especially if it seems like an early retirement, find their way back to the sport. A fighter’s first retirement is often not their last.
Johnson’s situation isn’t any different. So I’m not surprised he’s probably coming back, and nor should you be.
But we have to question his motives: either over the past six months he has just realized he loves fighting after all, his medical marijuana business didn’t work out, or he didn’t end up getting the off-field NFL job — and as a result of the latter two, he needs money.
Ultimately, I’m looking forward to seeing Johnson back in the cage. But if he’s coming back with one foot still out of the door, he should stay retired. I don’t want to see Johnson return unless he’s the best version of himself. That said, it’s very possible he financially doesn’t have a choice, and that’s the sad reality of the sport.
Thankfully, however, Johnson hasn’t taken an outrageous amount of damage throughout his career, mostly because he’s been rather dominant in recent years and since moving up to light heavyweight. This isn’t a situation where it’d be unhealthy and unsafe for “Rumble” to return.
I’m most excited to see Johnson at heavyweight. The Florida-based athlete has competed once in the heavyweight division in his career, but it was against Andrei Arlovski in WSOF. In recent years, Rumble has fought at 205 pounds, where he fought for the title twice and was a top contender, and he has been as low as welterweight in the past.
Currently topped by Stipe Miocic, heavyweight is just as shallow as light heavyweight. Many of its contenders, such as Junior dos Santos and Fabricio Werdum, have been around for years and won’t be here much longer. There are few rising stars to create some life in the weight class. Johnson isn’t exactly an up-and-coming prospect, but he can certainly add some intrigue to the division.
It makes sense for Johnson, too, because the path to another title fight is much clearer at heavyweight than light heavyweight. Johnson has already been tapped out twice by current 205-pound king Daniel Cormier, so it’s unlikely he would get another crack at DC anytime soon. So if he’s going after a UFC belt, up a weight class in the way to go.
Upon departing from MMA earlier this year, Johnson left the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) testing pool. Per the UFC anti-doping program policy, returning fighters who left the UFC on their own terms must undergo six months of random drug testing after re-entering the pool before competing. Johnson’s manager said he and Rumble are meeting with UFC executives this week, so if Johnson re-enters the pool as soon as this week, he’ll be eligible to fight in early April 2018.
That’s just far enough away that the UFC heavyweight division may look slightly different come Johnson’s return. Miocic will probably defend the title once before then, and two important fights, Alistair Overeem vs. Francis Ngannou and Werdum vs. Derrick Lewis, will have happened already. But considering the fact that many of today’s heavyweight contenders were contenders when I was still in diapers, I think I’m OK to go through a few options for the devastating striker’s heavyweight debut in the second quarter of 2018.
Johnson vs. Ngannou is my first option. Both fighters are very strong and have incredible knockout power. The bout would probably be an all out slugfest while it lasts. Ngannou doesn’t have nearly the experience of Rumble, and this would be his toughest test to date, so it’d be interesting to see how he prepares for that. On the other end, Johnson has struggled on the mat, and though Ngannou is mostly a standup artist, he showed he can pull off a submission when he tapped out Anthony Hamilton last year.
But of course, if Ngannou beats Overeem at UFC 218 in December, he’ll probably be next in line to face Miocic for the title. If that happens, Overeem would be a terrific pairing, too. Johnson rushes forward and looks to finish fights quickly, while “The Reem” has adopted a smart style that involves a lot of movement and strikes from the outside in recent years following numerous knockout losses. There’s also an interesting storyline to go along with the stylistically-intriguing matchup: Overeem left the Blackzilians in 2014 and was never best friends with Johnson, who called Overeem the biggest “p-ssy” in the heavyweight division. Months after Overeem moved to Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, “Rumble” said he was willing to fight Overeem in a catchweight fight.
Another bout that is appealing to me is Johnson vs. former titleholder Dos Santos. The Brazilian isn’t the same fighter who reigned over the heavyweight division more than five years ago, and for that reason some may look at this as a stepping-stone fight for Rumble in which Dos Santos would take unnecessary damage. But nonetheless, Dos Santos is still one of the most devastating punchers in the division, and a fight against Johnson could be entertaining — again, while it lasts.
Johnson against either Lewis (who’s known as “The Black Beast”) — win or lose against Werdum at UFC 216 this weekend — or Mark Hunt would make for entertaining bouts, too. But Ngannou, Overeem, and dos Santos are the three at the top of my list.
I didn’t include Miocic just yet because Johnson is coming off a loss. Sure, it was to Cormier, the second best light heavyweight of all time, but Johnson has never fought at heavyweight in the UFC. There’s no reason he should be awarded an instant title shot just because he’s exciting and there is a lack of contenders in the division.
That said, I’m more than game for a Miocic vs. Johnson title match. But just not right away. Johnson needs to get at least one prominent victory before being in the title talks in the new weight class.
If Johnson doesn’t fight one of my top three options first I won’t complain. There are many good fights — I talked about just a handful of them — for Rumble at heavyweight. I’m excited to see Johnson move up to a different weight class, where I expect he will make it to title contention. There has been a gap in the 205-pound division without Johnson, and though that gap won’t be filled, at least the former two-time UFC title challenger will serve as new blood in the suffering heavyweight division.