The strange, inescapable hierarchies of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson.
Daniel Cormier defeated Anthony Johnson by rear-naked choke in the second round of their rematch at UFC 210.
As Joe Rogan has mentioned, there are fighters who are so distinctive in their approach that you could look at a silhouette in motion and be sure of who it is. This extends to particular techniques- a wireframe of the H-bomb would look inescapably, uniquely like Dan Henderson.
Anthony “Rumble” Johnson is one of the few fighters where you could make a silhouette model of the way he loses, and be fairly sure of who you were looking at.
With the other man latched onto his back, Johnson places both palms on the floor, and lifts himself up onto his elbows. The man fighting him laces one arm around his neck, and grips it with the other. Johnson’s arms stay on the ground, not fighting the hold, until the man squeezes. Then, his arms scrabble at his neck, briefly, before gently tapping in acquiescence.
Johnson is huge and intimidating, with a face carved from limestone, and muscles like steel cables. He is, or was, also the best functional technician in the UFC’s light heavyweight division. He doesn’t have the defensive issues of Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson, and it’s difficult to remember him ever being rocked. Even the number of times he’s been hit cleanly are relatively tiny. Similarly, his approach is more effectively cohesive and tuned to the modern game than Jon Jones’ slightly disconnected offensive structures. This both stands alongside and is reinforced by the fact that he is an utterly terrifying hitter; uniquely destructive with both his hands and feet.
Yet for the fifth time, Johnson did exactly what he has before. The way he loses is the rear-naked choke, and of all the fight-ending techniques it’s perhaps the most complete- the first fighter trapped in front of the second, unable to see or defend. Unlike holds such as the guillotine, the bulging eyes and the gradual dawning of realization in the eyes are visible to the viewer, and redolent of strangulation and hanging. It is, paraphrasing Urijah Faber, simulated death.
There’s something almost stylized or ceremonial about how Johnson offers himself up to it. It’s never about getting put into a checkmate position and grudgingly admitting that there’s no way out. Instead it’s really what it’s described as. It’s submission.
So he submitted again; gave up and quit, as he did the last time he fought Cormier, and when he fought Belfort, and Koscheck, and Clementi.
Morality and DV
There’s a temptation to turn sports in general and MMA in particular into a morality play; to think that grit and will aren’t just useful tools, and instead are something particular to good people. This is wishful thinking. A vast number of great professional athletes have been colossally arrogant, self-obsessed and obnoxious, if not actively terrible people. It rarely hurt their careers much. Success in MMA is not about being a nice guy.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s throwing everything which occurs outside of fighting in the trash. There’s no morality to the sport, we shouldn’t care anything about what any of the fighters are like. The fight starts and ends and that’s it, and even if Hitler is fighting Gandhi (citation needed) it’s none of our business. This extreme is also a little ridiculous, not least because this is not how anyone actually thinks. Any individual who believes they’re the mythical Fights-only Objective Fan is deluded. For almost everyone, their approach is to come to a subjective compromise somewhere between these two end-points. In addition, a degree of armchair psychology is a basic requirement of looking at fights, because fighting and temperament are linked.
The elephant in the room with respect to Rumble Johnson has long been his domestic violence conviction. There’s no point re-hashing it in detail. I simply don’t know enough about the facts, other than that he pleaded nolo contendere in 2010 and has a couple of other (notably dropped) charges. I’m also not going to suggest that Rumble is a quitter because of something like this. Boxers like Mayweather and Sugar Ray Leonard were diamond-tough in the ring, and serial batterers outside of it.
If morality doesn’t have much to do with Johnson’s tendency to give up, it’s worth noting that it’s not quite the same as a lack of willpower either. His UFC career started off at welterweight, and for a man of his size to even make the welterweight limit had to necessitate long and unthinkably brutal weight cuts. A quitter in any kind of broader sense just wouldn’t have made it.
Still, there’s something in there, not necessarily because Johnson’s attitude towards women is unpleasant, but because it seems inconsistent with who he is elsewhere.
When he came back to the UFC after his first run, he genuinely seemed to have turned over a new leaf. Before he had often been tetchy, short-tempered, but this new Rumble seemed to be overjoyed with being back in the UFC. He was warm and respectful to his opponents, and he appeared to be genuinely sympathetic when he beat Alexander Gustafsson.
“I feel bad because [Gustafsson’s] crying…I’m an emotional guy, he’s an emotional guy.”
To this day, he is one of the few fighters who doesn’t appear to have much of a bad word to say about Jon Jones. This stands in stark contrast to some of his interactions with women, like this one which he posted on social media after an altercation at the gym:
Which is… it’s weird. It barely seems like the same person.
My theory, espoused in a couple of our previews, is that Johnson sees the world in a kind of rigid hierarchy. Something like the following:
In this case, someone who proves themselves to be in the topmost category (normally by absorbing his offense) becomes terrifyingly unbeatable in his mind. So the question going into the Cormier rematch, against someone who had choked him out before, was whether it was a long-term position or a short-term one: once someone achieves that top spot, does it reset and do they become human again for the next fight? Or are they there relatively permanently?
Impressive, baffling, oddly sad
About 30 seconds into the fight, the answer was clearly the latter. Rumble, the striker, started shooting takedowns. There are times where fighters have made similar clanging errors, like Ryan Bader against Johnson himself, but normally as a single moment, and not on a consistent minute-to-minute basis. Even aside from that, the basic idea of taking Rumble down wasn’t as obviously mad as shooting in on Daniel Cormier. The only gameplan I can think of which comes close was BJ Penn’s tippy-toe stylings against Frankie Edgar.
So, why did Rumble go for takedowns? Because he was scared and tense from the outset, and like Bader, he knew he was facing someone terribly threatening. Because the ability to judge distance is probably the most difficult and inherently fragile part of MMA, something which warps and bloats under pressure. Because his mind was screaming at him that he was inside the danger zone even when he wasn’t, and he felt like needed to close distance somehow. Because almost as soon as the cage closed he was likely fighting off memories of Cormier ducking under his punches and knew he just needed to get lower, to be the first to get to the underhooks, so that he drove his way right into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because he’d trained the hell out of his wrestling.
The ridiculous thing is that Johnson actually won the first round fighting like this. He broke Cormier’s nose off a clinch exit, and pinned the champion up against the cage. He got takedowns on the Olympian counter-wrestler, and they weren’t enabled by timing like the ones Gustafsson hit on DC- they were all positioning and power.
This was impressive, and baffling, and oddly sad to watch. This exceptionally skilled behemoth of a man, blindly shoving his way into the exact fight that his opponent wanted and still competing using his secondary skillset. It was hard to ignore the idea that he was fighting his own preconceptions and fears more than he was fighting Daniel Cormier.
It’s no great secret that light heavyweight as a division is steadily sinking in quality, and that its fighters are aging out. It also seems to increasingly be the division of the broken. Jon Jones’ relentless self sabotage lost him the title without him ever losing a title fight. Alexander Gustafsson never fully recovered from the brutal loss to Johnson in his hometown- he turned and ran from Cormier at points in their fight, and flicked nervous glances towards his corner throughout.
More than anything it feels like Cormier’s primary advantage in this division is stability. He can be beaten, even mentally defeated in the moment, but at this stage in a long and difficult career laced with genuine tragedies and heartbreak, he can’t be defined by his losses and lowest moments in the same way that these others can. At close to 40 years old the tubby champion is all smiling, life-is-tough-but-good consistency, the rock they break themselves on, and the one left standing as they drain away.
Cormier had said that Rumble had about seven minutes in him, and at pretty much seven minutes in everything went out of the challenger, like air out of a balloon. Cormier broke his posture and forced him to the ground.
With the other man latched onto his back, Rumble placed both palms on the floor, and lifted himself up onto his elbows.