Everyone loves a good comeback story, even if the protagonist also served as his own worst enemy at some point along the way. Right now, Anthony Johnson isn’t necessarily “coming back” anywhere, but he’s potentially setting the stage for a return to the UFC.
As much as Dana White was enraged when Johnson missed weight prior for what turned out to be his final UFC appearance last January in Brazil, the UFC president was similarly livid with Nate Marquardt when he was pulled from a main event bout at the 11th hour two summers ago, and yet there was “Nate the Great” standing in the Octagon opposite Jake Ellenberger on Saturday in Montreal.
Never doesn’t really mean never with White. Besides, he never said he’d never have Johnson back in the UFC when the man known as “Rumble” was handed his walking papers last winter.
If Johnson keeps on doing what he’s been doing since departing the biggest stage in the sport, White and the UFC may have no choice but to welcome him back into the fold.
Over the last 10 months, the 29-year-old Georgia native who trains at the Jaco Hybrid Training Center in Boca Raton, Fla., as part of “The Blackzilians” has collected four consecutive victories. The first came by unanimous decision against fellow UFC alum David Branch in a 195-pound catchweight bout. The last three have been contested at light heavyweight, and all three have ended with Johnson knocking out his opponent.
The last of those victories came in November in the co-main event of the inaugural show for the MMA World Series of Fighting (WSOF) organization, when Johnson connected on a “walk-off knockout punch” against former Bellator tournament semifinalist D.J. Linderman. A straight right hand stopped Linderman cold in his tracks, and sent him crashing to the canvas.
To put it as succinctly as possible: Linderman got slept.
It was the kind of finish that immediately reminded of Johnson’s potential, and why his struggles with cutting weight in the UFC were so frustrating.
The former National Junior College wrestling standout from Lassen College stands 6-foot-2 tall, and was huge for the welterweight division. While it gave him a clear edge in some ways, the process of making weight -- or trying to make weight -- often negated some of those gains. Even reaching the middleweight limit was too taxing on his body, as his body started to shut down from the strenuous cut prior to his fight with Vitor Belfort at UFC 142.
But the light-heavyweight limit seems to be a comfortable number for Johnson, and he’s looked tremendous in his three appearances in the 205-pound weight class to date. He’s still bigger than the likes of Lyoto Machida or Mauricio (Shogun) Rua, both of whom are 6-foot-1, and he hasn’t lost any of his explosiveness as a result of carrying around the additional weight.
Saturday night in Atlantic City, Johnson will make his second appearance inside the WSOF’s 10-sided cage, and this time, he’ll be competing as a heavyweight opposite former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski in the main event of the evening.
Despite a two-year stretch where he went 0-4, Arlovski remains a recognizable name, and he’s rebounded to post four wins in his last five fights since his final appearance in Strikeforce; the only blemish on his record in that time is a “No Contest” ruling from his fight with Tim Sylvia under the One FC banner last August.
As easy as it would be to joke about Johnson fighting at heavyweight and question the merits of a win over Arlovski at this stage of his career, the fact of the matter is that stepping up in weight and stopping “The Pitbull” would be an impressive feat for Johnson, who said earlier this week on the WSOF 2 conference call that fighting at heavyweight was a one-time thing... "probably."
That hedge from Johnson is fitting, as giving heavyweight a second thought mirrors the second thoughts the UFC would likely be having about the talented knockout artist should he put away Arlovski on Saturday at the Revel Resort and Casino.
While White was critical of the bout in regards to whether a win would garner Arlovski another look from the UFC, you’d have to think the UFC president would have some interest in a light-heavyweight finisher on a five-fight winning streak who just won a fight at heavyweight because he didn’t want to miss an opportunity to compete.
It’s not like the UFC light-heavyweight division is exceptionally deep either. There are 40 fighters listed in the weight class on the company’s website, but four of those competitors -- Stephan Bonnar, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, and Tito Ortiz -- have retired, reducing the field to 36.
While there is a clear upper echelon established within the division, there is a ton of open space on the fringes of the top 10 for a fighter like Johnson to excel, and with his physical attributes and proven skills inside the cage, it’s not unbelievable to think that the powerful knockout artist who loves Gummi Bears could make some noise if given a chance.
That’s one of the reasons why his decision to take this fight against Arlovski made sense to me. Not only is it as big a name and as big an opportunity as you’re going to get outside of the UFC, but a win over an established competitor like the former UFC heavyweight champion on the NBC Sports Network could be the catalyst for a return to the Octagon for “Rumble.”
And everyone loves a good comeback story.