Johnson is the UFC’s man in the middle

Editor’s note: Anthony Johnson weighed in for his bout against Vitor Belfort at 197 pounds, 11 pounds over limit for non-title middleweight bouts. This article was compiled and posted before Friday’s UFC 142 weigh-ins, but has been updated with a response from Johnson’s manager, Glenn Robinson.

For years, Anthony Johnson was the size of a defensive end who, a few days before he was to fight, would melt down to the size of, oh, a punt returner.

Anthony "Rumble" Johnson hopes to find a home in the UFC's middleweight division.
(Getty Images)

Johnson would be so large between fights that it wasn’t that long ago that he entertained the possibility of leaving welterweight, bypassing middleweight and competing as a light heavyweight.

Johnson, though, may have found the perfect landing spot. On Saturday, on the main card of UFC 142 at HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he will take on ex-light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort in a three-round middleweight bout that he pleaded with UFC president Dana White to make.

“Rumble wanted it bad,” White said of Johnson.

Johnson has become so used to spending most of his time before fights cutting weight and answering questions about his weight cut that it’s a breeze these days to actually discuss a fight.

Things didn’t go quite as Johnson planned on Friday, however. He missed the 186-pound middleweight limit for non-title fights by 11 pounds, weighing in at 197. Belfort made it at 186.

According to Johnson’s manager, Glenn Robinson, Johnson awakened Friday at 191 1/2, easily within range to make the weight. But three hours before the start of the weigh-in, Johnson got ill and called a doctor.

“His coaches called Burt [Watson, the UFC site coordinator] and Burt called the doctor,” Robinson said. “The doctor had him drink a ton of fluid, just a ton of it. By the time he got to the point where he felt better, it was just 45 minutes before the weigh-in and there was no time to make it.”

Robinson said it was “a medical issue” and said that Johnson had “trained better and eaten healthier than he ever had. Johnson had struggled greatly in the past to make 170 and at UFC 104 in 2009, missed weight by five pounds.

But Robinson said Friday that Johnson apologized to White and was disappointed by missing, but said because it was a medical issue, there is nothing he could have done. Johnson was fined 20 percent of his purse, which will go to Belfort. He must re-weigh on Saturday morning and can not rehydrate to more than 205 pounds, per Belfort’s request. If he is over 205, the fight will be off.

“Anthony apologizes to the fans and he apologized to Vitor,” Robinson said. “He has so much respect for Vitor and will honor his request to be at no more than 205 tomorrow. He promises that he will give the fans a great battle.”

[ Related: Dana White rips Anthony Johnson for missing weight ]

Though Johnson was a junior college national champion in wrestling at 174 pounds while at Lassen College, anyone who has seen him fight knows he loves a brawl. Johnson has had five first-round knockouts in his 10 UFC fights and has only gone to a decision once.

Part of the reason he wanted Belfort is because he knows that Belfort has long been regarded as one of the elite strikers in mixed martial arts. Belfort was only 19 when he made his UFC debut, earning the nickname “The Phenom” for his incredibly fast hands and powerful strikes.

“These are the kinds of fights every fighter wants,” Johnson said. “The guy is a legend. He’s fought so many of the big names. He’s got speed, power, fast hands. He’s got it all. And he’s always in exciting fights. Why wouldn’t I want to fight a guy like that?”

A year ago, Belfort was preparing for a middleweight title shot against champion Anderson Silva, a bout that Silva won in the first round with an out-of-nowhere kick to the face.

Belfort is regarded, legitimately, though, as MMA royalty and nobody would have blamed Johnson had he asked for someone a bit less accomplished in his first bout at middleweight.

That, though, is not how Johnson is wired, though. It’s not as easy for someone in his shoes to go through the sacrifices of cutting weight – And he will have to sacrifice to make the weight cut, even though he has an additional 15 pounds this time – if the opponent isn’t the kind that gets the heart pumping and the adrenaline rushing.

Belfort will do that, so Johnson gleefully made the cut.

“At 170, I guess you can say I looked like ‘Skeletor,’ ” Johnson said. “At middleweight, I guess you should call me ‘Big Foot.’ The move to middleweight has been great so far. I’m still eating healthy and getting my body ready. I mean, I still eat my gummy bears from time to time. They’re my weakness, but I haven’t had any in a long time.”

Expect Johnson to fight like a bear against a man who said he feels like a lion.

Belfort is now 34 and has been through numerous wars and ups and downs in his MMA career. He’s been invigorated by the opportunity to fight in his native Brazil again and by the opportunity to serve as a coach on the debut of the Brazilian version of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

He is aware of how much of a challenge is, and hinted that Johnson is actually the bigger fighter, but he insisted he’s as ready as he’s ever been.

“Man, I feel great,” Belfort said. “I’m relaxed, my weight is good, my preparations are coming together well. My next step might be determined already with [coaching] TUF Brazil, but I’m not looking past Anthony Johnson. Anthony is certainly a big fighter, but size isn’t everything. The king of the jungle is the lion, not the elephant.”

[ Related: Don’t miss the UFC 142 PPV in Rio ]

Johnson took note when Belfort referred to himself as a lion. Johnson was raised by his grandfather, Morris, and got much of his toughness from him.

Before he died, Morris Johnson made a comment to his grandson that has resonated with him so many years later.

Johnson’s fighting style is to challenge the best, which is why White was so enthused to hear him ask for Belfort.

“Vitor says he’s the lion and I love it,” Johnson said. “Before my granddad passed, he told me to always look across the cage as if there was a lion staring at me. When Vitor said he was the lion, I loved it. It’s provided the type of motivation I’m looking for. I’m going to go out there and have a good time with this. I’m not scared of him. Let me fight the lion.”

There’s been one other benefit to facing Belfort. Johnson has, as usual, been asked about his weight, but he hasn’t had nearly as much problem talking about it.

He’s been able to eat, and while he still might be better off as a light heavyweight, the cut is nothing to dread.

“I feel a thousand times better and I can actually enjoy myself,” he said. “Everybody’s been telling me how I’m smiling a lot this week and a lot of that is the fact that I’m able to eat.”

A lot, though, has been about who will stand across from him in the cage on Saturday. Belfort is, as Johnson noted, a legend in the sport, one of the biggest names in the game’s history. Fighting Belfort is, in essence, affirmation that one has hit the big time.

Making the UFC means reaching the majors, but in sports, there is Caleb Hanie and then there’s Aaron Rodgers.

“I can’t wait,” Johnson said. “I am so looking forward to this fight, I can’t even begin to express. I’m looking forward to this one as much as any I’ve ever had.”

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jan 13, 2012