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A new Anthony Johnson set to make UFC return

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

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Anthony Johnson [R] says he's more mature heading into UFC 172. (Getty Images)

The record books list the beginning of Anthony Johnson's mixed martial arts career as Aug. 16, 2006, but to Johnson, it really began on May 25, 2012, when he met Dave Branch in a catchweight fight at Titan Fighting Championships 22 in Kansas City, Mo.

A day earlier, for the fourth time in his career, Johnson missed weight. He'd missed three times during an up-and-down stint in the UFC, in which he showed great promise but would be exasperating regarding his inability to make weight.

After missing weight by 11 pounds for a Jan. 14, 2012, bout in Brazil with Vitor Belfort, the UFC had enough. He was summarily cut after being submitted.

[Also: Why Jon Jones isn't getting the credit he deserves]

Despite the trauma of losing his job, Johnson didn't change, at least not immediately. But when he weighed in slightly more than eight pounds over the limit for his bout against Branch, he was suddenly hit with a realization: I'm blowing this.

His career was suddenly in jeopardy. If a promoter couldn't rely on Johnson to make weight, it was going to be harder and harder to use him.

Getting cut by the UFC for failing to make weight didn't do the trick. Johnson was 27 at the time and in his athletic prime, clearly an elite talent. But promoters can't afford to have a guy they expect to fight as a welterweight show up as a light heavyweight.

Johnson's weight was a constant source of discussion during his UFC career, and there is no doubt in his mind now why he struggled so much.

"I was just young and stupid," said Johnson, who meets Phil Davis on Saturday in the light heavyweight co-main event of UFC 172 in Baltimore. "I didn't listen to anybody. I had a typical young folks' mentality; I thought I knew everything. I was just young and dumb. That's it, and I'm not afraid to admit it."

He didn't have that attitude when he fought Belfort, and when he was cut, he took it as just one of those things that happens in life.

But for some reason, something clicked inside of him after he missed weight for the fight with Branch.

"That's when I realized that I really needed to start taking this stuff seriously," Johnson said. "And it's when everything started turning around for me."

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Anthony Johnson, top, missed weight by 11 pounds for his bout with Vitor Belfort, bottom. (Getty Images)

Johnson beat Branch in the start of a six-fight winning streak he brings into the bout with Davis in his UFC return.

He made some changes to his team, keeping some people and letting go of others.

The biggest change was in himself, however. He realized he'd had difficulty dealing with the expectations that come with being one of the brightest prospects at the top level of his sport.

It took him a while to come to that realization, but doing so has sparked a remarkable change.

"I kind of had a 'screw it' attitude, because I still felt the pressure and I never wanted to disappoint anybody," Johnson said. "The pressure kind of got to me. I don't even worry about it anymore, though. I don't feel any pressure now because I know I have the ability to fight and I know that I train hard and I have the best coaches in the world and I know when I go in there now that I have what I need to win."

A motivated, dedicated and in-shape Johnson has always been a dangerous opponent for anyone.

He has long appeared to have championship-level ability, but he didn't have the intangibles one needed to not only win a title but keep it. He cruised through camp more often than not, relying on his physical gifts and not pushing himself to be better.

At 30, though, he finally seems ready to turn that potential into performance at the sport's highest level. Nothing, he said, is off limits for him.

"Back when I was fighting at 170, I definitely had the athletic ability and everything else to be a champion, but mentally, I just wasn't there," Johnson said. "I just depended on my natural athletic ability to get me through. I worked hard, but I didn't work nearly as hard as I do now. I didn't take it as seriously as I do now.

"Mentally, I just had this belief that I was bigger than everybody, stronger than everybody and faster than everybody. But there were still guys who were doing better than me. You can tell by the losses I had at 170. I can't take anything away from those guys, because they were better than me at the time and they deserved to win. But if I could make 170 now and I had the mentality then that I had now, I'd murder those guys."

It was a rare moment of bravado for a guy who suddenly has embraced the speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick mentality.

He's talked enough in the past for three careers. Now, he's just going out and planning to let his performance speak for him.

"Promoting and doing interviews is part of the job, and you have to do that," he said. "But I like the way [former Pride heavyweight champion] Fedor [Emelianenko] did things. He didn't say two words the whole time, and there were these guys going out and flapping their gums, and they were the ones who were getting knocked out.

"I know how hard I am working now and I know what I've done and what I can do. But people don't want to hear me talking about it. I've talked enough. They want results."

And since that epiphany when he fought Branch, the results have been first-rate. He has four knockouts in that span and once again is being regarded as championship timber.

But it's going to take Johnson a long time to wash away the remnants of his past mistakes. He has a lot of work to do and he knows it.

"I've erased all negative thoughts, all negativity, from my body, and I focus on nothing but positive," he said. "I'm all about doing the right things and putting my time and effort in and being a professional."

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