The attention on Anthony Johnson’s surprise retirement from the UFC on Saturday is misplaced.
Though Johnson was coy, both in the cage after losing his light heavyweight title bout to Daniel Cormier in the main event of UFC 210 at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y., and at the post-fight news conference, all the speculation was about the mystery job that is so lucrative it’s made him choose to walk away from his sport in his prime.
He said very clearly several times why he’s walking away, but many were too focused on what is to come, with speculation ranging from playing for the Los Angeles Rams to running a dog kennel, to fully grasp his message.
It’s not often that athletes at the peak of their powers walk away, and that’s what Johnson is doing. He’s 33 and still no worse than the third-best light heavyweight in the world, behind only Cormier and ex-champion Jon Jones.
Johnson isn’t going out on top, exactly, not after submitting to a Cormier rear naked choke in the second round after following a bizarre game plan of grappling with the two-time Olympic wrestler.
Even someone who had seen Cormier and Johnson fight only once knew what Johnson had to do. The more boring the fight, the better it was for Cormier. Johnson needed to put his hands on Cormier to take advantage of his jaw-breaking punching power.
Several times after the fight, Johnson referenced what made him walk away from a sport in which he was still dominant and in which, despite Saturday’s loss, it wasn’t impossible to see him as a champion.
He had potential big-money bouts ahead of him against Jones, Alexander Gustafsson and potentially even another with Cormier.
He has taken a job, not playing for the Rams and not involving MMA, that he didn’t want to discuss, but which he said would be lucrative for him.
But even as he declined to specify his impending line of work — “Ya’ll will know soon enough,” he said — he explained why he’s leaving MMA.
“It’s just business, you know,” Johnson said. “I want to do something besides going to the gym every day and punching and kicking and rolling around with another dude. That gets old. I’ve been doing this so long. I’ve been in sports since I was 8 years old. It’s just time to move on to something different. I won’t say better, just different.
“And no, I am not about to play football for the Rams. Everybody’s hitting me up and saying crazy stuff that I’m about to play for the Rams. Why would I go into another sport that is the same thing as this, where you take all this impact?”
The speculation was fueled by a change of the cover photo on his Twitter page. He posted a photo of a Rams helmet, which led some to believe that at 33, having not played football since he was a teen-ager, that Johnson was suddenly going to try that.
Johnson had a more innocent explanation for the photo of the helmet and why he was wearing clothing with the Rams’ logo prior to the fight.
“I like the Rams,” he said. “What’s wrong with liking the Rams?”
Whatever he chooses to do in the future, it was clear that he’d grown tired of risking his physical health to make a living.
We begin in sports as children, for the love of the game and to burn off energy so as not to drive our parents insane. The very best among us continue into college and then the pros, and the overwhelming reason they do so is the lure of big money that professional sports can bring.
Oh, the recognition is nice, and there is a competitive element to it, but tell the world’s best fighters tomorrow that they’ll no longer be paid and they’ll instead be given participation ribbons, and the sport will suddenly lose 99.99 percent of its athletes to unexpected retirements.
The life of a fighter is hard, often torturous. In MMA, there isn’t significant money to be had until one reaches the pinnacle. The champions, and particularly the big-name stars who are so recognizable they go by one name, like Conor and Ronda, can make truly significant money.
The rest are punching, hoping against long odds for the right shot to land and the pot of gold to pour into their laps.
Johnson tired of the grind, of taking the risk of potentially developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repeatedly getting hit in the head, opted to use his name and the life skills he developed during his fight career to make money in a safer manner.
He was asked about his toughest fight, and it would have been easy to say Cormier or Kevin Burns way back when or Vitor Belfort, and dismiss it easily.
But Johnson went beyond that and gave an insight into what caused him to walk away when he seemingly has just about everything a fighter could want.
“Yeah, the toughest fight I can think of was always with myself,” he said. “That’s what it is. That’s everybody’s fight. You always battle yourself, not your opponent.”
We all have self-doubts and fear the unknown. It’s why the tee shot on the first hole in the Saturday morning golf game is always the toughest. No one wants to embarrass themselves and no one likes to not be in total control of their environment.
When you’re fighting another man, a world-class athlete who has trained for months specifically to defeat you, the mind often does gymnastics that rival anything Simone Biles has done.
“Getting up every day and going to the gym and cutting weight, and once again, so much training, and dealing with you guys [in the media], it’s tougher than what people think,” Johnson said. “They think we just go train and it’s so easy and we come in there and fight. They think our life is a lot easier than what it is. But it’s not. You guys know that.”
The life of a fighter is, as it always has been, a difficult one.
Johnson has reached a point in his life where he has gotten a job offer that can support himself and his family without him having to risk his brain, his limbs, his long-term health.
There is a toll to the fight game we often forget. These guys, after the pay-per-view is over and the TV lights go off, have to go on.
They deal with broken bones and torn and stretched ligaments and bad backs and massive gashes into their skin.
Worst of all, they must hope against hope they get out before the accumulation of blows injures their brains, an irreversible process that leads to a truly horrible life.
Johnson recognized that and made the best choice for himself.
For that, he deserves high praise.
“I hope I made a lot of people happy and excited to see me fight,” Johnson said. “Not many people can go through hell and back like I did and still rise to the top. I didn’t win a title, but I was still knocking at that door. Nobody can say they did what I did.”
In walking away while at the top, he is in a very small class.