UFC 210: Anthony 'Rumble' Johnson has done something not even Manny Pacquiao could do

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports

Fighters often move up in weight, and have success in higher classes.

In boxing, it’s hardly uncommon for fighters to win championships in multiple weight classes. Manny Pacquiao began at minimumweight, won a world title at flyweight (112 pounds in boxing) and proceeded to capture titles at 112, 122, 126, 130, 135, 140, 147 and 154 pounds.

Pacquiao is one of the greatest boxers of his era and long ago cemented his Hall of Fame credentials. He was so good because he was fast and he hit so hard. But as he reached welterweight, the division for which he’s best known, Pacquiao became a different fighter.

His power, at least the power to knock someone out that he’d repeatedly shown below welterweight, deserted him. Pacquiao hasn’t had a knockout in more than seven-and-a-half years, totaling 12 fights. Pacquiao hasn’t had a finish since he stopped the great Miguel Cotto in the 12th round on Nov. 14, 2009.

Fighters just don’t get more fearsome, and add power, as they climb the ladder and cross multiple weight classes.

Usually, that is.

Then there is the case of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson.

On the November night more than seven years ago when Pacquiao scored his most recent finish, Johnson was a week away from a bout at welterweight (170 pounds in MMA) in which he’d get submitted by Josh Koscheck.

Johnson will get a second crack at the 205-pound belt Saturday when he faces light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y., in the main event of UFC 210.

Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson has been a force since his move to the light heavyweight division. (Getty)
Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson has been a force since his move to the light heavyweight division. (Getty)

It’s nearly unfathomable now, when seeing Johnson as a thick, powerful 205-pounder who’d probably do very well at heavyweight, to recall that this man was once a welterweight, 35 pounds lighter.

Johnson’s record at his various weights is telling. He never campaigned as a middleweight, but because he missed weight several times, he has bouts on his record that were fought in the middleweight division.

In bouts at 171 or below, he was 9-2 with six knockouts. At middleweight (which were catchweight bouts), he was 1-1 with one knockout. And at heavyweight, he was 1-0 with no knockouts.

It’s been at light heavyweight where his power has been on full display. Johnson has fought 13 times at light heavyweight, and has gone 11-2 with nine knockouts. Six of those knockouts came in the first round, including wins over Glover Teixeira, Ryan Bader, Alexander Gustafsson and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.

UFC president Dana White marveled at that on Yahoo Sports colleague Chris Mannix’s national radio show Wednesday.

“The answer is, I’ve never seen it and I can’t explain it,” White said, when asked about Johnson’s power carrying all the way to light heavyweight. “How a guy can fight at 170 pounds then move up to 205 and have legitimate punching power to knock out legit light heavyweights, I’ve never seen it before. It’s amazing.”

That power has carried him to the precipice of a championship. If he’s to defeat Cormier, who submitted him at UFC 187 on May 23, 2015, his best bet is to catch him with a big shot.

Cormier was dropped by a Johnson right in their first fight, and survived it. He admits Johnson’s an incredibly hard puncher, but said he believes Johnson will need to land more than one in order to finish him.

“When he hurts you or knocks you down, the thing is, you have to be able to avoid getting hit with that next shot, because that’s the one that is going to put you out,” Cormier said. “The first one is going to hurt, but it’s the next one, the one that you don’t see because you’re a little fuzzy already, that shuts the lights off. Those are the ones you have to be very careful of.

“Even Alexander Gustafsson, Alexander Gustafsson got hit with a big shot, but it was the one that came afterward that actually finished him off. Phil Davis got hit with a lot of big shots, but he always rolled away or was very careful and was paying attention to not let him get him with two or three in a row.”

Johnson shrugs off his ability to carry his power with him as one of those things. But even for a guy who hits as hard as he does, Johnson knows there are limits.

He’s big enough, athletic enough and powerful enough to be a factor in the UFC’s heavyweight division.

He proved that when he defeated Andrei Arlovski in a bout in the World Series of Fighting. Should he lose to Cormier a second time, his path to a world championship at 205 pounds would be all but blocked.

Anthony Johnson is always looking to land one big shot. (Getty)
Anthony Johnson is always looking to land one big shot. (Getty)

There are highly interesting fights for him at heavyweight, but Johnson admits it’s too much for him. He’s sparred with Francis Ngannou, a heavyweight prospect who has star written all over him.

Pressed if he’d fight either Ngannou or Derrick Lewis at heavyweight, Johnson said, “Never. Never. Never.”

He got a chance to taste Ngannou’s punching power and even with the big sparring gloves, he felt how hard Ngannou could hit.

“I’m a big fan of Derrick’s; I’m a big fan of Francis,” Johnson said. “They’re just exciting fighters. I actually sparred with Francis before. It was interesting. I hit him and he hit me back and when he hit me, he caught me square in my big nose. And it was one of those that made me say, ‘Oh [expletive].’ I didn’t get wobbled or anything, but I felt the power.

“We had those big boxing gloves on and we were swinging crazy and we were hitting each other pretty damn hard. Lord only knows what it must feel like to get hit by that guy with just MMA gloves on. No thank you. The guy has serious, crazy power.”

Johnson, though, does too. He’s skilled in all areas of the sport, but there is not much of a likelihood that he’ll out-grapple Cormier, a two-time Olympic wrestler.

Much like Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell, Johnson will need to use his wrestling defensively, to remain on his feet and allow him to use his power.

And though Cormier survived the Johnson onslaught after being dropped in the first round at UFC 187, Cormier knows enough to know he doesn’t want to go through that again.

“All these guys he’s knocked out, I’m the one who stood up to it,” Cormier said. “And not only did I stand up to his punches, he kicked me in the head three or four times. I stood up to those and I still went at him and imposed my will on him.

“And look, no one wants to go through that and let a guy kick and punch him in the head, least of all a guy like Anthony. They say you have a button on that chin, and you can only push the button so many times before all of a sudden, you don’t have to press it very hard. … You’ve seen guys who have had incredible, unbelievable chins. Dan Henderson, you could hit him with anything and he’d keep coming, but eventually, you saw that change. I know that. I have to work on my defensive skills and make sure I don’t take that much damage, because we know what he can do when he catches you.”

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