To the heavyweights of the UFC, consider yourselves forewarned. Anthony “Rumble” Johnson wants to return to action, and he has his eyes set on your division.
At UFC 210 this April, Johnson stunned the mixed martial arts community when he announced his retirement from the sport. “Rumble” has long been a fan favorite, largely due to his vicious knockout power that has left many top contenders sprawled out unconscious across an octagon canvas, and sometimes for the first time in their career. The American paved his way to the top of the light heavyweight rankings by carving a path of destruction that postponed the streaks of fighters such as Alexander Gustafsson, Jimi Manuwa and Glover Teixeira in devastating fashion. He first earned a UFC title shot against then pound-for-pound number one Jon Jones. The fight was scheduled for UFC 187 in May of 2015, but Jones was to have his title stripped, and the bout was canceled. This is where Johnson’s story joined with Daniel Cormier’s.
Stepping in for the displaced Jones, “DC” subsequently defeated Johnson via rear-naked choke in the second round after somehow surviving a brutal knockdown and a heavy onslaught of attack early on. The loss left Anthony in a laborious position, as he would have to climb back to the top of the 205-pound weight class once more. And he did just that. Not one for drawing out his contests, Johnson scored devastating knockout victories over fellow contenders Jimi Manuwa, Ryan Bader (the new Bellator light-heavyweight champion) and Glover Teixeira. It was undeniable that the knockout artist’s rebirth warranted another opportunity at the world championship, and with Jon Jones sidelined yet again, the UFC would book him to face Daniel Cormier in a rematch that had been bound to happen since their first fight. After a promising showing early on, Johnson would again fall short at the final hurdle of his title aspirations, conceding defeat to Cormier in virtually identical fashion to the pair’s earlier meeting.
This time, there was no clear route back to the top. The fan base was not pushing for a trilogy, and ‘Rumble’ had already gone through most of the division. Therefore, the five time ‘Performance of the Night’ winner made a radical decision, and retired from MMA. He transferred into the thriving marijuana business, citing brain damage as a major concern that led to his career change. Yet, many still felt that there was fight left in Johnson, and hoped that he would challenge Jon Jones if he was to reclaim his place atop the 205-pound division upon his return at UFC 214, answering the highly contested question of who would come out on top if the two were to collide. But, with Jones’ run seemingly at its end due to his issues with USADA, it appeared to myself and many others as if though Johnson would not return. But I was wrong.
Manager confirms talks to return
On Monday, Ali Abdelaziz gave an interview to MMA Fighting on Ariel Helwani’s podcast The MMA Hour. During the discussion, Abdelaziz mentioned his client, Anthony Johnson. The manager stated that the fighter would return at heavyweight”, but only if it “made sense”. The pair are to meet with the UFC next week, who are surely keen to bolster their heavyweight division with an exhilarating talent such as Johnson. I would form the assumption that the American would return if the promotion were to offer him a lucrative contract, and major fights down the line in his new weight class. The move would complete an astonishing jump in Johnson’s weight, from the once famished welterweight fighter who struggled so much to the scale, to the now imposing man who looks drawn out even at 205 pounds. If Rumble’s power was unstoppable before, then I cannot even begin to imagine how much damage his shots will inflict now that he will be at full strength. The prospect of Johnson at heavyweight is extremely exciting, but who should he face once he marks his arrival in the division? Let’s run through three potential opponents for Anthony and discuss the importance of each.
This matchup is the pinnacle of no-brainers. Mark Hunt is an elite striker who is the last fighter to instigate a grappling exchange, largely preferring to stand and slug it out with his opponents. He is renowned, as is Johnson, for his unparalleled power and an iron chin that has rarely been cracked. His walk-off knockouts are the stuff of legend, and what better way to introduce Johnson to the heavyweight division than in a showdown between the two men with the biggest reputation for knocking their opponents unconscious? Johnson would likely welcome the challenge, and Hunt is not a fighter that will back down from any prospective fight, as his run of fights will tell you. This fight could easily headline a card, which is an opportunity that the Samoan would likely relish to cap off his stoic career. It is the reason we watch heavyweight fights – anyone can be knocked out, and I cannot think of a matchup that fits the phrase ‘do not blink’ more than this one would. A win here would immediately cement Rumble's position in the division, and add a huge name to his already-impressive resume.
Before you take the pitchforks out, hear my argument. The heavyweight division is a mess right now; Fabricio Werdum and Alister Overeem are the top contenders, and current champion Stipe Miocic holds knockout victories over both fighters from last year, leaving the UFC in a difficult position. They attempted to book Cain Velasquez for a title fight, but the Team AKA fighter is on the sidelines, and it is unclear whether we will ever see the former champion compete in the octagon again. Therefore, only a Francis Ngannou victory over Alister Overeem at UFC 218 in December would establish a clear number one contender, and Miocic may wish to return around the time that fight occurs. I, for one, don't believe granting Rumble an opportunity at the heavyweight title under such circumstances is cause to complain. He would be arguably the toughest challenge that Miocic has ever faced - he has the devastating striking prowess, high level wrestling and phenomenal athleticism to match. His only pitfall would be his size, but I don't believe this will be a problem for Johnson in any way. He is almost of a height with current heavyweight kingpin Miocic, and without a weight cut to hinder his growth, the returning fighter would probably weigh over 230 pounds, ideal for someone of his style in the heavyweight division. Stipe needs a big opponent, and we need an exciting title fight, and this may well the one that the UFC put together.
Another man who is awaiting news on his next opponent, Alexander Volkov is coming off of an extremely impressive victory against Stefan Struve, where he defeated the seven-feet-tall contender via TKO in the third round. The win has catapulted Volkov to the number seven spot in the UFC's heavyweight rankings, making him a relevant piece to the puzzle in the division. He has looked excellent since his UFC debut, and currently holds three consecutive victories in the promotion, including wins over Timothy Johnson and Roy Nelson. The Russian possesses an imposing physique, with a height of 6'7 and an 80" reach that makes him a difficult opponent for anyone. At just 28, he is a fast-rising star in the division, and a very intriguing matchup for Johnson. However, I am not sure if this fight would "make sense" for Rumble - the opponent is tricky and far from ideal, and not the biggest fight that the American can hope for. It remains to be seen if he will opt for an introductory fight to the weight class, or if he will set his sights to the very top of the ladder. If Johnson were to emerge victorious from this contest, he would be in line for an immediate shot at the title, so it is certainly a viable option for him.
Now we pray
Before we get our hopes up, it is key to remember that Anthony Johnson's return is far from confirmed. We can only hope that his meeting with the UFC goes as planned next week and that he will return to the octagon soon. If he makes his rumored jump to heavyweight, I would love to his him in there with any of the three fighters I have mentioned above, although any of his fights will draw me in, regardless of the opponent standing across from him. As a huge fan of Johnson for years now, I hope that good tiding will emerge from his camp regarding a potential return soon, and if it does, you will find all the news right here at RealSport.
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