One of the most ferocious fighters to ever grace the Octagon, Anthony Johnson lives on in the memory MMA fans across the world as we approach the first anniversary of his untimely death last November.
Remembering Anthony “Rumble” Johnson
Making his debut at welterweight back in 2006, Johnson would win the first three fights of his career, compiling a 3-0 record before joining the UFC in 2007. He would kick off his career in MMA’s most prominent league in style, picking up one of the fastest KO’s in the promotion’s history with a thirteen second KO victory over Chad Reiner. Johnson would spend five years at 170 lbs, amassing quite an impressive record at 7-3 in the division. Highlights included a Unanimous Decision victory against Dan Hardy and a knockout of the night head kick win over Charlie Brenneman. Yet Johnson seemed somewhat of a wasted talent at welterweight, missing weight by drastic margins twice and frequently coming into fights looking significantly drained from a massive weight cut; fans and pundits had suggested he take the plunge and move up to middleweight. Standing at 6ft 2 inches tall with a reach of 78 inches, he had the frame to hold the extra 15 lbs of weight.
Johnson would eventually take this advice, and after the KO victory over Brenneman, he moved to 185 lbs. Now an impressive 5-1 in his last six fights, Johnson was set to make a splash immediately in his new division, and his first opponent was a legend of the sport Vitor Belfort. Belfort had previously challenged for the middleweight belt two fights earlier and had bounced back well with a KO victory over Yoshihiro Akiyama. A win for Johnson over a former title challenger in his first bout at middleweight would have catapulted him into the title picture at 185 lbs. Yet old issues reared their ugly heads.
In a shocking turn of events, Anthony Johnson, set to debut at 185 lbs. after struggling to make weight at 170 lbs. for years, weighed into his Middleweight debut at a whopping 197 lbs. Eleven pounds above the allowed weight limit. This shocked fans and fighters alike, with many wondering how he had reached anywhere near 170 lbs if he struggled to make middleweight by such a large margin. Dana White was not shy in vocalizing his criticism, lambasting Johnson as unprofessional, and many expected the former welterweight to be handed his pink slip regardless of the result. The fight continued, and things went from bad to worse for Johnson, who was soundly finished in the first round via Submission. Following the outcome and much criticism from fans and pundits alike, Anthony Johnson was dropped from the organization, ending his nearly five-year tenure with the UFC.
Johnson Finds Success Elsewhere
Back out on the regional scene, Johnson would try his hand at middleweight again, being paired off against David Branch, fighting under Titan FC. Johnson would once again miss weight, except this time he was joined by his opponent, with the two agreeing to fight under a new weight limit of 195 lbs. While he did miss weight, Johnson successfully picked up a decision victory over Branch. With the result in his favor, it was clear that a move up to Light Heavyweight would have to be considered, with Rumble seemingly unable to meet the Middleweight limit.
While many believed Johnson would flourish at middleweight, moving up from welterweight, the same could not be said about a second jump in weight class. Unlike the fifteen-pound leap he had previously attempted, the gap from Middleweight to Light Heavyweight was a massive twenty pounds, and many speculated whether Johnson could hang with the bigger and stronger opposition. “Rumble” would make his light heavyweight debut again with Titan FC in 2012 and pick up a second-round knockout against Esteves Jones. That win would begin a five-fight win streak that would see Johnson silence doubters and skeptics who thought he could not hang with the big boys. Victories over the likes of Jake Rosholt and Andrei Arlovski were enough to convince the UFC to take another shot on “Rumble,” and he was set to make his return against Phil Davis at UFC 172, two years after being let go from the company.
Rumble Returns to the UFC
Johnson would pick up a convincing victory over Davis, and the unanimous decision was enough to guarantee him a place back on the roster of the UFC. After beating an established Light Heavyweight and no longer suffering the weight cut, Johnson had the world at his fingertips. He was next matched up with Lil Nog, the younger Nogueira brother, who was coming from two victories over former champions Tito Ortiz and Rashad Evans. Johnson gave the most impressive performance of his career so far when he knocked out Lil Nog just 44 seconds into the first round. Making waves in MMA with his resurgence at Light Heavyweight, he was thrust into a title eliminator against Swedish star Alexander Gustafsson. Gustafsson was on the road back to the title after a razor-close decision loss to Jon Jones and had delivered a second-round knockout of Jimi Manuwa in his previous bout. A win against Johnson would surely get him back towards the belt, and with the fight going down in his backyard in Stockholm, he was the heavy favorite.
That did not deter “Rumble,” however. Just over two minutes into the fight, Gustafsson fell victim to the power of Johnson like so many others and would cap off an incredible nine-fight win streak since being released by the UFC after the loss to Belfort. The stage was set, and the next move was clear: Anthony Johnson would be taking on the greatest of all time, Jon Jones, for the Light Heavyweight championship.
This fight would ultimately never materialize. Jones would inevitably get into serious legal trouble outside the Octagon, and the title was vacated. Instead of Jon Jones, “Rumble” would face off against former Olympian Daniel Cormier for the vacant Light Heavyweight strap. The fight would go down at UFC 187 on May 23, 2015. Johnson would become the first man to knock down Cormier in the first round but was ultimately unable to get DC out of there. Fatiguing himself in the process, he had no answer for the superior grappling of Cormier and would be finished by submission in the third round.
While many had questioned the mentality of Johnson before with his apparent lack of professionalism and work ethic, some speculated that it might be the last we saw of him at the highest level in the UFC. They were wrong. Johnson would return against veteran Jimi Manuwa four months later, dominating the fight and picking up a second-round KO victory and a performance of the night bonus in the process. He would repeat this feat, only improving to a first-round KO of both Ryan Bader and, perhaps most infamously, Glover Texeira. His thirteen-second KO of Texeira was enough to convince the matchmakers that another title shot was undoubtedly warranted. The stage was set, and at UFC 210, almost two years after their first meeting, Anthony Johnson was set to rematch the still reigning Daniel Cormier.
The fight would play out almost identically to the first: a strong Johnson landed heavy shots in the first round that appeared to rock Cormier. However, instead of achieving the finish, Johnson attempted to wrestle the Olympian and could not secure the victory. Gassing himself out in time for the second round, DC would repeat the outcome from the first fight, albeit a round earlier, with a rear naked choke submission finish. A visibly emotional Johnson tearfully addressed the crowd after announcing his retirement from mixed martial arts competition.
Rumble Lands in Bellator
Confirming his plan to open up a legalized marijuana facility, Johnson announced his intention to get out of fighting and instead pursue business ventures. Johnson would be appointed Head of Fighter Relations for Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships (BKFC). Yet his desire to compete never entirely left him. After four years removed from the sport, Anthony Johnson returned to competition at Bellator 258, picking up a first-round KO victory.
Johnson would make numerous statements regarding his intention to return to competition full-time and a possible run in the UFC as a heavyweight. Still, he would unfortunately never make his third return to the UFC. Johnson had revealed, along with people close to him, such as manager Ali Abdelaziz, that he had suffered from a sickness and could ultimately not return to competition as he would have liked. A private man, he never truly gave away how severe his illness was, bar a cryptic tweet where he stated that he had “never been this afraid of anything in my life.” His friend and former UFC Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman would also comment on the illness, stating, “Rumble would give you these nonchalant stories, and he was having dialysis on his kidneys, but he never really told you fully what was going on.”
Anthony “Rumble” Johnson would pass away on November 13th, 2022. He had been suffering from a form of blood cancer called non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma along with an auto-immune disease known as hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. He was 38 years old.
His MMA record stood at a highly respectable record of 23-6, with a massive 17 wins coming via knockout. During his time in the Light Heavyweight division, “Rumble” Johnson asserted himself as one of the most dominant fighters on the planet and easily the most feared. With eleven knockouts, he is joint-tied at 4th place alongside Anderson Silva for the most knockouts in the history of the UFC. Twice fighting for the championship and receiving five performance of the night bonuses during his time in the octagon, Anthony Johnson’s legacy is solidified and confirmed—a great fighter who was taken far too soon. The MMA community still misses him dearly.