It’s only been a bit over two years since Anthony Johnson was summarily dumped from the UFC roster, a bloated middleweight equal parts talented and perplexing. With his preternatural power, he could drop jaws and dominate a highlight reel, but a lack of focus or motivation often led to him missing weight and leading lists of wasted potential.
After an eye-opening run on the regional circuit — six wins, including four by knockout — he’s back, and in a high-profile matchup with Phil Davis at Saturday night’s UFC 172. In mixed martial arts, unlike other sports, free-agent signings rarely draw any real attention. The landscape is dominated by the UFC to a degree that most major athletes competing at their peak already reside there. And then there is "Rumble," one of the few who came and went and came back, and who at the age of 30 still has time to reach the level of success once predicted of him.
The matchup with Davis ensures that we’ll find out his new ceiling sooner rather than later. This is a trial by fire.
Interestingly, Davis has spent the lead-up to it publicly focused not on Johnson, but on UFC champion Jon Jones, who is also on the card, fighting Glover Teixeira. Stung by UFC president Dana White doubting his true desire to fight Jones, Davis has responded with a media onslaught designed to impress upon White his desire to be champ.
I don’t think he’s overlooking me, but at same time I think he doesn’t take me too seriously. I think he doubts me just a smidge and that’s all I need.
- Johnson on opponent Phil Davis
Does that mean his focus is shattered? Johnson says no, but as someone who once upon a time looked past opponents, he sees a similar dynamic here, one that might be just the slight opening he needs to make a difference.
"I don’t think Phil’s dumb, I think he’s just preparing himself for what could come up next," Johnson said. "That’s not a bad thing. I don’t think he’s overlooking me, but at same time I think he doesn’t take me too seriously. I think he doubts me just a smidge and that’s all I need."
There was a time when Johnson was doing the same kind of thing. He’d look at a proposed opponent and then right past them and what was further in the future.
That all changed when he was released from the promotion following a UFC 142 loss to Vitor Belfort. He had won two in a row before that, so the cut caught him by surprise, but it also altered his attitude for the better. Focused on the here and now, Johnson began his run through the regional circuit without any expectation of a UFC return. His goal was to win the next fight and enjoy the process.
As a result, he describes the entire two-year experience as "lovely."
"If I never got invited back into the UFC, I would have accepted it and made it work to the best of my ability," he said. If that’s the way the dice rolled, then that’s just how they rolled. But like I said, it was lovely, and I’m going to make sure now that I’m back it keeps being that way."
When Johnson first debuted in the UFC, he was 23 and only about a year into his pro career. In some ways, it was probably too much, too soon, although he declines to characterize it that way. His current outlook suggests that he wasn’t quite mentally equipped to handle the ups and downs of bigtime sports so early in his career.
"I always believed in myself back in the day, but I’d go on the [MMA] websites and I was high on cloud nine and believing in myself, and then I’d read somebody’s negative comment about something that could happen, and it would get in my head a little bit," he said. "Now, I just don’t give a damn."
His words at least, remain consistent with that frame of mind. While a win over No. 4 Davis might immediately put his name into the division’s forefront, Johnson says he hasn’t spent much time at all considering how he matches up with champion Jones.
Davis is seemingly more interested in keeping up with the Joneses than the Johnsons.
Likewise, he doesn’t invest much time into considering whether the victory will even put him in title contention despite the fact there is no question it would vault him forward. Up until now, Davis’ only career loss is to former champ Rashad Evans, and he owns career wins over both current No. 1 contender Alexander Gustafsson and Lyoto Machida.
Johnson? His biggest career win is probably beating former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovksi, although it took place outside of the UFC at a time during which most admit that Arlovski was past his prime. For him, Davis would be a career-changing win. With Dana White paying close attention to Davis, he’ll also be having an eye on Johnson on Saturday.
When Johnson parted ways with the promotion, he was persona non grata. How quickly that could change. But unlike the old "Rumble" he’ll play it with a measured approach, not looking too far ahead, not fighting with any self-doubt. On Saturday, it will be about the here and now.
That will be plenty of focus on, anyway. Davis’ wrestling game, considered his bread and butter, has not always translated to the cage, and Johnson has collegiate wrestling experience, too. If he can keep the fight standing, he has a legitimate chance to win and play havoc with the rankings. The only thing that Johnson promises is that the fight "won’t be boring on my end." Everything else will play out in the moment.
"I’m the new guy on the scene," Johnson said. "There are a lot of guys ahead of me who have put in a ton of work. As long as I win and keep moving forward, I make a statement every time I win. If I win, I make a statement, and if I lose, I made a statement, too. Either way, it’s going to let everyone know where I belong. But I’ll tell you, I never believe I’m going to lose a fight."