Anthony Johnson: From cautionary tale to title contender
When Anthony Johnson left the UFC in 2012 he was a cautionary tale about wasted talent.
Johnson originally joined the promotion as a welterweight, but with a massive 6’2" frame and more muscle than smarts, he kept telling himself that staying at 170-pounds was the way to go if he wanted to be successful.
As a former wrestler, Johnson’s body was conditioned to cut weight, but when he ballooned up between fights, his toughest battle every time he was scheduled to compete was against the scales that challenged him a day before the actual contest.
"I don’t think I was stubborn. I just had that wrestler’s mentality about losing weight, trying to be bigger, faster, stronger and that just came with not being experienced in the game. You try to push yourself so hard and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t," Johnson told FOX Sports about his multiple attempts to fight at welterweight.
Fighting at welterweight was really a relative term for Johnson during his first few years with the UFC because he missed the mark on two different occasions and often times came in so emaciated that his greatest hope was the scale reading 170-pounds so he could rehydrate and refuel his dramatically depleted body.
I was young, dumb, full of cockiness and I almost had that ‘I don’t care’ attitude — I’m going to do what I want to do, be who I want to be — and we all saw what that got me.
— Anthony Johnson
To this day, Johnson still barely recognizes the fighter who used to compete at welterweight.
"Everyday. I see pictures all the time on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and I see what I looked like then and what I look like now and I’m like how in the hell did that ever happen? How did I ever survive this long trying to make 170?" Johnson said.
The struggle to cut weight became such an issue for Johnson that he finally conceded and decided to make the move up to 185-pounds. The 15-pound difference was going to give Johnson a much bigger window than previous fights, which would allow him to focus on training and preparation and not so much on just making weight.
Then disaster struck again.
Johnson was scheduled to face Vitor Belfort in his middleweight debut at UFC 142 and he somehow came in at a bloated 197-pounds. He wasn’t just over weight — Johnson was nearly in another weight class all together.
Johnson lost the fight and was promptly released from the UFC. The continued weight cutting problems finally just became too much for UFC officials to book Johnson in any more bouts.
It took Johnson a few weeks to finally reconcile with the turn of events that took him from a UFC contender to unemployed in just a matter of hours. Once he settled in with the mistake he made, Johnson started focusing on a return to the Octagon, but also tried not to be consumed by it.
He knew the UFC didn’t let him go based on a lack of talent. He got a pink slip because he refused to believe he wasn’t meant to fight at welterweight or even middleweight as it turns out.
"I knew I would be back. After the fight, maybe a few weeks after I let everything settle in, I knew I would be back," Johnson said. "Because I knew I had the skills and the talent to get back to the UFC."
One more weight cutting snafu haunted Johnson in his first fight in a post-UFC career and that’s when he finally decided he was done trying to shed 20 or 30-pounds a week before competing and he made the call to move up to 205-pounds.
He hasn’t lost since, but he also doesn’t regret any of it.
"It was a learning experience and I wouldn’t take it back at all. Because without fighting at 170 or 185, I wouldn’t be who I am right now," Johnson said.
The other key factor in Johnson’s resurrection as a legitimate threat to the UFC light heavyweight title was his decision to stop paying attention to what other people said about him. He was a regular user of Twitter and read mixed martial arts forums where he was routinely ripped for missing weight or mocked for how big he would get between fights.
There was a flipside to that same addiction to see what people were saying about him. For every detractor there was somebody else praising Johnson’s every move. He was a prodigy. He was a contender. He was the next big thing.
As John Lennon once said, "part of me suspects that I’m a loser and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty". In other words, ego became Johnson’s best friend and his greatest enemy.
"I think it played a big part because I was listening to the hype too much," Johnson said. I was young, dumb, full of cockiness and I almost had that ‘I don’t care’ attitude — I’m going to do what I want to do, be who I want to be — and we all saw what that got me. Now I’m somebody who is older, smarter and more humble than I was when I was younger. I’m just a different person."
How did Johnson come to this epiphany?
"I just stopped listening to the world. I stopped listening to people’s opinions and what the world had to say and I became a better person. With that, you start believing in yourself more and more, your confidence builds up," Johnson said.
"I said screw it after Brazil and just decided to go all out with this sport. I actually gave it a shot and a chance and dedicated my life to training like I needed to. Ever since then, everything has just been peaches and cream."
Since changing his attitude and approach to the sport, Johnson has been an unstoppable force inside the cage. He’s gone 8-0 in his last eight fights with five coming by way of knockout or TKO. He stormed through top five ranked contender Phil Davis in his return to the UFC before crushing veteran fighter Antonio Rogerio Nogueira with strikes in just 44 seconds.
Now he’s facing Alexander Gustafsson in the main event of this weekend’s FOX UFC Fight Night card from Sweden with the winner set to compete against UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones later this year.
When he left disgraced in 2012 it’s not likely many people imagined he’d be back in the UFC at all, much less one fight away from a title shot. Of course not caring what other people thought about him is what got Johnson here in the first place.
"I do feel like I’m in the best place possible for me," Johnson said. "I think right now where I am in life, everything is aligned just right. Mind, body and soul. I’m good.
"I don’t pay attention to what every Tom, Dick and Harry have to say about me. I’m just doing me. Life has been beautiful ever since I did that."
To make sure you catch all of the action from FOX UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Johnson check out our viewing and schedule guide for everything going down in Stockholm, Sweden.