At one point, Anthony Johnson’s career was on a steep decline. The UFC ousted its then-middleweight fighter in January 2012 after his third instance of missing weight, which resulted in an abysmal catchweight bout with Vitor Belfort because Johnson missed weight by 12 pounds.
He heads into Saturday's UFC Fight Night bout against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in a much better place, having won seven bouts since his return to the UFC and in prime position to make a run at the light heavyweight belt.
The journey to the top wasn't supposed to take this long. Johnson launched himself into stardom with impressive finishes in five of his first six UFC wins. The Blackzilian fighter handedly dispatched such foes as Dan Hardy and Charlie Brenneman en route to his co-main event spot at UFC 142 versus Belfort. However, the same discipline that helped Johnson land a prized position on a pay-per-view in his opponent’s turf in Brazil was not reflected in the weight cut for his potential coming-out party.
“It all went downhill when I got to Brazil,” said Johnson, who hadn't fought outside of the United States before that. The bout also marked his first at middleweight, a decision that was supposed to quell his problem of cutting too much weight before fights. “I didn’t want my family and friends to go through it anymore,” said Johnson. His weight can typically hover around 230 pounds. He weighed in at 197, but still 12 pounds more than expected.
Johnson began the bout pushing the pace, throwing kicks and even put the former light heavyweight champion on his back. Belfort was able to fend off the relentless offense and land shots of his own, including a right hook followed by a vicious flurry, which signaled the end for Johnson.
UFC President Dana White cut him following the loss, and Johnson began the long trek of getting back into the UFC’s good graces. A few months later, he fought under Titan Fighting Championships, scoring a unanimous decision over former UFC fighter David Branch. Following the win, Johnson started fresh at light heavyweight and scored victories over Esteves Jones, Jake Rosholt, D.J. Linderman, Andrei Arlovski and Mike Kyle.
The wins over UFC veterans like Arlovski and Kyle were enough to have the UFC brass come-a-calling.
“I was out eating. I went to the UFC in Newark, N.J. and sat down with [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva and he was with my manager," said Johnson. "Basically, it was welcome back to the UFC and [he] shook my hand.”
Just over two months following that meeting, the 30-year-old was back in the Octagon facing top-ranked light heavyweight Phil Davis. Both fighters came from wrestling pedigrees, Johnson from Lassen Community College and Davis from Penn State. With Johnson a heavy underdog, many expected Davis to control the fight. No one expected Johnson to win, in a dominant fashion no less.
Johnson battered and bruised the face of Davis, taking him down multiple times and hurting him with a punch in the first round that led to a unanimous decision. The win rocketed Johnson up the light heavyweight rankings to No. 5, with Nogueira now standing in his path.
The 38-year old Nogueira has been on the shelf for more than a year due to a lingering back injury, and was linked to bouts with Shogun Rua and Alexander Gustafsson. Nogueira poses nothing with which the younger Johnson is unfamiliar.
“I’m going to try to perfect what I’m going to do. With Phil Davis, I did my best to stop everyone in the gym from taking me down,” said Johnson. “With Nogueira, I’ll do my best to stop his half-guard and everything else.”
Strength coach Jake Bonacci has worked with Johnson and other Blackzilian fighters for the last year and a half. He has trained Johnson through his time out of the UFC and his current resurgence.
“He’s a very nice person, [he’s] got a great work ethic but he needed to be held accountable a little bit more. I think that’s how I’ve helped him a lot,” said Bonacci. “He didn’t have that before. He knows I’m waiting for him whatever time it is during the week, he’s never late or cancels.
“The strength and conditioning that we did was the first that he’s had in his career. He wasn’t a balanced athlete as you would think before he started training,” Bonacci added. “He does very little on two feet. We do a lot of single leg work, that along with a lot of core, rotational strength. In designing his programming here with Nogueira, we already laid such a strong foundation for the Phil Davis fight. He was up to the mark at that fight.”
As for what Johnson has planned this Saturday night in San Jose, he only has one thing in mind.
“I always look for the knockout,” he said.