Anthony Johnson fights Daniel Cormier for the vacant light heavyweight title as the main event of UFC 187 May 23, 2015 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Single sentence summary:
Two of the best at 205 fight it out under the long shadow of that other guy.
Two of the best at 205 compete for a functional interim belt.
Anthony "Rumble" Johnson
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: If not for the domestic abuse allegations, Rumble Johnson would be a heartwarming story of MMA redemption. Kicked out of the UFC on the back of his loss to Vitor (now his teammate, and fighting in the co-main), where he missed weight by a stunning 12 pounds, he became the face of World Series of Fighting, then came back to the UFC where he's been dominant.
David: Not a whole lot to add. Rumble has kept his head down while knocking heads up since his time in the UFC. It's earned him fans, but Johnson has demons of his own to expel. I've been damn impressed with his second run since 2012, but the skepticism always lingers over a man who so easily lost to guys like Josh Koscheck and Rich Clementi. Those are well behind Johnson obviously, but all history, no matter how distanced, always has something to say.
Phil: Daniel Cormier is that incredibly talented guy who has never quite made it to the top of the heap. Forced out of the Olympics by a bad weight cut, he's made the transition to MMA, but I've never really gotten the impression that his heart is truly in it. I think he just wants to prove to himself, once and for all, that he can be #1. He's coming off a loss to Jon Jones, which was closer than public perception really has it. It was less violent than the Gustafsson fight, but in terms of scoring it largely followed the same trend: three close rounds, then two obvious rounds for Jones.
David: It was a close fight, but I tune out anyone who thinks the victory was definitive for either man. I think Cormier's heart is in it though; the mere fact that he's been able to dedicate himself to cutting weight despite his history requires the kind of grit you only do for things you absolutely love. If Cormier seems at all reticent, it's because he knows he has a shelf life to accomplish the ultimate success. He knows exactly how he got here, and what it's gonna take. I don't doubt him for a second. Besides, isn't proving yourself to be #1 as strong a component as any to the claim that your 'heart is in it'?
What are the stakes?
Phil: The winner gets the chance to call himself the UFC champion. To hold that piece of gold that says "I am the greatest 205lb fighter on the planet." To unequivocably state that they are, without a doubt, better than anyone else out there. Yes sir. #1 with a bullet.
David: It's great psychological leverage over Jon Jones when he comes back too. Whoever wins will screw with his head in a way that would make David Lynch proud. Honestly, it's probably a LHW's best chance at victory too, when you think about it. Jones is exactly the kind of guy who would take it personally, and then some.
Where do they want it?
Phil: I think Anthony Johnson's closest stylistic analogues in the UFC are Chad Mendes and his now-teammate Vitor Belfort. He functions largely as a reactive pressure fighter, as Mendes does, by stepping into range and demanding that his opponent responds. Where Mendes evades and counters with sheer speed, Johnson uses more of a high guard and subtle head movement. He gets hit a fair bit, but he can normally defuse at least some of the power, and come back with his own shots, which are thunderous. Like Belfort, he also uses kicks to cut off the cage if his opponent refuses to engage with him. He normally steps forward into a snapping left head-kick. He doesn't have as strong a weapon to hit opponents travelling to his left, aside from a leg kick- his right hand would serve that purpose, but he doesn't like to throw it as a lead unless his opponent is badly hurt. In classic Blackzilians fashion, Johnson likes the uppercut as the counter to telegraphed double legs. This probably won't be an issue against Cormier, but the upper may get some play anyway considering their sizable height disparities.
His offensive wrestling has largely disappeared since his move up in weight, but Johnson is a great defensive wrestler. He almost welcomes the takedown by attacking it as soon as possible, and he has yet to be taken down at light heavyweight or heavyweight.
David: Johnson is little like what Melvin Guillard would turn into if he didn't panic on the ground. Guillard sabotages himself by feeling like his only option is to get back on his feet in order to counter a scramble. Johnson has figured certain principles out that have aided his game. I've always felt like Johnson's greatest asset is his left high kick from his southpaw (and traditional) stance. Opponents tend to forget it because it's rarely used as a one hitter quitter. For most humans, you just can't generate that kind of power from your off leg. Johnson is not like most humans obviously. He chambers it with slick speed, and provocative power. It doesn't always land, and opponents can predict it, it keeps his opponent's radar on full alert.
Phil: Daniel Cormier's fighting style is oddly indicative of his whole sporting career: taking his approach and forcing it through, critics be damned. From a state with terrible wrestling? Didn't care. Too fat for the Olympics? Didn't care. Too short for heavyweight MMA? Didn't care.
Thus, as a particularly short light heavyweight Cormier does not box or wrestle particularly "tall". Instead of working the body and getting in underneath, he comes in behind a crisp jab and headhunts. Rather than wrestling with double legs and trying to capitalize on his low center of gravity, he focuses on upper body work, and getting double underhooks for throws and trips. Arguably his best wrestling skill is primarily defensive in nature -stuffing shots and going behind the opponent- which makes it unfortunate for him that he has never really had the chance to fight a double-leg focused wrestler. That's not likely to change with this fight.
Cormier is an excellent clinch fighter and dirty boxer. Like Velasquez, he excels at pushing his opponent up against the cage and using his head as a lever, while pummelling for an underhook or working for wrist control and using his other hand to punch. Johnson is himself a good clinch fighter with particularly brutal uppercuts, but what he gains in power he loses in diversity. He also clinch fights at a greater distance than Cormier- he pushes the head back and uses collar grips, whereas Cormier focuses on underhooks and wrist control from as close as possible. Expect Rumble to try and land single shots, and then break the clinch.
David: Reading your words about Cormier makes me realize just how competitive this fight is on paper. He's a brilliant fighter who makes good use of phase shifting by avoiding the Alpha Male stereotype of being hyperactive. Cormier has always reminded me most of Fedor, but their skillsets are different. Where Fedor could set up combinations, Cormier opts for firepower in moderation. Fedor was gifted offensively in the grappling department, whereas Cormier is much better defensively. And so forth. But both had and have a unique ability to be functionally stronger than their opponents in multiple facets, never looking uncomfortable or ill equipped to deal with someone bigger than them.
I have to believe that a lot of work gets done the clinch. I still favor Cormier there. As good as Rumble is, I don't see him too prepared to grind out the clinch. Cormier doesn't just have more options, he's better at both as well; able to land more punishing strikes from in close, and able to hustle Rumble down for the kind of top control Johnson hasn't at all dealt with since Vitor Belfort of all people (well, not so much top control as the whole ground affair in general).
Insight from past fights?
Phil: The closest analogue is probably Davis vs Rumble. However, despite being a much taller and longer fighter than Cormier is, Davis is much, much worse at closing distance, and when he was tagged by Rumble, he panicked (as, to be fair, pretty much everyone seems to). However, Davis did finally get in on Rumble... and got absolutely nowhere with the takedowns. Cormier may be forced to stand with Johnson for much of the fight.
David: I can't remember the last time Johnson had to deal with someone that had the strength the dictate the terms of the battle. Things have changed since the Koscheck fight, I know. But it's difficult to claim dramatic improvement unless someone can approximate Cormier's intimidating presence. Even Rumble's fights at HW didn't give him the opportunity to test himself.
Phil: I just don't think we can top the X-factors for our Gus-Rumble predictions. We picked eye-pokes, and you mentioned the Kevin Burns KO? We have nowhere to go but down from that. Rumble's long-dormant takedown game? Cormier accidentally headbutting him? Rumble's gas tank? Nothing is going to measure up.
David: I still think Cormier's age will become factor sooner than anticipated. He's 36, despite only 16 pro fights, but given what his body had to endure for the Olympics, and is continued work rate, eventually that toll will manifest.
Phil: As the odds indicate, this is a pick ‘em. I can see Cormier working a game where he circles left and avoids the headkick and stays patient until he can work the clinch, and I can also see him exchanging and getting hurt. In the end, I think how untouchable Rumble has looked in the clinch of late has me leaning his way. He's also the bigger finishing threat. I think this will be closely contested, but Anthony "Rumble" Johnson by unanimous decision.
David: Rumble is still relatively inexperienced from a styles context. I just don't think we typically learn as much from quick knockouts. This doesn't diminish a great win over Gustafsson. But it should prompt questions about what pugilism success he can replicate against Cormier. It's as tough a fight for Cormier as it is for Johnson, but I see Cormier shining bright in this one. He'll outlast Johnson in the later rounds, where I can't see Cormier breakin in any way. Daniel Cormier by Decision.