Two likely to be contenders to the light heavyweight throne try to excite the division this January 30, 2016 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Single sentence summary:
Phil: Finding flaws, as light heavyweight's master of the pratfall takes on strong-but-brittle Rumble
David: The most elite fighters with the most embarrassing losses in MMA battle for a title shot that Rich Clementi and Tito Ortiz wish had their DeLoreans.
Anthony "Rumble" Johnson 20-5
Ryan "Darth" Bader 20-4
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: Rumble Johnson was once a hyped up prospect in the UFC. Following, amongst other things, a brutal destruction where he appeared to be driven mad by an eye poke, he made his way up the UFC welterweight ranks, where he was only stopped by a tough wrestler from AKA who beat him by rear-naked choke. Following weight-cut debacles, he was cut. He eventually came back to the UFC a new man, reinvented and ready to avoid the mistakes of his past. Following, amongst other things, a brutal destruction where he appeared to be driven mad by an eye poke, he made his way up the light heavyweight ranks, where he was only stopped by a tough wrestler from AKA who beat him by rear-naked choke.
David: I'm glad your memory is as fond as mine of the Kevin Burns bouts. That switch kick knockout of Burns is one of the more sudden snuff moments in the UFC. Burns kind of deserved it, cosmically speaking. It's funny because when I think of Johnson, I don't think about the cold weather of submission grappling. I think about Vitor Belfort's stand offish personality. As in, he seemed to always have that ceiling of a high event fighter in a low event IQ (this feels vaguely racist so I'll stop there). Yet somehow he's past the point of diminishing returns. He's basically Clubber Lang at this point.
Phil: Ryan Bader is a fine fighter who has had the misfortune of having virtually his entire career play out in the UFC, while simultaneously being a prospect at the same time and in the same division as the greatest talent to ever step into the eight-sided cage. A number of cataclysmic losses have given the impression of Bader as something of a meathead, but he's just quietly gotten better and better. He rarely makes exactly the same mistake twice.
David: Bader has come a long way since having to avoid Junie Browning's frontal lobe by the poolside. He was like that guy from your dorm who was naturally good at any sport you put him in, but didn't have the ambition to commit to go pro. Yet here Bader is. I would argue that his presence near the top of LHW is a combination of good fortune, and good pugilism. His current 5-0 streak can be easily criticized, but what they reflect about his talents cannot. Needless to say, this is a totally worthwhile main event.
What are the stakes?
Phil: Like contender's fights at lightweight or featherweight, this one comes under a long shadow. Until Jon Jones has a fight booked, no-one knows exactly what's going on at the top of this division. However, given the unchanging shallowness of the division, the winner can likely just sit and wait for the Cormier-Jones situation to resolve. It's not like some red-hot LHW prospect is going to come out of nowhere and leapfrog them.
David: The only way this fight has interesting stakes is if Johnson lays the smackdown on Bader, and the interest in a Cormier rematch boils to the surface. Because then we get the Jones vs. Johnson match we've been salivating for. For all of Anthony's misfortunes, mistakes, and flat out skulduggery in some cases, he's still one of the best high octane things going for the light heavyweight division. And his performance against Daniel Cormier is nothing to be ashamed of.
Where do they want it?
Phil: As we mentioned in the Rothwell-Barnett preview, Johnson has a rather specific style, using his outstretched hands to gauge distance before he throws bombs. He's aggressive to the point of being open in this pursuit- most people square up in order to catch an opponent near the cage, but Johnson is almost squared up all the time, relying on his parrying and head movement to avoid or take steam off opponents punches, whilst coming back with massive counters. It's a pretty terrifying style, built for capitalizing on his insane durability (I don't think I've ever seen Johnson hurt by a punch) and power. His favoured techniques to catch opponents who are circling away are his overhand right, and his blindingly fast left switch kick, and he likes a number of brutal uppercuts- a short upper to catch opponents ducking in, or one where he steps around and counters under an opponent's jab (also something Bader likes). He's a very good offensive and defensive wrestler, and his main problems just seem to be around getting over-aggressive, and then panicking when said aggression doesn't work. For example, he gifted Cormier bodylocks by absolutely swinging for the fences. He's one of those fighters who seems to have tunnel vision for the finish- it means he hits (and hurts) virtually everyone he fights, but it also means that he seems vulnerable if he fails.
David: In that sense, my comparison to Belfort sort of stands in a clumsy way. Belfort gets tunnel vision because he's not built to be a high output fighter. Johnson gets tunnel vision because he's just that bloodthirsty. One of the defining elements of Johnson's game besides his sheer power and diversity is the power he generates with his front leg. It just kind of defies physics. He's not just ambidextrous. He's omnidextrous.
Phil: Ryan Bader has changed from being a meat'n'potatoes, overhand'n'double leg wrestler into a skilled and intelligent outfighter. The fighter he most resembles nowadays is (don't laugh) GSP- from a lowered base he fires a crisp, sneaky jab, and when opponents rush in he comes with the counter takedown. He's not quite like GSP of course- his jab is not as hard or as long, but Bader does still have a pretty crushing right hand, something which St-Pierre lost when he specialized in the jab and hook. He also has a number of ways that he throws that right, including a sneaky shovel punch and even an admittedly clunky version of the dart, where he briefly switches stances and then moves out on an angle. Possibly his worst habit is around that right, though- a tendency to wing the uppercut when his back is to the fence.
Unlike many who specialize in their standup, Bader's wrestling is as sharp as it ever has been. He's got an explosive double leg and knee tap, and traditionally chains together singles and doubles as soon as he grabs ahold, and works grinding positions like the top ride or the seatbelt. Although he's hugely muscled, Bader keeps a good pace and rarely tires more than his opponent.
David: Bader has actually progressed on the striking front. He used to be a pure one handed fighter. He still is. Kind of. But his newfound movement and angles allow him to simultaneously get in better position for his right hand, but also free up other strikes. He'll never be a dynamic puncher in the LHW division but there's enough punching ammunition to make any 205'er hesitant to pressure him effectively.
Bader feels like the last of a dying breed when it comes to classic blast doubles. He doesn't close the distance with exceptional speed, but his skip a leg day frame keeps him exponentially effective once he does close the distance. His upper body He-Man strength allows him to cut out the middle man in the clinch; as in, his strength gives him an economy of drive few fighters possess. If Bader manages to take Johnson down, it won't exactly shock people. If he takes him down, and beats on him like some oversized Rich Clementi, it shouldn't shock people either.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: We've seen Rumble against a wrestler who gave Bader problems (Davis) and an outfighter (Gustafsson), and he murdered both of them. I'm not sure, however, that those fights are as damning as they first appear. On rewatch, Gustafsson was winning rather easily before throwing The World's Dumbest Front Kick, and Bader has a much better double leg than Davis does. The last thing (although this is very subjective) is that I actually believe Rumble has looked tangibly worse ever since the Davis fight. In that bout he was patient, variegated, snipped away at Davis's movement with leg kicks, and took his time. Since then, he seems to have lost it somewhat.
David: His offense definitely feels "forced" at times. There are clearly moments where his opponents aren't giving up the easy counter, or the easy opportunity, but he keeps smashing through the China shop anyway. However, I think Johnson is one of the few fighters who gets away with pressuring ad nauseum because there's no truly efficient way to counter it. The fact that he hasn't won a championship shouldn't necessarily indict his 'offense wins championships' demeanor.
Phil: Gotta be the mindsets. Bader is that guy who could almost be relied upon to do something consistently inconsistent and throw the fight away. Rumble is the guy who panics and implodes when things are going wrong. In general, I tend to think that the second one is far more of a key risk indicator. Making silly in-fight decisions is something which can be fixed over time, with enough experience and discipline. Panicking in certain phases of the fight, or consistently giving up is something which is far, far harder to fix.
David: I don't know about that last part. Since 2011 when Johnson got back from his injuries, I'd argue that Bader has been the more "panicky" of the two. Losing to a wild card in Belfort, and Cormier have been his only stumbles, and he didn't look as skittish as Bader did against Machida or Glover. I realize you're making a distinction between panic and deliberate indecision, but I think the latter is largely borne out of the former. Much like the subconscious and conscious are intertwined, you don't make silly fight decisions without being informed by fear. I think Bader's IQ is more of a liability here, but maybe that's just me.
Phil: Rumble is the more natural, fluid striker. He likes striking, and so even if Bader can edge him early on with outfighting and the jab, Rumble is unlikely to break down and gas out in the same way that he did in the Cormier fight. In order to "break" Johnson, Bader's going to have to walk a very fine line between throwing hands with a more powerful, durable striker, and mixing in reactive shots. Can he do it? I think he can. Ryan Bader by submission, round 4.
David: I don't think Bader has enough vision to keep Johnson from containing him in his own head trauma snowglobe. Not only does Bader have to counter with strikes, but he has to counter with anticipation and movement. And he has to accept that Johnson will land in intervals. Especially early. Bader just isn't the guy to fight a collective defensive shell against a fighter who consistently breaks them with variety. Anthony Johnson by TKO, round 1.