Rumble Johnson tries to prove he can “embrace the grind” against Daniel Cormier this April 8, 2017 at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York.
Single sentence summary:
Phil: The man with the fists of fury and the heart of jello meets the UFC's dadbod champ for the second time.
David: Dadweight meets Rumbleweight for MMA’s rare clash of kings and swings.
Record: Daniel Cormier 18-1 Rumble Johnson 22-5
Odds: Daniel Cormier +115 Rumble Johnson -135
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: Daniel Cormier moves into his second defense and third fight as UFC champion, and it seems like he isn't that much closer to becoming a fan favourite. The combination of a slight self-satisfaction and the fact that he'll always be a bit of a dorky square are the more uncontroversial takeaways as to why. Still, like many I find it a bit of a bummer that people don't appreciate him a bit more. If nothing else, they should jam to the physical comedy of watching behemoths like Rumble or Gustafsson literally running away from a fearsome, portly man who chases them around the cage.
David: That’s the thing about Cormier. He’s got all the ingredients of a Fedor-like icon, but where Fedor kept thoughts to himself that would otherwise demystify the man, Cormier is all too eager to “tell it like it is” in the awkward ways that only a slightly out of touch dad manages. We’re slowly finding out that he’s not Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s Lee Cobb Jr. in 12 Angry Men, and the anger comes off as inadequacy. I find it incredibly winning. He’s a throwback. One of those Charles Bronson types with a comic book worldview of good and evil. As Joe Rogan likes to say, “if your life was a movie, what kind of hero would you be?” Cormier is pure Bronson; doing whatever it takes to deal with the fight monsters of the UFC world without an ounce of political correctness, and plenty of power.
Phil: Anthony Johnson's return to the UFC (following the debacle where he moved up and still missed weight by 12 pounds, then spent a few years in WSOF after being cut) initially seemed like a heartwarming tale of that guy who messed up so bad that it put him on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, as it transpired there were still some ugly skeletons in his closet. He might not be the role model that the LHW division needs(?) but he is an absurd, monstrous hitter who may well be the most physically threatening and technically sound fighter in the division.
David: I don’t consider myself a cynical person, but I kind of appreciate that LHW has become a scorched earth of morality and lawful entry. It lends a metaphysical shade of savagery that makes me salivate over the thought of Jones vs. Johnson should we even make it that far. Johnson is pure savagery. I don’t think there’s a more intimidating fighter in the world right now than Rumble.
What are the stakes?
Phil: DC gets to cement the legitimacy of his title reign a bit more with a win, and Rumble gets to win a belt AND navigate his way past his toughest stylistic matchup on his way to a far easier (but much more prestigious bout) with Jon Jones.
David: Jones is the shadow that keeps on shading. Like Akuma in the background of a Ken vs. Ryu fireball fest, you can’t talk about either of these men without referring to the big bad wolf on stage left.
Where do they want it?
Phil: One of the key stories of this fight is the idea of physical connection. Both of these men fight by "feel" as much as they do by judging distance visually. For his part, Cormier may as well be covered in glue- he throws out a jab not just as a measuring tool but simply to put his hand on the opponent. Then he just grabs something and will not let go, from his favoured vice-like single collar to the waistlock or attacking singles. Cormier gets a lot of justified credit for being physically powerful, so I feel I should bring up something which I often do, which is that he is also fast as hell. His footspeed carried him largely unscathed through his career at heavyweight, and while he's no longer at the kind of advantage that allowed him to zip in and out of the range of giant men as though they were Devil May Cry boss fights, it still makes it very difficult to escape from his forward pressure.
His primary fault is that he is just not very good defensively outside of his feet. Gustafsson was able to land his jab at will, and Cormier's only solution was to try to walk right through it. In every fight he's had at 205 apart from the one against Henderson, he's soaked up a ton of damage.
David: Lost in the jokes about dadweight is something underestimated about Fedor during the height of his career that is shared by Dan; their raw athleticism. Fedor was a legitimate athlete, and frankly, as good as they come. Watch his attack on Gary Goodridge, or the left hook he throws from his waist to bomb Brett Rogers. That’s lightweight speed and agility there, and like Fedor, Cormier was highly successful at heavyweight for precisely the same reason. Even his striking attack bears the mark of the cyborg; sweeping his punches with the classic Russian ridgehand. Cormier’s issue is that he’s just not a varied striker. His boxing is rudimentary at best, but it skates him through trouble just by virtue of his speed and power. He has a more dynamic kicking attack, but he’s so often looking to scramble, and hook that single, there’s never a real plan to implement it into his overall frame of pugilism.
Phil: The second part of fighting through feel is Rumble, who stands fairly square and looks to cut off the octagon. When his opponents attempt to hand-fight or strike at him, he either slaps their hands down and throws, or attempts catch-and-pitch counters. These are normally fearsomely accurate and powerful, although his confidence that he has an opponent right where he wants him occasionally leads him to over-commit. The amount of power that he brings to the table can often occlude just how technically skilled Rumble is, with a crisp, hard jab that he could frankly serve to use more, and a sharp low kick to finish combinations. His favourite finishing technique from his welterweight days, the left leg switch kick, is still very much in evidence as well. When he wants to be, he's a smooth offensive wrestler and top game threat.
His weakness is also obvious. It's not his gas tank, but his confidence. We've talked about it before, but I'm fairly sure he has a "hierarchical" view of the world, with clearly defined tiers including fighters who are better than him at the top, and women at the bottom. If he gets convinced that someone belongs in the tier above him, normally due to them absorbing his shots, he visibly (and literally) submits to them with genuinely shocking speed.
David: That last paragraph...
(Sorry Barbara Crampton: we still love you)
Johnson is a case study in psychology begetting physiology. Very few fighters are so intimately tied to their emotions. Even less seem so proud of feeding off them like a complete stooge.
But alas, Johnson walks among us ugly citizens, and here he is fighting for the belt. Rumble’s strengths are patently obvious; his power is otherworldy, but somehow he channels that power into quick, precise, almost effortless strikes. He’s not just athletic and explosive. He’s frenetic and erosive; cascading attacks into different angles, and approaches to maximize violence. Nobody, to be frank, does it better. Even though his punches are his best finishing weapon, his kicks are what pays the bills. Rumble chambers high kicks from both legs so fluently, you half expect him to knock someone out with Rain’s famous double standing dropkick:
Still, as with every Rumble fight, how long until he’s sapped of his energy? I believe his cardio is actually fine. Against Phil David and Andrei Arlovski, he never really waned because, as you said, neither guy passed his “Alpha Male” test. Cormier’s already passed it. Can he do it again?
Insight from past fights?
Phil: The Phil Davis fight is Rumble's most impressive and cohesive performance, where he didn't go nuts at any point, kept his distance and still actively discouraged Davis from closing and broke the clinch at almost every point. He also went three rounds and won every one of them easily. This is definitely the fight which Johnson should be looking at if he wants to beat Cormier... and yet... when I rewatched that fight I was sort of shocked to see that Johnson started to look panicked towards the end of it. He started shooting takedowns and got himself put into a standing Kimura. Despite looking terrified, the simple fact that Davis wasn't going away was clearly starting to badly erode Rumble's confidence. As such, I'm starting to think that it may be almost impossible for him to actually win a 5 round decision.
David: I don’t there’s any reason not to revisit their first fight. It’s a perfect distillation of their strategic conflicts. Cormier needs to defend and stalk with singles, while Rumble needs to blitz like the world itself won’t see tomorrow.
Phil: OK, so literally everyone has come to the conclusion that Johnson needs to fight more conservatively to win, right? Going nuts for the finish got him exhausted and tapped out. The thing is, Johnson trains with the Blackzilians (or what was the Blackzilians), and I'm genuinely not sure if this is the way that they think of these things, because I am increasingly convinced that they are the insecurity-fuelled Cobra Kai of MMA camps.
I reference Michael Johnson, who got too aggressive and was subsequently out-gamed by Nate Diaz. Was his solution in his fights afterwards to fight more cleanly and conservatively? No! It was to try even harder to finish and throw even more volume, even when that was clearly suicidal, as when he allowed Khabib to walk right into him. People expecting a smarter, more clean Rumble may be surprised to find that he might have come to the conclusion that his real problem was his lack of power and conviction the first time round. The most terrifying thing is that it might even work.
David: The last time Johnson rematched someone, Rumble gave Joe Rogan his most blood vessel destroying “OOOOOOHHHHHH!!” in UFC history. Is he the guy that “figures things out” the second time around, like some facepunching gumshoe?
Phil: Rumble has two basic paths to victory- in one he takes a more conservative approach, hurts DC repeatedly, and then stops him sometime in the second or third. In the other he just decks the champ by punching him as hard as he possibly can. I think the aggregate of these possibilities is higher than the other (although also likely) possibility that DC survives the storm and chokes him out again. Cormier isn't getting younger, and has been hurt badly in every one of his recent fights. I know he's going to get hit, and I can't convince myself he's going to survive it, much as I'd like him to. Anthony Johnson by TKO, round 2.
David: You’re being mathematical and intelligent, which MMA is not. The aggregate of those possibilities works in the context of classical physics, but we’re dealing with the quantum world of cage fighting. Cormier getting tagged again might be more likely to happen again, but who is more likely to be finished by their worst case probabilities? It’s Johnson’s punch correlations versus Cormier’s grind embracing causation. Johnson, fending off single legs, and slowly coming to the realization that he’s a misogynistic beta-male in light heavyweight’s O.K. Corral will be crumble Rumble like a dirty Yoga mat. Daniel Cormier by RNC, round 2.