​Anthony Johnson's Retirement Won't Last ​

Fightland Blog

By Jeff Harder

Photo by Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

When you heard Anthony Johnson’s voice tremble, you could almost believe what he said. "This was my last fight," he told the ticket holders in Buffalo, New York, who'd just seen UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier choke him out in the second round of UFC 210's main event. "I didn’t even tell [UFC president] Dana White. I didn’t tell anybody. My coaches knew, my family knew, my friends knew I didn’t want any distractions. But I have to thank you all for being there for me, you know?"

This was astonishing news. Johnson is—or was—a cannon-ball-throwing knockout artist and a hulking specimen who became a title contender as soon as he stopped torturing himself into a 170-pound shell, a two-time challenger for Cormier's belt and a 33-year-old youth in a rapidly aging division. And here he was, thanking the UFC, the fans, Cormier, Jon Jones and erstwhile champion Jon Jones, whom he never had the chance to face, and leaving the fight game for parts unknown. "I gave my commitment to another job that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. It’s not MMA related or anything like that. It’s just time for me to move on to something else. I’m tired of getting punched by guys and rolling around on the ground with guys and stuff like that—ain’t nothing fun about that yo."

No doubt Johnson spoke from the heart, no doubt he believed what he said, and no doubt he’s not going to fight for a while. But it’s hard to get sentimental about his retirement for one simple reason: it's not going to last.

Because how could he go out like he did Saturday, with such a bizarre showing in Buffalo? Instead of landing haymakers and replicas of the kick that put a dent in Cormier’s nose in the first round, Johnson leaned on an inexplicable clinch-and-grind wrestling game plan which, apparently, his coaches didn't co-sign. MMA Junkie's transcript of the banter coming from Johnson’s corner is a slow build of frustration, culminating with Johnson tapping out and coach Henri Hooft saying, "Why, why the fuck does this happen every fucking time, man?" Criticize Johnson's coaches for abandoning their fighter after the bout, but it was a performance unbecoming of the division’s number-one contender.

But that’s the thing: in a weight class where Jon Jones is a ghost until he finishes his drug suspension this summer, Johnson was the best man not holding the belt and one of the only fighters who mattered. He’s knocked out top light heavyweights Alexander Gustafsson and Jimi Manuwa, and his ostensible departure from the sport adds panic that even Jones’s return won’t calm. There is true depletion in the ranks at 205 pounds: with Johnson’s retirement, a shopworn Mauricio "Shogun" Rua is now the fourth-ranked light heavyweight in the promotion. The drop-off only gets steeper after that.

Despite losing his second title fight, Johnson hasn't felt a fall from relevance. Nor has he experienced frequent knockout losses (five of Johnson’s six losses were rear-naked chokes), mounting surgeries, or dwindling paychecks. Johnson didn’t elaborate on the as-yet-unnamed job he was accepting at the post-fight presser—only clarifying that it doesn’t have to do with his dog kennel or him joining the NFL—so it's unclear if he's leaving for a more lucrative job and not just one with fewer chances of leaving the office with a hematoma. But he probably wasn't slurping Top Ramen between paychecks: he made a disclosed $270,000 for knocking out Glover Teixeira last August and $300,000, including performance bonus, for knocking out Ryan Bader last January.

Johnson won't stay retired because, by all appearances, he has none of the fading fighter's symptoms. Even Cormier—in the midst of jawing at Manuwa and Jones and embracing his inner heel for a crowd that was going to boo him anyway—praised Johnson. "Anthony needs to continue fighting, man," Cormier said. "That’s what he was put on this earth to do."

But being good at something isn’t the same as enjoying it, and the routines of professional fighting have a way of magnifying bitterness. Beyond the wrestling with dudes and the getting hit in the head every day, Johnson wouldn’t miss reporters rehashing his domestic violence history. The apparent impulsivity of Johnson’s retirement might mask deeper reasons he doesn’t want to mention into a microphone. We can only hear what Johnson says, not know what he knows.

Maybe Johnson will be the exception, the fighter who reached the top (or close enough), walked away before things got bad, and blocked out the voices wishing for his return. But then you hear what he said at the post-fight press conference about Jon Jones and the fight that could have been. "I’m an alpha male, and he’s an alpha male. I wanted to see what I can do against him…Day in and day out, people are always talking about Jon Jones and myself fighting each other, and it just never happened. Maybe if I decide to come back one day, we can fight at heavyweight or something like that."

That’s the kind of thing you say when you shut a door, and as soon as you hear a knock, you crack it open to see what's on the other side. 


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