UFC light heavyweight Anthony Johnson has never really been one for trash talk.
Quiet and modest, Johnson has always preferred stunning displays of athleticism inside the Octagon over running his mouth in front of the cameras, so it came as no surprise that while on a recent press tour to promote his upcoming UFC 187 title fight against Jon Jones, Johnson echoed words of respect towards his heavily lambasted opponent.
“I’m not going out of my way to be nice,” explained Johnson at the UFC’s Welcome to the Show press conference. “I’m human. He’s human. We all make mistakes. Honestly, the world is crazy because we love each other to hate each other.”
This humble approach is nothing new for Johnson. He knows adversity all too well. But rather than crumbling in the face of turmoil, Johnson has parlayed his patient philosophies into one of the most remarkable returns to the Octagon in UFC history.
After amassing a 7-4 record under the UFC banner from 2007 – 2012, Johnson was cut from the promotion for repeatedly missing weight, first at 170 pounds, then as a middleweight. And while a demotion to the minor leagues is often a signal to hang it up for most fighters, Johnson found motivation and inspiration in his career twist, reassessing that his talents and size would be better suited for the 205-pound division.
“When I was losing weight, I did get mentally weak in a lot of situations,” offers Johnson, who is soon set to enter training camp for his May 23 bout with Jones. “But since I’ve been fighting at 205 I’ve been having a blast, smiling day in and day out. Mentally I’m as strong as I’ve ever been.”
With his focus and mental game in tact, Johnson has looked unstoppable inside the Octagon, cruising to three-straight victories since returning to the UFC in April 2014.
First came a dominant decision over seventh-ranked Phil Davis, followed by a blistering knockout of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in July 2014, a highlight-reel KO that played for a national audience on FOX. On both occasions, Johnson was pegged the underdog, and on both occasions he walked away victorious, silencing all the doubters.
But certainly he would not be able to stop Alexander Gustafsson, the highly touted Swede who gave the champion Jones his toughest test to date. Surely Gustafsson would be too big, too long, his boxing and takedown defense too good for Johnson to work his heavy hitting theatrics, especially in Gustafsson’s native Stockholm, in front of 30,000 strong.
Again, the oddsmakers’ predictions were spoiled by a hungry and fierce Johnson.
“I knew I would win and I believe in myself, and I believe in my abilities. I just didn’t know I was gonna win that fast, and it feels awesome to shut down 30,000 people and basically a whole country,” states Johnson. “Nobody can really say they ever did that, and I can say I did that. I did something to somebody that nobody’s ever done and that’s an awesome feeling … that’s a feeling I can’t really describe.”
It is at this time that Johnson shows his humility, caught in the emotional mix between his most important career win and the crushing defeat felt by his opponent; he is both sympathetic and empathetic to Gustafsson’s sorrow, and that’s because he knows what it’s like to be at the bottom.
Following his July 2014 KO of Nogueira, and shortly after a controversial video of NFL running back Ray Rice punching his wife in the jaw was publically released, the mother of Johnson’s children filed a restraining order against the fighter, who she alleged threatened her life and struck her, knocking out her teeth. There was also a domestic violence situation with ex-UFC fighter Thiago Silva earlier in 2014, prompting the UFC to temporarily suspend Johnson until further review.
Ultimately Johnson was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the experience made an impact on the mixed martial arts fighter.
“When the whole situation happened, I was in shock … I can’t believe somebody would lie like this just to try and get back at me … mentally I had my walls up. I hated this person for what they did, but also I felt bad for her,” comments Johnson. “I don’t wish that lie upon anybody. It sucks. That’s something that can haunt you forever … especially being a pro athlete … I forgive this person, but it’s still sad that they would do that.”
Shortly after the police investigation ended, Johnson was paired with Gustafsson. A true testament to his humanity and perseverance, Johnson rebounded with his biggest career victory, succeeding on the biggest stage, after a painful and tumultuous personal experience.
Crediting his family, in particular his grandparents, Johnson has remained focused through his career, a path that has seen its ups and downs. And with the biggest fight of his life just on the horizon, Johnson acknowledges that the support he’s received have been paramount to his ability to withstand turmoil and remain focused on MMA.
“Going through so much in life you kind of have to be humble, and plus my grandparents, that’s just how they raised me,” adds Johnson. “My grandparents adopted me. They raised me from the age of two. My granddad was my right-hand-man and now it’s my grandmother … I hope she comes to this fight because every time she comes to a fight, I actually fight better because I don’t want to disappoint her.”
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