It is strange to think that it has been two years since Jon Jones held the UFC light heavyweight belt. Many have grown accustomed to considering Daniel Cormier as something of an interim champion even though he holds the legitimate title. But then if we are completely honest, the UFC has dropped the ball regarding its light heavyweight division. Proven top ten fighters like Ryan Bader and Phil Davis have been allowed to leave due to a perception that they don't move the needle, despite both compiling exciting finishes over anyone outside of the top ten. The division is so thin on new blood that Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua, now in the fifteenth year of his professional career, has jumped back to number five in the UFC's rankings after besting the shambling Gian Villante. Yes, it is easy to feel alienated and disinterested, and then you watch any of the matches between the current top three: Anthony Johnson, Alexander Gustafsson, and Daniel Cormier and you remember that there is still some magic to be found at 205lbs.
Anthony Johnson and Daniel Cormier met in 2015 to decide the fate of the UFC light heavyweight title in Jon Jones' absence and what resulted was a barnburner. Cormier was almost immediately caught reaching out his lead hand in answer to Johnson's aggression, and pulling directly back when Johnson moved to hit him. With his head high in the air, Cormier was cracked with a right and knocked to the floor. Had Cormier rebounded to take a few more punches before suffering a knockout, fans would have been reflecting on the stiffness of his chin. The fact that Cormier rallied, regained his faculties, and stuck to Johnson at the first missed blow was remarkable.
The story of Anthony Johnson throughout his career—once the struggle to the scale has been accomplished—has been that he is one of MMA's most powerful strikers, and can muscle off a takedown attempt from almost anyone, but there is a finite amount that he can manage before he is quickly exhausted. His hands on, heavy style does not lend itself to a lengthy bout, and his tendency to swing for a finish at the first sign of weakness exacerbates this. He also becomes predictable in his reliance on overhand rights and step-up left high kicks.
As Cormier forced Johnson to carry his weight, Johnson fought off any attempt to get him to the mat. But the act of fighting off Cormier's constant attempts—the lifting of one leg, the threat of a cradle when Johnson began to stand, sagging on Johnson with the seatbelt—wore on Johnson quickly. When he was freed to strike on the outside, the ticking clock was suddenly on Johnson. He tried to make the knockout happen each time the two men engaged and it only served to make him more predictable. Even as Johnson connected blows, he left opportunities for Cormier to dive on his hips or stick to him in the clinch. By the third round, Johnson was spent. Along the fence with Cormier attempting to take his back, Johnson seemed unable to drive back to his feet, or even to move his arms to resist Cormier. Stuck in a state of absolute fatigue, Johnson easily conceded his back and a choke. The accusations of him being a mentally fragile fighter who could break under pressure were loud and frequent, but as the saying goes fatigue makes cowards of all men and it was fatigue more than Johnson's will which sealed his end in the bout.
So if you find yourself looking down the barrel of the Johnson – Cormier rematch and feeling that you have seen this fight already, try to recall what has happened since. Anthony Johnson has obliterated three of the top light heavyweights in the world with no difficulty at all in Jimi Manuwa, Ryan Bader, and Glover Teixeira. In October of 2015, Daniel Cormier struggled through a five round war with Alexander Gustafsson wherein he was almost knocked out and clung to his crown by a close decision. Almost a year later, at UFC 200, Cormier lost his opponent in Jon Jones and was matched with the aged middleweight, Anderson Silva. Ineffective in Silva's guard but unchallenged in the wrestling, Cormier simply laid on his man while doing little meaningful damage against a much lesser opponent. Cormier even found himself on the receiving end of a brutal body kick which threatened to steal Silva the fight in the final minute.
Johnson, five years the younger of Cormier, is a man still at the height of his powers. Fans still want to see Johnson be the man to welcome Jon Jones back to the Octagon, thinking he can be the first to starch the light heavyweight great. Cormier, meanwhile, is nearing forty years old and has found himself suffering from increasing wear and tear on his body, having spent the majority of his life actively wrestling with the will of other men. With that being said all that Johnson has shown is that he can deck anyone who eats his power and do it early—he has shown nothing of an improved gas tank or fight IQ in a drawn out skirmish.
For that reason, Anthony Johnson has all the work to do here. A one punch knockout would be a delightful surprise for his corner, allowing Johnson to scoop up the belt and head home early, but it should never be the gameplan. If Cormier can take Johnson's heavy leather—and at the time of the last fight at least, he could—Johnson has to find ways to connect his headache-makers more frequently and more conservatively. Johnson gave up the first takedown as he threw his overhand ahead of himself and Cormier ducked under it. He gave up another as he threw up wild, repeated kicks with no set up or attempt to hide them. Later Johnson even began falling over as he threw himself off balance, desperately hunting the knockout.
A change of philosophy would be good to see from Johnson: an attempt to dial it down from eleven. Strangely, some of the biggest punchers you will see in combat sports can be reluctant to stop throwing with all their force. It takes some courage to do but it would be good to see Anthony Johnson approach this fight as a chance to outpoint Daniel Cormier in a twenty-five minute fight. The fact that the strikes he scores with will be like a mule kick compared to those of many other conservative, technical strikers means that if he focuses purely on a technical kickboxing bout he has a great chance of picking up the knockout anyway.
In terms of specifics, the overhand is a Johnson favourite but can be ducked and exposes the hips and armpit of his right side to Cormier. The uppercut he starched Teixeira with was a nice addition and showed Johnson's awareness of Teixeira's standard tactic of leaning in and trying to arc the overhand across the top of his opponent's attacks. If Johnson can hang back in this bout and convince Cormier to come to him in hopes of getting the takedowns, he could attempt to time counter uppercuts against Cormier on the level change or on a lean for the overhand. Provided his left hand is active and prepared for the constant threat of the Cormier right, Johnson's counter uppercut could prove something of a game changer.
It should not surprise many readers that generally the man with the worse gas tank can benefit from a slower pace, but this is not how Johnson fights the majority of the time. Instead he chooses to explode at his man and swarm until the finish. Johnson's fight with Phil Davis, while it provided no spectacular finish, was a good example of the pace it might be nice to see Johnson replicate. Johnson did not tire in that bout against a very accomplished wrestler because the wrestler dived after long shots and was kept out at distance, afraid to engage. Cormier being allowed to enter Johnson's range under wild strikes, and then stick to Johnson, constantly transitioning, sagging on Johnson and threatening takedowns, was what allowed him to steal the fight.
Something which we were noticing back when Daniel Cormier was fighting Josh Barnett and Frank Mir was his over-reaction to body work. A good body kick or knee from both men had Cormier grimacing almost leaping backwards. Fast forward to Jon Jones versus Daniel Cormier and it was Jones' constant body work with kicks and long left straights from a southpaw stance that made Cormier slow from round to round. More evidence was added to support the 'Cormier doesn't like bodywork' hypothesis when Anderson Silva winded the light heavyweight champion with a punt to the paunch.
Anthony Johnson had a degree of success with his left round kicks both from his usual step up in orthodox stance, and when he switched to southpaw. A sneaker high kick straight out of the clinch was a real slick move for a two hundred pound man. That's the sort of stuff that Sergio Pettis surprises lightning fast flyweights with.
More significant was the work from open guard. In a southpaw versus orthodox match up the rear leg of both men is kicking into the open side. The back and shoulders are no longer in the way and the fighter is kicking straight into the midriff of his opponent, protected only by their rear arm. Looking at it from a boxing perspective, the rear kick is longer like the rear hand and should be more telegraphed. When you factor in the step up or switch required for most lead leg kicks, and the fact that the pivoting foot is closer to the target on rear leg kicks, kicking with the rear leg straight out of the stance is often the preferable method. When both men are kicking into the open side it can become a quick draw contest. To see the lightning crack quickness some men can work with kicking into the open side it is worth studying three very different kinds of kicker in Lyoto Machida, Anthony Pettis and Yodsanklai.
Johnson and Cormier in a wild trade of kicks into the open side.
The nice thing about kicking into the open side is that the opponent gets just enough time to panic about whether the kick is going to the midsection or the head and can often reach and over-react. If not he has a chance of getting kicked in the target, and a chance of getting kicked in the arm. This is all stuff we discussed in Monday's The Elements of Style: The Double Attack and will be plenty familiar to any Cro Cop fans reading this article. Kicks to the arms are not to be undervalued as a weapon in their own right. Jon Jones tired Cormier's arms out in the clinch, but the Rocky Marciano method of hitting them until the opponent can't lift them will always be effective.
For Johnson then an ideal gameplan would be to keep on top of his feet, keep his hands in his guard, and to wait for Daniel Cormier to come to him. Looking for counter uppercuts and right hooks (he landed a lovely stance shifting one in the first bout), Johnson might do well to focus on denying the takedown with distance and punishing attempts to close, rather than hoping to take Cormier's head off on the way in and then sprawl on him. Switching to the southpaw stance will also open up the body kicks that Cormier loathes, and perhaps even the left straight down the middle if Johnson feels confident with that weapon. A couple of high kicks snuck through against Cormier in the first fight, a more measured fight with power high kicks out of the stance rather than rushed kicks mid-brawl might even secure a fight threatening high kick connection. It is also worth noting that Jon Jones fought much of his fight with Cormier from a southpaw stance, and on the occasions that he fought orthodox he would withdraw his lead leg back into a southpaw stance whenever Cormier reached to pick up his favourite high crotch on the left leg.
One interesting point from the first fight is that in the second round, wherein Johnson took a pasting on the canvas, he was trapped underneath Cormier in half guard. As Cormier sat on Johnson's bottom leg, he dropped strikes and threatened a kimura.
Johnson very occasionally found the strength to make space and put in a knee shield with his top leg but for the most part was stuck.
The trouble with the knee shield is that it is the smart thing to do, it creates distance and can be used to come up on the underhook or move back to full guard, but many wrestlers can smash it down before it is put in properly and controlling their posture. Heavy top players will lean on it and continue to strike effectively as if it weren't even there. When Stephen Thompson slid in the knee shield against Tyron Woodley in their first fight it did nothing to stop the blows. Johnson recovered the knee shield for a while in the second round of the first Cormier bout but Cormier simply leaned on it, continued slapping in punches, and then slid right back in to trap the bottom leg and flatten the half guard once again.
Anderson Silva stalled Cormier out very effectively—if boringly—with a lockdown. The lockdown is somewhat frowned upon by many grapplers because it makes it more difficult for the bottom man to create movement and to get on his side, but its value as a tie up from the bottom is hard to argue with. It is very hard to strike effectively from a lockdown once the trapped leg is extended. Cormier ended up swinging wide to generate power while his base was stretched out, each time allowing Silva to grab double underhooks and bury his face in Cormier's chest, stalling out while Cormier threw meaningless slaps against the side of Silva's noggin.
For Daniel Cormier, the plan from the first fight—if indeed it was a plan—could suffice if Rumble turns up looking to take his head off as quickly as possible. Dive through the openings, stick to Johnson and make him work consistently rather than straining for one big takedown attempt and feeling disheartened. Johnson proved last time that there are only so many times he can swing with his full weight, drag himself back from the floor, and muscle off the takedown attempts of the much more nuanced and economical wrestler.
Should Johnson look to fight on the counter, as he did against Glover Teixeira and as we have touched on in our hypothetical gameplan, it would be good to see Cormier attempt to convince the challenger to swing. Not the most fundamentally pretty kicker, Cormier can still pound in a good, fast low kick when he needs to. Provided he doesn't eat a simultaneous right hand counter, a good kick could convince Johnson to come back swinging, and that would be the time to level change or counter punch. Cormier through his heavyweight career also had good success level changing with his blows. A body jab is a scary thing to attempt against a man who hits as hard as Johnson, but as we have mentioned previously: Johnson's takedown defence very handsy.
Rather than use his footwork to deny takedown attempts as MMA's more elusive strikers do, Johnson is a forward moving fighter who actively fights off any takedown attempt, dropping his hands to do so. A faked takedown to an overhand or left hook, or a few body jabs and a right across the top could both give him fits over the rounds. Even picking up a leg, dropping it, and coming up swinging might be a good idea to land some free hits and keep Johnson working and off balance.
In the first match, Johnson was dangerous leaving the clinches—throwing up high kicks and winging clotheslines with both hands on the break—but there were a couple of occasions where Cormier flurried with his hands as he left clinches along the fence and connected well.
Cormier's hands have always been quick for a man of his size, and his work against Frank Mir along the fence was a joy to watch. Dirty boxing along the fence hasn't always been a big part of Cormier's game, and when he does strike in the clinch it tends to be head hunting with those George Foreman / bus driver uppercuts that he loaded up against Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson. Taking a page out of Jon Jones' book could help Cormier a lot here. Pushing Johnson to the fence so that his feet are under him and his stance is broken, Cormier could drive his head underneath Johnson's face and look to free his hands to bang the body. Still a relatively uncommon strategy in MMA, this has proven to be a terrific method for the Diaz brothers and Jon Jones.
The most interesting part of this fight is that both men have had the time necessary to prepare for a world championship fight against a world class opponent. In 2015, Cormier was called up to the title fight with Johnson on four weeks notice after Jon Jones was pulled from the bout. For Johnson to go from the lengthy outfighter, Jon Jones, to the stocky wrestler, Daniel Cormier was a big ask. For Cormier to go from Ryan Bader to Anthony Johnson was just as awkward. There is fun to be had with a short notice bout, but to see men at their best it is necessary for them and their teams to have time to study and work opponent specific. UFC 210 promises a few good fights, but some are treating Johnson versus Cormier as just a repeat of the first fight. We're two years on, a lot has changed, and now the fighters have had the necessary time to prepare for the do-over. Maybe Cormier repeats his performance from UFC 187, maybe Anthony Johnson is able to seal the deal this time. Whatever the case, get back to Fightland on Monday for the recap.
Jack Slack's new biography Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor hits stores on April 5th.
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