Artwork by Gian Galang
Anthony Johnson beguiles me. I cannot think of a fighter whom I have seen so much of and yet know so little about. I know the history and the narrative: the welterweight also ran turned light heavyweight wrecking ball. And I understand his habits and his strategies. What I am puzzled by, and what will have my on the edge of my seat during UFC 187, is how Johnson's style and tendencies will hold up against a rounded threat.
Johnson is being painted as the UFC's own George Foreman. The over-the-top previews insisting that 'what he hits, he destroys' and the like might be a bit much, but the are similarities there. Johnson's “handsy” approach to fights—using his open palms to check blows as he walks down his opponent and looks to get into exchanges—is very reminiscent of the heavyweight great.
The thinking that avoiding exchanges is a must for 'good boxing' is, like all the rules of boxing, not always altogether true. If a fighter hits significantly harder than his opponent, or that he is significantly better suited to an infight, or knows his opponent doesn't take the shots as well, he should be looking to manufacture exchanges. The important part after that is that he wins them.
Manufacturing exchanges doesn't always need to be hard, it just involves a little deliberate inaccuracy. To force a man to stand in front of you, it is necessary to let him block some shots. Foreman would walk his man to the ropes, then as they circled to his right, he'd throw out a tremendous right hook to the body. If they took it, they'd stagger off winded. If they blocked it on the arm, even better.
A fighter cannot move through a strike any more than you or I could move through a wall. It's bone and muscle and leather after all. A blocked strike will halt lateral movement and that is when the attacking fighter has to go into overdrive. There have to be strikes following immediately, taking advantage of the defensive fighter's halted momentum.
Against Alexander Gustafsson, Johnson moved to cut off the cage well, but every time he swung his right hand, the mobile Swede pranced away like a gazelle. It was when Johnson went to the high kick, the step up left high kick which he has thrown with reckless abandon in every fight since his welterweight days, The kick halted Lusty Gusty's movement and stood him still for the flurry of blows which followed. Many missed, but enough connected to send Gustafsson to the floor.
The round kick straight into the forearm is a fantastic way to halt lateral movement. When Matt Brown crowded Erick Silva to the point of starving his lungs, the round kick was what he often used to hold Silva in place, coming in behind it with punches, knees, elbows, and clinch work.
Johnson lands a right hook behind Nogueira's guard, then stiff arms his head back, releasing it to fall onto his right uppercut. All from a southpaw stance, an interesting wrinkle.
And that is what Johnson brings—a physical, all-in style of fighting. He must put his hands on an opponent before he can commence the hurting. He exploits that space between wrestling and striking, holding and hitting. Stiff-arming, cross facing, pulling on the back of the head, all combined with thunderous uppercuts.
New Dog, Old Tricks
If Anthony Johnson can be called anything, it's a throwback. In this sport of constantly looking forward, it's interesting to see something of an old fashioned MMA fighter finding such success. More and more often these days, the successful strikers of mixed martial arts are the ones who keep their distance and evade takedowns primarily with their footwork—encouraging their opponent to give chase and to run onto blows.
Johnson is a 'stand and bang' kind of guy, but he moves forward. This simple action is one of the most difficult things to do in MMA—to advance but still be able to fight off takedowns. The moment a fighter's elbows come away from his body to punch, his hips are open and he is offering up a shot at them. This is why many of the best strikers in MMA stick to long kicks and wait for the opponent to come to them for their best punches.
Against Phil Davis, Johnson advanced relentlessly. And when Davis shot, Johnson's hands were there in front of his face, looking to hit him with an uppercut, and then his hips were crushing Davis into the mat.
Showing the jab just to get the opponent to shoot onto the uppercut. A classic technique, but still good against a desperate wrestler. This is how Jose Aldo knocked out Manny Gamburyan.
That literal "sprawl and brawl" method, combined with a heavy focus on the counter uppercut as the opponent shoots, is remarkably old school. In PRIDE FC, where bouts were fought in a ring, the corners prevented the freedom of movement we have seen from Lyoto Machida, Chuck Liddell, and Anderson Silva inside the UFC, so the strikers had to learn this style of moving forward and sprawling on a moment's notice. It is a style which favors the physically stronger fighter, and it doesn't always age that well—Mirko Cro Cop and Wanderlei Silva are two examples of this method.
But that is not to say that one style—distance based takedown prevention, or confrontational takedown defense—is superior. The style which Rumble employs essentially understands that the opponent will shoot at some point, and challenges him to get it out of the way early. Certainly, if a fighter shoots at an opponent who is controlling the distance—Jose Aldo, Lyoto Machida, etc.—he's probably going to fall short and look a fool. If a fighter shoots in on a heavy sprawler like Johnson, he's going to first get his face smooshed into the mat with the weight of an enormous light heavyweight on top of him, and then he's probably going to eat a couple of big punches before he can, at best, scramble back to his feet.
The major problem that exists with this hyper aggressive style is the problem which exists in an aggressive approach to any striking art—it leaves a lot of openings. I mentioned Johnson being a 'handsy' fighter earlier on. He uses his open palms to deflect most of the blows thrown at him—he doesn't even have to parry, just as for George Foreman, having them in the way is often enough—but also his takedown defence. Watch his hands in the above clips—his hands go straight to Davis every time Davis level changes.
Reaching down at any time is dangerous in striking disciplines, and this ultimately showed to be a significant crack in the defence of the aforementioned Cro Cop. Even if a fighter doesn't drop his hands, standing right in front of the opponent every time you think he's going to shoot leaves you open to the magic of the old level change to hook or overhand.
In fact, in the second clip against Davis, you'll see that Davis—a woeful striker by modern MMA standards—lands a straight right flush on Johnson in exactly the same way as Rumble is convinced he'll shoot again.
It is also worth noting the relationship between the overhand and the uppercut. We examined how the overhand exposes a fighter to the uppercut in our examination of Frankie Edgar versus Urijah Faber earlier this week:
But equally, reaching down to uppercut continuously—as Johnson does as soon as he sees a level change—completely exposes a fighter to the overhand.
And that is one of the two most interesting factors of the upcoming Daniel Cormier—Anthony Johnson tilt at UFC 187: how Johnson will cope with a fighter who can both strike and grapple more than adequately and will chain them together. Gustafsson was all boxing, Davis was all wrestling, and Nogueira was all used up. I am fascinated to see how American Kickboxing Academy, one of the teams on the forefront of strategic development (refusing to put the hooks in from the back, single underhook and head pin work against the fence, etc) deals with Anthony Johnson's new twists on an old school tool set.
The other interesting factor will be how well Cormier deals with being hit by a thunderous puncher. And I say that as someone who despises fights which are sold on the back of the old “he's never tasted power like this before” tag. Cormier has done a brilliant job of evading the big blows from most of his opponents. He ate a great many of Jon Jones' mule-like kicks to the body and legs, and that largely cost him that bout, but he kept walking forward. We've never really seen him take too many flush punches to the head. Phil Davis turned from a confident fighter on the cusp of a title shot to wildly shooting and running away after he'd eaten a few clean blows.
Good cards raise questions, and UFC 187 raises more of them than any in recent memory. Can Rumble sprawl on an Olympian? Can Cormier take the punches? How will Vitor Belfort look in his first fight in over a year, and for the first time under an effective drug testing regime? And can Chris Weidman, a forward moving pressure fighter, adjust to the rapid fire, exchanging style of Belfort who is undoubtedly the more powerful, speedy striker?
Watch the fights and get back here on Monday morning for a full review of the event's best moments.
See more of the Gian Galang's amazing art on his website.
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