(In case you missed it, here’s what Rumble did to Mike Kyle on Saturday. Props: Arquivo El)
By Scott Sawitz
What a weird, wild ride it’s been for Anthony “Rumble” Johnson for the past 18 months. He’s gone from being a welterweight prospect with an insanely high ceiling (and an even bigger weight cut), to a high-profile UFC castoff, to a star for the fledgling World Series of Fighting promotion at light-heavyweight. After his spectacular knockout of journeyman Mike Kyle on Saturday night — which fulfilled the last fight on his WSOF contract — there was plenty of speculation among the MMA community on where he’d end up next.
Somehow, Rumble Johnson has become the hottest free agent since Hector Lombard. The WSOF, the UFC, or Bellator (or maybe all three) is going to offer him a big money deal because of one thing: Anthony Johnson is the only unsigned light-heavyweight in the world right now who looks like he could be a relevant fighter in the top tier of the 205-pound division. But the reality is, that’s only because he hasn’t had to face anyone that would suggest otherwise; the current buzz around Johnson wasn’t exactly built on quality of competition.
Bloody Elbow’s Mookie Alexander wrote a terrific piece on why the UFC needs Johnson, if only to bolster its dwindling, aging LHW roster, but I’d argue that Johnson isn’t the sort of high-profile fighter we think he is right now. You could never call him “elite” because he hasn’t fought anyone of note (with the possible exception of Andrei Arlovski, who he fought at heavyweight). In his best moments, Johnson looks like he could actually pass for a UFC title contender, but that could also be the result of some kind matchmaking by World Series of Fighting and Johnson’s management team.
Right now, Rumble is just starting to tap into the potential he showed when he was first in the UFC. And right now he’s mimicking Lombard’s career in that he looks like a Top 10 fighter because he’s been destroying guys who aren’t in his league, and who are far from UFC-caliber — even by the lowered definition of “UFC-caliber” that we’re now experiencing in the Royston Wee Era. Two of Johnson’s past six wins have come against fighters without Wikipedia pages. Mike Kyle’s a solid opponent, but his best days are well behind him. Jake Rosholt and David Branch are journeymen who had a cup of coffee in the UFC and probably won’t make it back, either.
Johnson has looked the part of a savage killer because he’s been able to get the sort of highly winnable fights he needed before (and during) his stint in the UFC. Without a taxing weight cut taking up most of his training camp, he’s facing limited competition at his ideal weight. This is the fighter we’ve seen glimpses of over the years and who now looks to have found his place in the sport.
Johnson’s an easily likeable fighter — everybody loves a knockout artist, after all — and he seems like a decent person outside the cage too. He’s in the right moment at the right time to have found a groove. Other than Alexander Gustafsson, the light-heavyweight division is so bereft of fighters who could conceivably beat Jon Jones that Johnson immediately looks like an attractive prospect simply because everyone else has failed the Bones Test. Jones is nearly out of challenges, looking upwards for more worlds to conquer, and Johnson coming into the UFC gives Zuffa more time to keep their nascent superstar at what’s traditionally been its marquee weight class. Bellator makes a big splash with him in their division and WSOF would be thrilled to retain its first real star.
As long as Johnson sticks at 205 pounds, there will be no worries about him blowing weight like he repeatedly did when he was trying to convince himself he was a welterweight, then a middleweight. But just because you look elite relative to your competition doesn’t mean you could roll into the UFC, for example, and start knocking off Top 5 contenders. And just because there are no other light-heavyweight free agents floating around to get excited about, it doesn’t mean we all need to get excited about Rumble Johnson again. Not yet, at least.