Looking back on it, maybe Anthony Johnson
should have realized sooner that he wasn't meant to be a permanent welterweight. Maybe the revelation should have hit him during any one of his notoriously drastic weight cuts, but especially when he found himself trapped in a sauna in the days before his fight with Dan Hardy
in Seattle last March.
"It was a rough cut," Johnson admits now. So rough, in fact, that he found himself threatening his own coaches with all manner of bodily harm when they wouldn't let him out of the sauna for even a second.
"I only had like five or six pounds to go, and when you're that dehydrated and you've been working so hard, your brain...you kind of get out there a little bit," Johnson said. "My strength and conditioning coach and everybody else were sitting behind the door so I couldn't get it open. I just wanted a breath of fresh air. That was it."
When they wouldn't let him have it, Johnson recalled with a chuckle, he threatened to "put something on y'all that you'll never forget." As anyone who's seen his run of knockout victories in the UFC
already knows, that's a threat with teeth. Or at least it would have been if he hadn't been so depleted by the weight cut.
"I was too weak anyway," he said. "That was just my mind...making threats that I knew I couldn't keep."
That was the old way for Johnson. That particular brand of suffering constituted a normal part of fight week for him, which strikes his new coaches as more than a little bit insane.
"With really good athletes like Anthony Johnson, the worst thing you can do is cut weight," said Mike Van Arsdale
, who works with Johnson and the rest of the "Blackzilian" squad at Imperial Athletics in Boca Raton, Fla. "You're cutting away your athletic ability, is what you're doing."
According to Van Arsdale, that's why the offer to fight Vitor Belfort
at 185 pounds on Saturday night's UFC 142
card in Rio de Janeiro was the best thing that could have happened to Johnson.
"All he's done [by going up in weight] is enable himself to be who he was supposed to be to begin with. If you weigh 220 pounds, you don't need to be fighting at 170," Van Arsdale said. "It's crazy. You're trying to make 170 in the sauna and you end up sitting there at 189 and already depleted. That's why I think this is the right weight class for him."
For Johnson, the decision was simple. He didn't feel like he needed to flee the welterweight division after two straight victories, he said, but he also couldn't bring himself to say no to a fight with Belfort at middleweight.
"Everybody's been talking about me going up to 185," Johnson said. "It came sooner than I expected, but it's here now. What am I going to do? I'm not going to back down from any opponent. I'm not going to let people second-guess me or think that I'm scared of 185."
In Belfort, however, Johnson faces not just a bigger opponent, but one with proven knockout ability in the higher weight classes. In the last couple years he's starched opponents like Yoshihiro Akiyama
and Rich Franklin
with his one-punch power, and Johnson knows how dangerous he can be in the opening rounds.
But the real difference-maker, according to Johnson, won't be the numbers on the scale, but rather the quality of the time each man has spent in the gym. That's why the decision to join the Blackzilians in Florida was such an important one, he said.
"This is actually a camp that has real fighters and people that really want to win. We support each other through thick and thin. We don't badmouth each other. It's just a good environment with top-notch athletes."
As Van Arsdale explained, it's the intensity of the practices and the quality of the sparring partners that makes all the difference.
"Put it this way: if you're going to spar with [kickboxer] Tyrone Spong, and he's standing right in front of you and there's no way out of it, you're forced to rise up. That's what Anthony's done," said Van Arsdale. "You're going with that guy -- and he's 15 pounds or so heavier than Anthony -- how are you not going to get better at kickboxing? And the same thing when you're wrestling with Rashad Evans
and guys from the Olympic Training Center every day in practice, how could you not get better at wrestling?"
Beyond just the quality of talent on the mats each day, it's the support Johnson gets from his fellow fighters that has showed him what he was missing before, he said.
"I didn't have a family like I have now. I had a team in certain teams I was a part of, but this is not a team to me. This is a family."
According to Van Arsdale, both the move up in weight and the move to Florida have already paid tremendous dividends for Johnson, even if he doesn't think the combat sports community fully appreciates it just yet.
"I don't really read a lot of the stuff on the internet, but I was curious the other day and I looked on there and saw that Anthony Johnson's nowhere to be seen in the top ten at 170 or 185, and that's really funny," Van Arsdale said. "This guy is good, man. Ever since he went up a weight class, it's like he jumped up five extra steps. There's no real way to prepare for him now; you just have to go in there and try to catch him with something, and that's hard to do."
And yet, that's exactly what Belfort has excelled at in his career. Even Johnson admits that, based on the footage he's studied, there are few strikers more dangerous than "The Phenom" in the opening minutes of a fight. It's when the fight doesn't end during those first few minutes that he tends to struggle, Johnson said.
"His hands are always the most dangerous part, especially in that first round. ...But I'm sure Vitor doesn't want to get embarrassed, so he's going to come in really good shape. I'm putting a lot of pressure on him. I'm beating the hell out of him."
And the fact that they're fighting in Belfort's home country, where the crowd will no doubt be rabid in its support of their countryman? That doesn't matter to Johnson any more than Belfort's litany of past knockouts, since neither can get in the cage to help him.
"Vitor, to me, is just like everybody else," Johnson said. "He's a human. He's a fighter just like me. He's been around for a while, but so what? That doesn't mean anything to me. I respect him, but this is a fight."
And at least this time around, Johnson won't have to battle his own team and his own weight quite so ferociously just to make it into the cage.