When it comes to Anthony Johnson, talent has never been the issue. It's been discipline, dieting, medical issues. One or all of those things, depending on who you ask. Johnson was unceremoniously dumped from the UFC back in January 2012 after missing weight for the third time in his UFC career. He missed in two different categories, at both 170 and 185, and so, it seemed, he could no longer be relied upon. All of that knockout power and skill wasn't enough to keep him around.
It took yet another miss at 185 to re-imagine himself as what he probably should have been for a few years: Johnson was a big man. Not surprisingly, his power tagged along to his new weight class. Despite facing bigger, bulkier opponents, they were going down just the same way as they always had. Since moving to 205, Johnson is 3-0 with three knockouts.
Now comes a dip in the heavyweight waters, with Johnson facing the former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski at World Series of Fighting 2 this Saturday night. While UFC president Dana White is on the record questioning the legitimacy of the fight because of their past weight disparities, the bout is actually a fairly useful bellwether for Johnson's long-term prospects as a big man.
"I like him a lot," Dana White said recently when asked about him. "He's a good kid. The kid can't make weight to save his life, no matter what f---ing weight he's at. He might not make heavyweight, you know what I mean? He's probably going to come in at 270. The kid never makes weight, and that's an important part of the business and your job when you're a professional fighter."
White was at least half-joking about the 270 thing, but Saturday night may force him to re-think his position on Johnson as giant-slayer. Especially because it's mostly just an incorrect perception, albeit one Johnson helped build. Despite his past as a welterweight -- incredibly, he fought at 170 as recently as 18 months ago -- when he and Arlovski stand face-to-face, Johnson won't be at any real sizable disadvantage. Johnson is 6-foot-2 and says he currently weighs about 235 pounds. Arlovski, who is 6-foot-4, weighed in at 241 for his most recent bout.
Johnson's weight is fairly comparable to the top two heavyweights in the world, Cain Velasquez (240 in his last fight) and Junior dos Santos (239). Other top 10 big men like Daniel Cormier (230), Fabricio Werdum (246) and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (243) also live in the neighborhood.
This isn't to say that Johnson (14-4) will make waves as a heavyweight. In fact, he's already said he plans to head back to 205 after this opportunity. But it is worth pointing out that the higher weight class may prove to be a better fit not only for his physical frame but his skill set. According to MMA statistical analysis blog FightNomics, 57 percent of all heavyweight fights are finished by knockout or TKO, a huge jump over welterweight's 31 percent. Inversely, while only 15 percent of heavyweight fights are stopped by submission, that number jumps to 22 percent for welterweights.
Essentially, Johnson was previously fighting in a division where there was a much increased threat of submission, one stockpiled with wrestlers and jiu-jitsu masters. Since three of his four career losses are by tapout, that was probably a mistake. Aside from fighting in a division where he struggled with weight, he was also competing in a weight class where he would find substantial risk.
As the stats bear out, heavyweights and light-heavyweights prefer to settle things with their fists and elbows, knees and shins. They are primarily classes of strikers. That is also Johnson's forte. Ten of his 14 career wins are by KO/TKO, and he's already proven that his power will travel with him to his new weight class. All of that shows that he was probably fighting in the wrong divisions all this time.
That's the message Johnson will be sending with a win over Arlovski, who has overcome a rough patch in his career with an undefeated stretch in his last five bouts.
"Stop living in the past and when I used to fight 170," Johnson said this week. "This is totally different than 170. People change and some people change for the better, and that's what happened to me, so let's not even talk about 170. Let's talk about 205 and heavyweight."
After following the sport-wide trend of shrinking down as small as possible, Johnson's decision to reverse course and fight among the big boys is a gamble unlike anything we've seen in recent years. Bigger is not always better, but for Johnson, it just might be.