For the rest of the light heavyweight division, the rematch is one that has been a long time in the making. Cormier and Johnson previously met in May 2015, when Cormier survived an early onslaught before submitting Johnson with a third-round rear-naked choke. A second chapter between the two was initially slated for Dec. 2016, only to be delayed due to a nasty torn adductor tendon sustained by Cormier.
But despite those setbacks, the bout is finally looming, and one of the division’s most promising prospects, Misha Cirkunov — a man who could be challenging for that belt soon enough — believes that Cormier still has what it takes to retain gold.
“The first fight, I picked Daniel Cormier to win. But in a rematch, it’s going to be very, very interesting,” Cirkunov said recently on The MMA Hour. “Because we all saw what happened in the first fight, so I feel like there’s a lot of blueprints for Anthony Johnson to get better. If he gets better, there’s going to be a lot, a lot tougher for Daniel Cormier to win; whereas, Daniel Cormier is a beast himself, but I think that we’re not going to see a way more improved Daniel Cormier, just based on he’s been injured and he hasn’t competed.
“I think, if anything, this is the best chance for Anthony Johnson to become a belt-holder, because he’s already seen what he needs to do and he’s seen the gameplan, and hopefully he can stick to the gameplan and it’ll be a good night for Anthony Johnson. But again, Daniel Cormier showed how it could be done, right? So it’s going to be a very interesting fight. If I have to pick a winner, I’m going to go with, probably, still Daniel Cormier just based on wrestling, but it’s going to be a closer fight this time.”
While Cirkunov may still fall a few notches below Cormier and Johnson on the UFC’s official media-generated rankings, his ferocious success thus far inside the Octagon has caught the eye of Johnson, in particular. Earlier this year, “Rumble” singled Cirkunov out as “the one guy” that had his attention aside from Cormier, calling Cirkunov a “gangster” and saying of the 30-year-old prospect, “he’s definitely somebody you’ve got to watch out for.”
For Cirkunov, it was simply an honor to hear such high praise coming from one of the division’s best.
“I’m very, very thankful,” Cirkunov said. “It’s amazing to get recognition from a really high-level fighter. He’s one of the most feared guys in the division, in all of MMA, period. He knocks people out and he’s just, really, a very scary fighter. And to get recognition from him, it means a lot to me. A lot.”
It’s no secret that Cirkunov is widely considered to be one of the best up-and-comers in a 205-pound class otherwise bereft of viable prospects, but all of the praise in the world will mean little if Cirkunov fails to fulfill on the vast promise he has already shown with his blistering 4-0 UFC run.
With a new UFC contract in tow, Cirkunov hopes to continue that climb up the rankings on May 28 at UFC Fight Night 109 when he takes on No. 8 ranked Volkan Oezdemir, a fellow member of the new guard at light heavyweight who scored an upset win over Ovince Saint Preux in his UFC debut.
“I was a little bit surprised (to be fighting Oezdemir), considering how the rankings play out and all of that,” Cirkunov admitted. “Just, I’ve been out of the criteria for a time. Obviously I’ve seen his great performance against OSP. OSP is a super tough challenger, he went to a decision with Jon Jones. It just shows the level where Volkan is at. He’s definitely a tough competitor. So, I kinda knew he would be in the mix, he would be in there. And maybe I could say, ‘maybe he doesn’t deserve it, I already have four fights in the UFC and he has one,’ but he has a great fight himself, he’s a ranked guy, and he’s in the mix. And the reality is, right now, all the other guys are kinda booked.
“He’s a tough guy and he makes sense, and the winner of that, I guarantee you, is the real deal in my opinion, could be top-five no problem. So we’ll see what happens.”
A win over Oezdemir would potentially put Cirkunov in position to land a big-time fight against one of the top names in the division. Cirkunov said at that point, he figures he will be, at most, one or two fights away from title contention — and he already has an idea of who he would like to challenge for that next step: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, the former UFC and Pride FC champion who has won three straight fights.
“I’m pretty sure he was asked if he wants to fight me and the other fight happened (against Gian Villante), so I don’t know if he wants to fight me,” Cirkunov said of Rua. “I’m sure in the future we can work something out. I mean, I hope we’ll work something out in the future, because for me, personally, I would love to fight somebody like that just so that I can wrap my name against a legend, a true pioneer, a true Hall of Famer, Pride champion and UFC champion.
“A lot of people know who he is and a lot of people would tune in to see him fight, so I would love that all of those people would get to know who Misha Cirkunov is as well. I think I’ve earned it and I’ve been fighting for a long time. We’ll see what happens.”