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Anthony Johnson vows to be a changed fighter at UFC 210 — even if Daniel Cormier doesn’t believe it

UFC 202 Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

A lot has changed since Anthony Johnson and Daniel Cormier first collided in 2015 with the UFC light heavyweight title on the line.

For starters, Cormier is two years older than he was at UFC 187, which not a small point considering the 38-year-old champion is self-admittedly nearing his final years in the sport. But secondly, the loss Johnson suffered at the hands of Cormier appears to have propelled "Rumble" into the best run of his mixed martial arts career. Johnson sought the services of celebrated grappling coach Neil Melanson afterward to help shore up his weaknesses, and he has since emerged as a man on fire, winning a trio of contests via brutal knockouts over top-tier competition in a combined 7:07 of cage-time.

So heading into his long-awaited rematch against Cormier at UFC 210, Johnson knows things are different now than they were the first time around.

"I’m definitely not the same fighter I was two years ago," Johnson said Thursday on UFC 210’s media conference call. "Every day, every week, every month, every year I’m getting better and better, so you’ll see a different guy out there the next time you see me fight.

"[The loss] definitely lit a fire under my ass to train harder and know what I needed to do to beat this guy."

The first time Johnson and Cormier met, Johnson nearly replicated his recent success to perfection, downing Cormier with a nuclear missile of a right hand in the opening seconds of the fight. However, Cormier survived the blow and ultimately wore Johnson down with his wrestling and pressure en route to a third-round rear-naked choke finish.

Cormier said recently that he expects to do the same thing in the rematch, noting that he must be extra wary of "Rumble" in the first seven minutes, but after that, he expects Johnson to fade. While that isn’t the first time an opponent of Johnson’s has echoed a similar strategy, Johnson is confident that he has improved enough to where it no longer applies.

"The majority of the community believes I’m just a first-round fighter because most of my fights end in the first round," Johnson said. "But they’re entitled to their own opinion, and that’s fine with me. I have nothing to prove to anybody but myself, so if [Cormier] wants to believe that and everybody else wants to believe that, that’s completely fine with me."

That being said, when Cormier hears people discussing how "Rumble" is a different fighter now than he was two years ago, he doesn’t quite understand where they’re coming from.

"If it makes me a bad guy because I tell the truth, or the truth as I believe it, then I guess that’s what I am," Cormier said. "I believe everything (I say). I’m not lying. I don’t lie about anything. All I do is state the truth. If people don’t like the truth, then that’s on them. I’m not sitting here making stuff up. I’m not over here pretending. I’m over here stating facts. And if me telling the facts makes me the bad guy, then okay.

"Ryan Bader shot from halfway across the Octagon. They said ‘fight,’ and before Ryan Bader could even meet Anthony in the middle of the Octagon, he shot. What people are missing is that Anthony Johnson was never a bad wrestler. He always could wrestle and defend takedowns. Anthony is a junior college national champion in wrestling. He’s not a bad wrestler. Nobody ever thought he was a bad wrestler. I never said he can’t wrestle. He obviously can defend takedowns; he defended a lot of my takedowns. I never questioned that.

"[But] when we talk about him being a completely different fighter, I don’t necessarily know what you guys are basing this on," Cormier continued. "He beat Jimi Manuwa and he took him down, but of course he’s going to take Jimi Manuwa down. He’s a wrestler. Jimi Manuwa can’t wrestle. Then you’re talking about him and Ryan Bader. If I would’ve shot on Anthony from across the Octagon, he would’ve done the same thing to me. He fought for a total of seven minutes since him and I fought, but he’s this completely different fighter? I have no idea where you guys are getting this from."

When asked for a response to Cormier’s assessments, Johnson was brief.

"He was telling the truth about Bader," Johnson said. "He told the truth about how long I’ve been in the cage since him and I fought. So, that’s about the only thing that he said that was correct."

Ultimately, with long-time light heavyweight king Jon Jones set to return from USADA suspension this summer, UFC 210 will be a massive moment for both Cormier and Johnson. The winner of the fight will most likely fight Jones next, and a victory over Jones would catapult either man into the stratosphere of all-time greats. So while both men are taking things step-by-step, Johnson knows fully what will be at stake.

"Getting the belt would definitely put everything in place for me," Johnson said. "And mentally, it’s like an obsession.

"That’s always the ultimate goal for top athletes in mixed martial arts or any sport, to be the best and get a championship or whatever you want to call it. So getting the belt will definitely put me right up there with the best of the best. I don’t want to be a could’ve been, or one of those guys that they talk about on the (message) boards saying ‘this guy could’ve been this and he could’ve been that,’ or ‘should’ve been,’ and all of this and all of that. I want to be that guy who they say, ‘he did it.’"

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