From the outside, Anthony Johnson’s strategy at UFC 210 was a perplexing one. Despite being revered as one of the best power punchers in the game, “Rumble” employed a wrestling-heavy approach in his rematch against UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier to disastrous results. Johnson lost the contest via second-round rear-naked choke, then announced his retirement in the cage.
And according to Johnson’s head coach Henri Hooft, the gameplan “Rumble” chose to go with laid in direct contrast with what his team worked on throughout the many month’s leading up to the fight.
“The gameplan was very simple,” Hooft said Monday on The MMA Hour. “There’s only one gameplan that you need to do: not wrestle and not come close to DC. And AJ, he’s a guy who normally does that. He doesn’t want to wrestle, because his strength is in his striking, his stand-up and everything. So it had nothing to do with the gameplan, nothing to do with training, because in training, he didn’t really do much different than he normally does. The gameplan was not to wrestle anybody.
“And if you look at, some guys sent me this morning the corner stuff, the readout of corner (transcript), what happened, and you see that nobody really wanted him to wrestle. Nobody wanted him to come close to DC, because that’s going to be playing the other guy’s game.”
Johnson afterward admitted that things “kind of fell off track” for him at UFC 210 once the fight began, leading to his disappointing showing against Cormier. Johnson took full responsibility for his mistakes after the fight, and while Hooft shared in his fighter’s disappointment, he chalked the performance up to a simple reality of the fight game.
“If you’ve ever fought before, especially at this level, sometimes stuff happens that sometimes you can’t explain,” Hooft said. “Only the fighter can explain. Not the trainer, not the audience. Nobody. Only the fighter himself knows what, at that moment, makes him make these mistakes or do stuff wrong. But also, the stuff that goes good, when he knocks people out in strange moments or with a strange kick or whatever. Sometimes stuff goes on in a fighter’s mind. People don’t understand, it’s not so easy to explain.
“Anthony knows and he’ll figure it out in the next couple of days. You can’t, right after the fight, say ‘this is wrong, that was wrong, this is wrong, he didn’t follow the gameplan,’ and blame everything on him alone or whatever. It has nothing to do with the gameplan. It happens in that moment, when you’re alone with your opponent and you make decisions at the wrong moment, wrong time. And only fighters who have fought, themselves, really have these moments before. They know what it is. Sometimes stuff just happens.
“And maybe he was more busy with retiring than not,” Hooft continued. “We don’t know. People are talking about it. We don’t know what is going on in his mind at that moment. But I know one thing: If the normal AJ showed up that night, it would be a totally different fight.”
For both Hooft and Johnson, the outcome at UFC 210 signified a difficult way for a six-year relationship between coach and student to come to an end. Johnson revitalized his career under Hooft, transforming from a struggling and inconsistent welterweight into one of the most feared strikers in light heavyweight history.
Altogether, Johnson’s end-of-career surge was remarkable, a 9-2 run that led back into the UFC and included devastating knockouts of Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira, and Ryan Bader, among many others. But his two setbacks against Cormier also typified the one criticism that always followed Johnson: the idea that he fades under heavy pressure. And in a surprising bit of candor, Hooft acknowledged as much, stating that Johnson “got beat by himself” more so than having lost to Cormier.
“We’ve done this work for six years together,” Hooft said. “We traveled together. We worked hard together. We worked to a point where we thought ‘now it’s going to be the chance that we can get it done.’
“We worked so hard and he was so close, and he had all the chances. He didn’t get really beat. He got beat by himself, not by an opponent. Really, this fight, he got beat by himself. He made a mistake. He did something that was wrong to do. And everybody makes mistakes, but he did it himself, so he got beat by himself, and that’s always sh*t to see. And again, I had the same problems. If you got beat by yourself, that’s very, very difficult to handle, and it’s also very difficult to describe as a coach.
“You can’t always win. But if you lose because you didn’t do what you can do, then you feel frustrated. And again, he feels more frustrated than me and a lot of other people who are talking about him. Sure, he’s frustrated. But as a coach, of course it’s frustrating. He’s your student. Six years, we worked together, so I wanted him to end with this crown.”
Regardless of how things ended at UFC 210, Johnson now appears to be dead-set on moving onto his next chapter of life, which Hooft said “has to do with football.” But Johnson is still only 33 years old, and Hooft also wouldn’t mind if his old friend returns in a few years to give it one more good run.
“You can say nothing bad about AJ, all of the moments that he gave a lot of people, especially me,” Hooft said. “Silencing the crowd in Sweden, all of the stuff that he did. All the beautiful knockouts, the striking stuff that he showed. And also as a person, he’s a really, really, really good person. A real good person. So hopefully, one day, he gets a little bit bored with the other stuff he does, and he comes back in a few years and we can do it at heavyweight. I would love to see that.”