No one in the eight-man field for the Bellator MMA light heavyweight grand prix inspires awe and intrigue quite like Anthony Johnson.
Once an Ultimate Fighting Championship mainstay, Johnson will return from a four-year absence to make his organizational debut against Jose Augusto Azevedo Barros in the Bellator 258 co-main event on Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. The winner will advance to the Bellator light heavyweight grand prix semifinals, where reigning 205-pound champion Vadim Nemkov awaits. Johnson, 37, walked away from the sport in 2017 despite having won 12 of his past 14 bouts. He has delivered 16 of his 22 career victories by knockout, five of them inside the first minute.
As Johnson prepares for his showdown with Barros, a look at some of the rivalries that have helped shape him to this point:
Minus some superficial damage to his face, it could not have gone smoother for Cormier. The American Kickboxing Academy captain submitted Johnson with a rear-naked choke to retain the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight title in the UFC 210 main event on April 8, 2017 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. Cormier coaxed the tapout 3:37 into Round 2, moving to 2-0—he had submitted Johnson with a rear-naked choke at UFC 187 two years prior—in their head-to-head series. Johnson could not have employed a more puzzling game plan. “Rumble” chose to engage in Cormier’s wheelhouse, as he muscled his way into the clinch and pressed the two-time Olympian for takedowns. To the surprise of no one, he was unsuccessful. Cormier withstood a first-round head kick that appeared to break his nose and dragged the Dublin, Georgia, native further and further out to sea. Midway through the second round, he tripped Johnson to the floor, moved to his back and set the stage for the choke with some patented ground-and-pound.
“Rumble” turned Bader to mush in the span of 86 seconds. Keeping his place near the top of the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight division, Johnson waylaid Bader with punches in the first round of their UFC on Fox 18 headliner on Jan. 30, 2016 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Referee Keith Peterson swooped in to save an already unconscious Bader from further abuse 1:26 into Round 1. A tactical error sent Bader tumbling into the abyss. “The Ultimate Fighter 8” winner lunged for a single-leg takedown from too far out inside the first minute and put himself in a disadvantageous position beneath a sprawling Johnson. The scene went from bad to worse for Bader. Johnson wheeled out of the sprawl, moved to the back and eventually advanced to full mount, with the Power MMA Team rep clinging to a hopeless kimura. The Dublin, Georgia, native freed his arm when Bader surrendered his back and uncorked a series of punishing blows for the finish.
Johnson put away Gustafsson with first-round punches in the UFC on Fox 14 main event on Jan. 24, 2015 at the Tele2 Arena in Stockholm, shocking nearly 30,000 Swedes in attendance. Gustafsson succumbed to an accumulation of blows 2:15 into Round 1, the decisive victory leaving “Rumble” as the No. 1 contender for the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight crown. Gustafsson could not keep the brute at bay. Johnson clipped the Swede with an overhand right that dropped him to a knee and then swarmed with crippling follow-up shots. He never afforded Gustafsson the opportunity to breathe, as he ripped into him with punches that ultimately drove him to all fours. From there, he let loose with further punishment. Referee Marc Goddard gave “The Mauler” every chance to recover, but one last right hand from Johnson snuck under Gustafsson’s armpit, snapped his head upward and led to the stoppage.
Five months after an inadvertent eye poke from Burns resulted in a loss and subsequent surgery, Johnson was vindicated. The then 24-year-old “Rumble” flattened Burns with a head kick in the third round of their rematch at “The Ultimate Fighter 8” Finale on Dec. 13, 2008. The concussive blow left Burns unconscious at his conqueror’s feet 28 seconds into Round 3 at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Johnson appeared to carry the first two rounds with takedowns and ground-and-pound. In fact, the former junior college national wrestling champion spent virtually the entire second period softening Burns with punches and elbows inside his guard. Less than a minute into the third round, Johnson exited a punching exchange and fired the left high kick that drew the curtain.