Anthony “Rumble” Johnson goes to work

Ever wonder what your favorite UFC® warriors go through in the weeks and months leading up to their triumphant pre-fight Octagon® introductions? The swagger and promise of a prime-time concourse walkout might give off an air of effortlessness, of invincibility; these men are larger-than-life, seemingly born for the glory of these moments. But these displays are rooted in discipline, earned through countless hours of sacrifice and toil. Stepping into such rarified air quite literally costs a great deal of blood, sweat, and maybe even a few tears. To succeed at the highest level of this brutal sport, preparation must be the highest priority. The margin for error is so slim; one wrong move, one false step, and in an instant, greatness can be sent crashing back to the canvas.

Anthony Johnson knows this. A rising star in the UFC®’s welterweight division, Anthony is a former collegiate wrestler and emerging kickboxing specialist whose aggressive style has earned him notice in MMA circles and brought him quick success in his nascent career. Though he is about as athletically gifted as they come, Anthony is also hungry. He knows that only through routine and dedication will he achieve the glory he seeks, and it’s the fire in his belly that drives him through the months of grueling preparation it takes just to make it into the Octagon®.

When Anthony goes to work inside the cage, he attacks with a man-on-fire ferocity, all sinewy musculature and kinetic energy. Outside the Octagon® though, he’s a laid-back Southern kid, a native of Georgia who seems to have taken to the California atmosphere like a fish to water. When discussing his training camp, his demeanor is casual, nonchalant even. If he’s feeling any outside pressure, it doesn’t show.

“Man, if it wasn’t for egg whites I don’t know what I would do.”

If cutting weight for a fight sounds miserable, that’s because it usually is. Even for someone as genetically gifted as Anthony, pre-fight dieting remains a crucial part of training camp – and the menu is about as restricted and bland as you’d imagine. Every morning begins the same: egg whites and turkey bacon. Occasionally a grapefruit gets mixed in, but the focus is squarely on lean protein to start the day right. Of course, this is learned behavior. “I used to have a bad habit of eating a lot of cereal in the morning,” Anthony notes, “but I cut that out.”

As he’s gained experience, Anthony has learned to refine his eating habits. He eats roughly every three hours – after his morning run, he refuels with some nutrient-dense trail mix; shortly thereafter, more egg whites and turkey bacon. Late-afternoon and evening meals usually consist of grilled or baked chicken breast. After his evening training session Anthony likes to mix in a SYNTHA-6™ protein shake, but this practice is dropped about a month out from a fight to eliminate the possibility of excess water retention. The occasional piece of fruit pretty much rounds out Anthony’s daily intake, which comes to an end around eight or nine o’clock. Then it’s up at 7 AM, to do it all over again.

This discipline is critical for Anthony, who fights in the UFC®’s welterweight (170-lb) division. For a man who stands 6’2″ and can easily get up to a muscular 220 lbs, making weight becomes a real challenge that some pundits predict will limit his days in the 170-lb class. Anthony recognizes this, but as with nearly every question posed to him, he seems unfazed. “I’m a big 170-pounder, and I got so much size and muscle on me, I have to lose a ton of muscle just to make 170. Which is fine with me,” Anthony offers. “I think whenever I diet I feel better, you know? When I eat clean, my body feels ten times better.”

“I don’t need all that, you know, all this jumping around and stuff, jumping out of pools. I do fine with what I do.”

There is a supreme confidence about Anthony, an unwavering belief and assuredness in his own ability, that might seem like mere cockiness if he weren’t so readily able to back it up in the cage. For many fighters, training camp is a time to study their next opponent, to tailor their game to that of their opponent. Anthony is having none of this. What works for him, works for him. “I’m just working on me,” he sums up succinctly. As he sees it, his opponent is the one who should worry about counter-strategizing. “He’s the one that’s gotta worry about the kicks and the punches and all that coming at him.”

When I asked him before his recent match with Yoshiyuki Yoshida at UFC® 104 whether he was at all concerned with facing a judo expert, his response was tellingly brash. “I don’t know what he is, I don’t care what he is,” Anthony said. “He’s a fighter just like me.” Bravado, sure; but if you saw his 41-second dismantling of Yoshida, well – like I said, it helps to be able to back it up.

As Anthony himself points out, he seems genetically predisposed to muscle retention. Putting on size is easy for him, so much so that at one point it became a hindrance to his fighting. So this year, he stopped training with weights entirely, instead focusing on speed and endurance. “I touch weights and I start getting big,” he states matter-of-factly. “I had to stop that ’cause I was getting big and I wasn’t as fast as I should’ve been.” This new approach has streamlined his training regimen, which now consists of about an hour to an hour and a half of running early in the morning, and an evening sparring session with his team, which includes noted kickboxing instructor Cung Le. In this regard, some are simply more blessed than others. “I know a lot of fighters do a lot to get in shape, and I respect that,” Anthony explains. “It doesn’t take me forever.” In other words, don’t expect to see Anthony jumping out of any waist-deep bodies of water, BJ Penn-style, anytime soon.

“I stick and move – that’s my style.”

Anthony is nothing if not his own man, and this is reinforced by his reaction to any attempts to categorize his fighting style. He seems to bristle at the question. “I just got my own little thing,” he answers cryptically. “I work with Cung Le, you know? Sanshou, that’s his style… but I just try and use everything that I know. I just go get it.”

Label or not, Anthony’s style is certainly aggressive, and in a sport that seems to be trending more and more towards a tactical, grounded game, Anthony’s insistence on the stand-up and striking is a welcome anomaly that infuses each of his fights with a certain electric potential. It’s easy to respect a well-executed triangle choke, but nothing gets a crowd on their feet like a decisive knockout. And while Anthony certainly has the wrestling chops to grapple, his preference remains inflicting damage with his fists and feet. Of the ubiquitous Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he simply says, “I’m not too crazy about [it].” Thus far he has focused more on submission defense than execution. “You won’t see me get on the ground and really try to pull off a submission… It’s gotta be in desperation.” Anthony is much more comfortable on his feet, relying on movement, quickness and his superior athleticism to get himself in favorable position. And despite his heavy fists and occasional fits of recklessness, Anthony is quick to point out that he’s more than just a pure brawler; he is a smart fighter who knows avoiding serious damage is the key to a long and fruitful MMA career. “A lot of people look at me and say, ‘You don’t look like a fighter,’ because my face isn’t all scratched up and scarred and stuff like that – yeah, I’m too smart to get hit. I move. I’d rather do the hitting.”

That said, and despite all his early success, Anthony is not nearly satisfied. He speaks of the frustration of failing to live up to his own lofty standards, like the time he apologized to the crowd for a “sloppy” performance, as he put it, after knocking out Luigi Fioravanti back at Fight Night 17. He seems to be his own toughest critic, which is always a good trait for a young star who has yet to experience much professional adversity. Success will not dull this man’s work ethic, you can believe that. “I just know I can knock you out if I hit you,” he says. “But I don’t think I’m like a great fighter or anything like that… I think I still have a ton of improving to do.”

“I guess I’m a boring person; I don’t do too much.”

When dieting and training for a match, a fighter’s world can easily become an insular one. As the pressure and stress – physical, mental, and emotional – continue to mount, it’s natural to seek a release. Luckily for Anthony, in sunny San Jose, relaxation is usually just a step outside the door.

“I got pit bulls man,” says Anthony proudly. “I just kick it with my dogs all the time.” He spends much of his downtime playing with the dogs, either in the backyard or the local dog park. Anthony also is a bit of a motorcycle aficionado; he has two street bikes that he rides frequently, and he can often be found down at his buddy’s bike shop kicking back and shooting the breeze. Such are the simple pleasures of his life outside the cage, which Anthony himself refers to as “boring.” And that’s just the way he likes it.

“I try not to go out too much,” Anthony says, “’cause that’s when you get in trouble, you know?” He is wary of the pitfalls of early success, having seen enough of what happens when young, suddenly-wealthy athletes put themselves in bad situations and have their embarrassment played out nightly on ESPN. “That’s exactly what I don’t need is trouble.”

Anthony is far too focused on achieving his goals in the UFC® to let the distractions and trappings of celebrity derail him. Nor will the stress or the physical toll keep him from becoming the great fighter that he knows he can be. Every time you see Anthony Johnson enter the Octagon®, you are witnessing a process – a culmination of months of hard work and discipline, all in the name of perpetual improvement, for a chance at glory and advancement towards the ultimate goal of being crowned a champion. An outcome that, for Anthony, feels inevitable. For all his nonchalance and self-assuredness, the man also carries a bit of a perfectionist streak, and it’s clear he has no plans to settle. “I feel like I should be able to hit you but you shouldn’t be able to hit me,” he explains. “I feel like I can be that good.”

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