“Where are my coaches?” asked a humbled Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson last night at UFC 210 in Buffalo, New York.
Deemed a somewhat obvious reply to a question concerning a failed game plan, the reply was, in actual fact, the moment a weird and unpredictable night got even weirder, even more unpredictable.
At first it seemed Johnson was beckoning his coaches forward in order to help him explain the reason why he had attacked UFC light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier with a fusillade of takedown attempts, most of which failed, as opposed to standing and striking with his opponent, as is typically his custom. Maybe it was someone else’s idea, we thought. Maybe we’d now find out who.
Instead, as it turned out, Johnson, becoming more and more emotional by the second, was merely looking for moral support. Moreover, he wanted those close to him to share this moment. The moment, so it transpired, he decided to officially announce his retirement from mixed martial arts at the relatively tender age of 33.
In terms of shocks, it trumped even his decision to shoot double-legs on and engage in clinch work with an Olympic wrestler. It certainly trumped him being called a pre-fight favourite. After all, here was ‘Rumble’, the deadly knockout machine around whom, we were led to believe, this new era of UFC ownership were intending to build their empire, all of a sudden calling it quits in the prime of his career, without ever having fought former champion Jon ‘Bones’ Jones and with seemingly so much more to offer – and gain.
“This was my last fight,” Johnson said. “I didn’t tell Dana White, only my family and my coaches. I have given my commitment to another job, not MMA-related. I’m tired of getting punched, tired of rolling around on the ground. It’s not fun.”
Even Cormier, the champion who had just submitted Johnson with a choke in round two, couldn’t believe what was unfolding. Speaking almost on behalf of the UFC and the sport as a whole, he said, “I hope he isn’t walking away. He has to so much more to do.”
As for the fight, apparently AJ’s last, the challenger’s peculiar decision to stay close to the champion, thus smothering his own work, and neglect his striking was the key storyline. There were other subplots – Johnson broke Cormier’s nose with a left kick in round one, for example – but the thing which kept the audience both hooked and bemused was this theory that Cormier could be conquered with a series of takedown attempts executed by the most lethal striker in the light-heavyweight division.
It was, in reality, an odd sight to behold, if only because whenever an attempt failed, which was often, they’d become locked up against the fence, from where Cormier would control Johnson with high under-hooks. And even when Johnson did secure a takedown and get Cormier on his back it was only ever momentarily; Cormier would rise quickly and then, in the blink of an eye, emerge in a far more advantageous position.
By round two a couple of things had been established. One, the bookmakers who installed Johnson as a narrow pre-fight favourite were way out. And, two, Johnson’s game plan was in great danger of making the fight even easier for Cormier than it had been the first time the pair met in May 2015.
Let’s face it, the 38-year-old champion couldn’t have hoped for a better sequence of events going into the rematch. Before him was a challenger playing into his hands in every possible sense. A challenger getting close when he needed distance. A challenger wrestling when he needed to strike. A challenger, worst of all, emptying a gas tank traditionally only half-full. Cormier couldn’t believe his luck.
In truth, the finish was the most predictable thing about the whole affair. It occurred in round two, shortly after Cormier, now 19-1, took Johnson’s back the way he did multiple times in fight number one, and the ensuing Johnson tap, triggered by a rear-naked choke, was as swift as it was inevitable. It came at 3:37 of the round.
“I have no excuses,” said Johnson, who leaves the sport with a record of 22-6. “I lost again to the better man.”
Johnson wasn’t dealing excuses in Buffalo. Nor strikes, as it happened. He was instead dealing bombshells.