BALTIMORE — Looking back at the last time he competed for the Ultimate Fighting Championship in January 2012, Anthony Johnson is a harsh critic of himself.
“That whole thing was plain whack. Plain and simple,” Johnson said of his performance, which he called the “low point of his life.”
It was far more than just the fact Johnson lost that fight to Vitor Belfort in the first round.
First off, Johnson had missed weight. Again. This time, he had stepped on the scale an embarrassing 11 pounds over the middleweight limit of 186 pounds. The fight marked the first time Johnson was competing at middleweight after missing weight twice at 170 pounds.
All of the weight-cutting issues were just symptoms of Johnson’s real problem, though.
“I was young and stupid. Plain and simple. Stupid in the cage, stupid out of the cage. I was just stupid back then,” Johnson said. “I was just making dumb choices and not doing things the way I needed to. Just young and dumb and not caring as much as I should have. I can’t say I didn’t care because I did care. But my head just wasn’t completely in it.
“I don’t blame UFC and (president) Dana (White) for cutting me (after the Belfort fight). They did what they had to do and I respect that. “
Being released from the top mixed martial arts organization despite his immense talent didn’t even serve as an immediate eye-opener.
Johnson missed weight in his first fight outside the UFC, which he won by decision over David Branch in May 2012.
Though he can’t pinpoint an exact time or moment, it was sometime after that when things started to click for Johnson.
He is unbeaten in six fights since his UFC release, including four knockouts. After the Branch fight, Johnson decided to move up the 205-pound light heavyweight division. He even took one fight at heavyweight during that time.
That stretch has earned him another shot in the UFC where he will fight Phil Davis at UFC 172 at Baltimore Arena on Saturday night.
Johnson said getting back to the organization was never necessarily his goal.
“I haven’t thought about a second chance. I kinda just went with the flow of life, and if it happened, it happened, and if it didn’t, it didn’t,” Johnson said. “I didn’t put all my eggs in the basket of getting back here. I was focused on performing for whoever I was working for at the time.”
Now his employer is once again the UFC. White said the leash is short this time. He vowed to reporters on Thursday at Camden Yards that if Johnson misses weight today he will never again fight in the organization.
Johnson insists those days are in the past.
“When I was first in UFC I was just an athlete that didn’t know much and was just relying on natural ability to get by. Now, I’m someone who actually loves the sport. It was fun back then, but it’s more fun now,” Johnson said. “I had to mature.”
There was never much question about Johnson’s ability in the cage. He began his career 10-3 before the Belfort fight, with one of those losses coming on a fluky eye poke. Despite a wrestling background that includes a junior college national championship, Johnson quickly developed a reputation as a flash and powerful striker in mixed martial arts. His first five UFC wins all came by knockout, including four in the first round.
He seems to be finding a similar rhythm at 205 pounds, though Davis questions the competition Johnson has been facing.
“He’s a tough fighter. Super strong. But he hasn’t fought the top names at light heavyweight, and I’m going to give him his first introduction to what a real light heavyweight is like,” Davis said.
Johnson has confidence that he is doing the right things to compete at the highest level now. He said that while he’s always had good people around him, he’s finally listening to those voices.
The biggest reason he believes he will succeed is the new-found maturity to understand he doesn’t know it all.
“I finally hit the wall where I had no choice but to grow. Everybody has to go through that in their life,” he said. “Every man has been through that point in their life where they think they know everything. You just have to hit that wall where you just realize I don’t know everything, and that’s when you start accepting things and become willing to expand your mind and learn.”
Johnson returns with a major opportunity to put those lessons to use Saturday.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.