Who Takes It? Anthony “Rumble” Johnson vs. Ryan Bader

Image Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Fight fans! You may be surprised to learn that tonight, you’ve got a some of the top MMA talent on the planet doing battle on free TV.

It seems tonight’s UFC on FOX event in New Jersey, strangely, seems just a bit overlooked.

On the surface, that seems odd. The show features two of the top ten light heavyweights in the world in Anthony “Rumble” Johnson against Ryan Bader in its headline bout. Two of the world’s top heavyweights meet in the co-main event, as former titlist Josh Barnett faces Ben Rothwell.

The recent cancellation of UFC 196 ‘s main event, with Cain Velasquez to challenge for Fabricio Werdum’s heavyweight title, is likely mostly to blame.

Fans wanted to know: what does Velasquez had left? The often-injured former two-time champion was once hailed as the most talented fighter to ever appear at American Kickboxing Academy: a camp which saw the likes of Frank Shamrock and BJ Penn hone their skills. They’ll have to wait, as he’s (yet again) injured and unable to compete.

Then there’s the case of Werdum. His wins over Velasquez, Fedor Emelianenko, and others rank him among many observers lists of the all-time greats — but is it a case of timing? Did he catch these legends of the sport in the twilight of their careers? At 38, what does he bring now?

We’ll have to wait, as the champion lost his opponent, then refused a replacement bout.

But then, maybe it’s not just all that.

Maybe, for all his talent, it can be difficult for many to get excited about an Anthony “Rumble” Johnson fight.

As I wrote back last May, while previewing Johnson’s challenge for the UFC light heavyweight title against Daniel Cormier:

Johnson’s earlier career saw him struggle with weight management. He also suffered controversies outside the cage. In 2010, the fighter entered a “no contest” plea to domestic violence accusations — something UFC President Dana White strangely refused to acknowledge in a recent interview, where he described Johnson as “the one being terrorized” by another recent accuser.

Do I blame anyone for sitting this out on a basis of conscience? No.

While he’s got his weight management down, and hasn’t missed the mark in about three years, it’s not clear he has his outside-the-cage controversies in order. In total three different women have raised domestic violence allegations against him. That doesn’t count the skirmish he had at a gym last year where he threw a woman’s yoga mat and ranted on social media. That incident led to the UFC announcing Johnson would undergo counseling and donate to charity for women.

He’s an excellent fighter, though. A junior college wrestling champion with devastating knockout power, Johnson has developed a precise Muay Thai counter-striking style under Henri Hooft.

His opponent tonight, Ryan Bader, boasts an even more impressive collegiate wrestling resume: namely, a two time NCAA All-American at Arizona State. It’s mostly those wrestling skills which have earned him four straight wins in the UFC, all by decision. He can do a little of everything, like all fighters at this level, but he’s a grinder — takes you down, and slowly beats you up. Is he the most electrifying guy to watch? Maybe not.

“There was a time in my career where I would’ve said, ‘OK, I’m not going to use what I’m best at, my wrestling, to control. I’m just going to go out there and throw bombs and have fun,’” Bader said to MMA Junkie in a recent interview. “… But I’ve been taught since I was 5 years old in wrestling to go out there and get the win at any cost. If I go out there and win 3-2 (in wrestling) or pin the guy in 30 seconds, it’s the same damn thing.

“So for me, winning is where it’s at – especially at this point. I’m right there on the cusp of a title shot. My goals are to win the championship. Why would I go out there and throw caution to the wind and stand and bang and throw away what I’m best at?”

It’s certainly been a winning strategy for him lately. I’m just not sure he has the tools to take Johnson down consistently and make that game plan work.

I’m looking for Johnson to use his superior fluidity as a striker to great effect in the bout’s first round. Bader will become increasingly frustrated with his takedown attempts as the bout wears on, and eventually be a victim of a second round TKO.

As always, enjoy the fights.