Who Takes It? UFC 187: Daniel Cormier vs. Anthony “Rumble” Johnson

This edition of “Who Takes It?” casts its focus on Daniel Cormier and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, who will battle tomorrow for the vacant UFC light heavyweight title at UFC 187 in Las Vegas.

It’s something you probably would have never expected, back when this series began back in January.

Back then, a young champion had the light heavyweight division, and, seemingly, the rest of the MMA world, at his feet. That man, Jon Jones, the youngest titleholder in UFC history, seemed destined to break every UFC record — for title defenses, consecutive wins, and anything else imaginable.

But he couldn’t get out of his own way — and following a series of controversies outside of the cage, has been stripped of his title — leading to tomorrow’s showdown between Jones’ most recent challenger in Cormier, and the surging “Rumble.”

Interestingly, in that first edition of “Who Takes It?” back in January, I broke down a bout between Johnson and fellow light heavyweight contender Alexander Gustafsson, who had taken Jones to the limit when they met in 2013.

I brought up a possible weakness for Gustafsson, and how Johnson might be the one to capitalize on it:

Gustafsson dominated a 2012 bout against Johnson’s current teammate Thiago Silva in his last trip to Sweden, eventually earning a unanimous decision victory. In an odd bit of foreshadowing, cageside announcers compared his style to that of Jones. But “The Mauler” was hit by an alarming number of overhand rights as that bout wore on — and one judge scored the third stanza to Silva. Gustafsson was clipped by a similar overhand in his bout against the faded Mauricio “Shogun” Rua later that year.

Johnson hits much harder, and he will have five rounds, not three, to catch Gustafsson.

But will he?

My prediction? No. I’m… 51% sure.

Obviously, I should have listened to that 49% voice in my head (?), as the underdog Johnson knocked Gustafsson senseless that night — with, you guessed it, an overhand right. So, I kind of blew it that week.

But then, here’s another thing one may not expect after reading that first “Who Takes It?” — I’ve been a pretty good run in recent weeks as far as accuracy goes here. Last week, we called Frankie Edgar’s dominant decision win over Urijah Faber, bringing the last five installments a record of four victors predicted accurately, to only one. (And that one I missed? A draw. So close…!)

Anyway, let’s look at tomorrow’s fight, which will crown a new champion — the first in four years — in what the UFC is heralds as its “most storied division.”

Cormier enters the cage a slight favorite by most online betting systems BestFightOdds. A former contender at heavyweight, Cormier boasts some of the best wrestling credentials in MMA. Those skills have led to him an almost perfect 15-1 record.

Johnson, who has campaigned everywhere from welterweight to heavyweight, sports fewer credentials as a collegiate wrestler and a less impressive career mark of 19-4. But his current run at light heavy has been remarkable. His improved standup skills — the aggressive counter-striking of Dutch Muay Thai trainer Henri Hooft — has led him to dominate four straight opponents, en route to this, hist first UFC title opportunity.

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.

Cormier hasn’t touched on that sensitive subject — but he did laugh at the blemishes on Johnson’s record in a recent interviews.

“Anthony Johnson is the same guy who tapped against Vitor Belfort before the choke was even in,” Cormier smiled. “Anthony Johnson is who he is. At the core, he’s the same guy who was submitted by Josh Koscheck.”

What the 36 year old Cormier fails to mention is that his own MMA career had barely begun at the time of Johnson’s bout against Koscheck.

Watch for Cormier to try and impose his wrestling-heavy attack against Johnson, but struggle with the athlete before him — eating too many strikes along the way. I expect Cormier will get a takedown here and there, and impose his will against the cage for a few stretches.

But his opponent here is a 31 year old powerhouse in Johnson, not a 43 year old Dan Henderson. Look for the striking to accumulate and Johnson to eventually stun Cormier enough to earn a TKO win.