Prior to each UFC fight card, Jay Primetown takes a look at some of the key contests at each event. In the latest installment, we look at the biggest fight of 2017 thus far as Daniel Cormier defends his light heavyweight title against Anthony Johnson for the second time.
Daniel Cormier (Record: 18-1, +100 Underdog, Power Ranking: A+)
The former Strikeforce heavyweight champion and current UFC light heavyweight champion has lost just once in his career; a five-round decision to Jon Jones. After that loss in 2015, Cormier has won three consecutive fights, including a decision over Alexander Gustafsson, and more importantly a submission win over his opponent at UFC 210, Anthony Johnson.
A former NCAA Division I All-American wrestler and national runner-up in 2001, Cormier continued his amateur wrestling career beyond college and represented the United States in world competitions for several years. Once Cormier transitioned to MMA, he took to the sport quickly and became a premier fighter. Cormier made his name in Strikeforce where he competed at heavyweight. His speed and movement for the weight class were the best in the sport, and he was able to beat much larger fighters, including former UFC Champion Josh Barnett. Once he moved over to the UFC, Cormier transitioned to light heavyweight. Even at light heavyweight, Cormier certainly doesn’t have natural power. He’s not a fighter who is going to be a threat for a quick finish. Cormier does his best work using movement to get inside of an opponent and making it an ugly fight. He’s good in the clinch and is able to work in takedowns from that position. Cormier does a good job of avoiding damage overall absorbing just 2.05 significant strikes per minute. Offensively, his wrestling is pivotal to success at the highest levels, securing nearly two takedowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon. Cormier isn’t a fighter who stands out physically, but his determination to make his opponents work and fight to his strengths are a great game plan for MMA.
Anthony Johnson (Record: 22-5, -120 Favorite, Power Ranking: A)
“Rumble” Johnson has been on a tear over the last 18 months. He’s finished all three of his opponents in that time span and done so by knockout. His most impressive victory in that time span was a 13-second knockout of third-ranked light heavyweight Glover Teixeira. It was that win that set him up for a rematch with Cormier.
The title challenger and knockout artist is perhaps the most feared fighter in MMA. He holds the UFC record for most knockouts inside of one minute in the UFC with five. He has mega power in his hands, and opponents need to be weary of that quick kill shot. He has an absolutely brutal right hand and can knock out an opponent with either an overhand or with an uppercut. Johnson has knocked out some of the best fighters in the division, including Gustafsson, Teixeira, and new Bellator signee Ryan Bader. When Johnson first fought Cormier, he connected on a heavy shot that sent Cormier tumbling, but it wasn’t enough to completely put the current champion away. In addition to his knockout power, Johnson is an excellent athlete that has done a good job thwarting takedown attempts since he made the move to light heavyweight. Outside of the three times he was taken down by Cormier, no other fighter has been able to take Johnson to the mat. Given Johnson’s muscle mass and explosive approach to MMA, endurance is not Johnson’s strong suit. He has slowed down in fights when he hasn’t been able to maintain pressure on opponents. Perhaps the biggest area of concern with Johnson is mentality. While physically he has all the tools to be a champion, he has come up empty at times in big fights. When he’s pressured and put to the mat, he’s not good off his back and has quickly tapped to submission multiple times in his career.
In what is the best fight booked of the year thus far, Johnson will try to win the light heavyweight championship for the second time against Daniel Cormier. This fight breaks down very similarly to their May 2015 fight at UFC 187. The first few minutes of this fight are dangerous for the champion. Johnson will come out swinging and has the power to hurt anyone inside of the cage. Johnson had Cormier hurt in their first fight, but he did not pounce on the opportunity to finish. If he does that again, he needs to finish the job. Otherwise, the fight quickly turns in Cormier’s favor. Cormier is battle tested for a five-round contest, and every minute this fight extends his chance to retain the title increases. Once Johnson begins to tire, Cormier will be able to secure takedowns, and at that point, there becomes no path to victory for the challenger. Cormier’s ability to smother opponents on the mat and use his weight to keep his opponents grounded is excellent. It will take a few rounds, but that is the most likely scenario and the path to victory for Cormier again in this bout. The ideal approach to this fight is to play multiple props. Johnson in Round 1 (+275) combined with Cormier in Round 3 (+517) and Cormier in Round 4 (+684). It’s difficult to see Johnson being able to go five rounds with Cormier given his conditioning issues, and Cormier doesn’t have natural power to hurt Johnson early, so Cormier in the middle rounds is the most likely result. Covering those Cormier results with a quick Johnson stoppage is a smart play given the challenger’s track record of early finishes.