When UFC middleweight Anthony Johnson isn't starving for food, he's actually a much hungrier competitor.
I had the chance to speak to 'Rumble' earlier in the week about his impending middleweight debut against Vitor Belfort at UFC 142 this Saturday. What struck me immediately was how much more bright-eyed and alive he seemed at this weight versus his previous appearances at welterweight. When pressed for an explanation on why there seemed to be two completely different Anthony Johnson quietly fired back with a dry and matter of fact of response. "Trust me," he said, "It helps out a lot when you can eat."
Even if the move to middleweight has shown the mixed martial arts (MMA) community more of Johnson's personality or competitive fire, a victory over Belfort is no matter of procedure. In this interview with MMA Nation radio, Johnson talks more about the differences he feels fighting at 185 pounds, what kind of challenge Vitor Belfort actually presents and why there's no looking back to welterweight after this move.
Luke Thomas: Alright, joining me right now on the McDonald's hot line, he's in the co-main event this weekend taking on Vitor Belfort at UFC 142, the one and only Anthony "Rumble" Johnson. Anthony, how are you doing down there in Brazil?
Anthony Johnson: I'm great man, how about you?
Luke Thomas: Is this your first time in Brazil?
Anthony Johnson: Well, my second time. I came here for the press conference but I was only here for a day so I'm actually here now for the week. Not that I get to do any sightseeing but I'm here.
Luke Thomas: And thoughts on the country in your first true go-around?
Anthony Johnson: Oh, it's a beautiful country and the beaches are the best. Great fans. It's just overall, just a beautiful place.
Luke Thomas: So you're just a few weeks out from the fight and this is your first fight at middleweight so let me just ask you, at this point in terms of how you're feeling in terms of how you feel when you're trying to make the welterweight limit, how are you physically feeling?
Anthony Johnson: I feel 1000 times better than when I was at 170. I actually get to eat right now so I'm happy.
Luke Thomas: I'm kind of curious about the weight cut and not specifically tactics but a weight cut is basically, your coach even said this Mike Van Arsdale, you're cutting out your athleticism so tell me something that you've been able to do this camp with ease, even if it's something small, that you couldn't do at 170/
Anthony Johnson: Just the overall camp is easier. You don't see me doing, you don't see me worrying as much now as before. Before I was like kinda having my weight on my mind. Now I'm not worried about anything. I'm just doing my thing and enjoying life.
Luke Thomas: How does your athleticism translate at 185 versus 170? Relative to your peers, will you be as fast and strong? How do you feel?
Anthony Johnson: Well you know, everybody thought I had power and speed and was an athlete at 170, well guess what? I get to eat now so I've got more power and more speed and I'm just as much of an athlete now than when I was at 170 so that's what makes it. I'm so excited just on those three things alone.
Luke Thomas: Was there anything in the move to middleweight that you didn't count on that you found out about your body that you were surprised by and how it reacted?
Anthony Johnson: Nope, no, nothing, nothing at all. Everything just went up times 10 now that I get to eat and train the way I need to.
Luke Thomas: One more thing about this, I read something today where you said, "Yeah, I'm fighting Vitor Belfort at middleweight but maybe I might go back to welterweight." Knowing how great you feel and we'll see how everything goes on Saturday, but knowing how great you feel and how much more capable you feel more generally, why would you even consider going back to welterweight?
Anthony Johnson: Who said that I said maybe?
Luke Thomas: I think you said, "maybe," that you were "feeling out." I can reach the quote here in just a second. "I'm out here to get the experience I need right now at 185 and see if these guys are the real deal like they say they are."
Anthony Johnson: Well, my deal is I can fight at 170 if I want to and I can fight at 185. Right now I'm at 185 so all I'm thinking about is 185. If I felt like fighting 170, I could tell the UFC, "Hey, I feel like going down to 170," but right now I'm at 185 and that's my main focus. 170 hasn't even crossed my mind and the only reason it's crossing my mind is because everybody keeps asking about it. (laughs)
Luke Thomas: Fair enough. Well, it's such a dramatic weight cut that you made, I think it really made a huge impression on people, but talk to me about these divisions. Generally speaking, and we'll get to Vitor Belfort here in just a minute, in your judgment, deeper division, welterweight or middleweight?
Anthony Johnson: Deeper division, I'd still have to say welterweight because welterweight has so many guys. So many guys that are great fighters and I'm not saying that middleweight doesn't have great fighters but I just don't think it's deep as 170, but the guys that are at the top of 185 are super, super tough and talented.
Luke Thomas: So is that your judgment that basically at the level you're gonna be at, you're fighting Vitor Belfort in your middleweight debut, that at the top of the top, it's basically the same although maybe at the middle, it's a little bit thicker at welterweight?
Anthony Johnson: Yeah, pretty much.
Luke Thomas: Fair enough, so let's talk about Vitor Belfort. I talked to him yesterday and he seemed to be in a, how would I say it, a great mood but then a really great mood, like he not quite won the lotto exactly, but very happy. What do you make about why he'd be so jovial? Is it because he's home? Have you considered why that would be the case?
Anthony Johnson: Well he should be happy right now, he's not in the cage yet, so he shouldn't have a reason to be worried or nervous about anything. We're not in a fight right now. I'm not in his face. I'm not doing what I'm gonna do to him yet.
Luke Thomas: Talk about this difference between old Vitor and new Vitor. I don't really believe in it in some ways. When he performs well, "Oh, that's the new Vitor," well is it? What do you make of the state of his game today in 2012? How do you characterize his skill-set today?
Anthony Johnson: Well Vitor was 19 when he started. At the time he was very explosive, his body was ridiculous back then, know what I mean? He's not the same Vitor as far as body and stuff like that as he was when he was 19. He's dropped some size and stuff like that but he hasn't lost his speed. He hasn't lost his power. He hasn't lost his skill-set. He's had a lot of fights so he's very experienced so we'll see which Vitor shows up when I'm in there fighting him but I'm gonna do everything possible to beat this guy.
Luke Thomas: Okay, so true or false. Mentally, Vitor Belfort is a frontrunner. When he's winning, he obviously wins well but when he faced adversity, when you put it on him, he has serious difficulty coming back. True or false?
Anthony Johnson: It's been proven, kinda, you know what I mean? It is a mental game with him. He gets nervous. I know I'm in the back of his head, I know that for sure and I'm gonna stay in his head so we'll see. We'll see if he's nervous a little bit at the weigh-ins and we'll definitely gonna see if he's nervous on Saturday.
Luke Thomas: So you were here in DC when you fought Charlie Brenneman. I have to tell you, help me understand, when you were fighting Brenneman, you didn't have this anger towards him that you have towards Vitor. What changed?
Anthony Johnson: I don't have anger towards anybody at all.
Luke Thomas: So what am I reading here? What is that? Help me understand that.
Anthony Johnson: Just somebody who's confident and just won a fight, that's it and I love the sport that I do. I didn't overlook Charlie, I never overlook an opponent. I never take them for granted, but I have to be confident in myself.
Luke Thomas: Sure, but you would agree that you sound different pre-fight than you did during that fight.
Anthony Johnson: Yeah, because I got to eat. (laughs)
Luke Thomas: Is that really all it is that when you get relaxed and in a position where you can let your body heal and adjust and do what you have to do and you can have all these extra abilities and emotions pre-fight?
Anthony Johnson: Yes. Trust me. It helps out a lot when you can eat.
Luke Thomas: Give me a sense of how you believe you stack up. I'm sure you believe you're the superior fighter. Where is Vitor Belfort most dangerous: within the first minute of the first round with just his boxing?
Anthony Johnson: You can't overlook Vitor. He's dangerous every second of the round any round however many rounds you want to go with. He's dangerous. He can explode on you in a heartbeat so he's dangerous there and he's dangerous on the ground. When you go in there and fight Vitor, you can't worry about what he can do because once you worry about what they can do, that's when you lose because you're holding back. I'm not worrying about anything he can do. I respect what he can do, but I'm not worried about it.
Luke Thomas: Is the biggest skill differential between you and he, and I mean this in your favor, is the biggest skill differential wrestling?
Anthony Johnson: Oh for sure, for sure. The wrestling I know I've got him beat on at wrestling. Stand up, he has fast hands, you know what I mean? He punches and stuff and kicks a little bit, I punch and kick all the time. I wrestle a lot, I'm sure he wrestles too but his level isn't like mine. His ground game is legit. He's a black belt. A black belt is a black belt. You can't get no better than that besides a red belt or whatever. It is what it is.
Luke Thomas: And to those that would say, "Hey listen, Vitor Belfort's got a black belt on the ground. Anthony Johnson is certainly good there but that's a big skill differential as well." How would you respond to that claim.
Anthony Johnson: When you're a black belt, usually you have on a gi. We fight in just shorts and in a way, to me, you toss that black belt out the window and see how it is when you've got punches coming down at your head and you've got to defend yourself.
Anthony Johnson: Oh man, I don't know. That's a tough one. Jose is the champion and Chad is the contender. It's gonna be a great fight. Chad is explosive and has great wrestling. Jose is Jose Aldo. He's good on the ground, he's good at stand up. We'll see, I think it's gonna be real interesting to see what happens. I'm at a stalemate on who's gonna win because both guys are so good.
Interview transcription services provided by Brian Hemminger (@GotAHemmi).