Johnson’s résumé includes a win over ex-UFC champ Tim Sylvia. | Photo: Taro Irei/Sherdog.com
The criteria for Tony Johnson’s admission into the American Kickboxing Academy was straightforward as it was daunting: go one-on-one with Cain Velasquez and see how long you last.
For Johnson, however, the trial by fire was worth any pain and suffering that might ensue. The former Iowa State University fullback had the physical tools -- size, wrestling, speed -- to be an intriguing heavyweight prospect, but he lacked the proper foundation to truly prosper in mixed martial arts.
That was never more evident than when he faced Daniel Cormier for the King of the Cage heavyweight title in August 2010. At the time, the future UFC light heavyweight title contender was still in the infancy of his fighting career. While Cormier dismissed Johnson in 2:27 that night, a lasting impression was made -- on both combatants.
Johnson saw Cormier had that foundation he wanted for himself.
“I didn’t have a team. I wasn’t training the right way,” Johnson recalled. “He had all the stars aligned. He had the management, the team, people to push him. I didn’t have any of that. The biggest thing for me was get on the squad that’s going to help me get better.”
Cormier, in turn, was impressed by the fight -- however brief it may have been -- that Johnson gave him in their encounter. So, when Johnson reached out to the AKA wrestling coach via social media in hopes of putting down more permanent training roots, Cormier was receptive -- assuming that his prospective teammate agreed to that one demanding condition. Once upon a time, Cormier had to do the very same thing.
As it turned out, Johnson was more than game to test his mettle against the UFC’s current heavyweight king.
“Of course you’re going to get your butt kicked, but they want to see how much heart you have,” Johnson said. “I was able to last, I think, two or three rounds. I was able to go one more round than Daniel. He was like, ‘Man, you went one more round than me, that’s crazy.’
“Ever since then it’s been AKA all the way.”
With the proper team behind him, Johnson’s career seems to be finally falling into place. After spurts of inactivity for much of his professional tenure, he is confident that his second term with Bellator MMA will allow him to fulfill his yet untapped potential.
“These organizations haven’t been able to keep me busy. People say they want to fight me and then don’t fight me. That’s been the same issue in my career,” he said. “I’ve just never been able to get going. People forget. If you’re not on the scene a lot, of course they’re gonna forget about you. I understand that. [Bellator] is gonna be able to keep me busy like those other organizations haven’t been able to do.”
That starts at Bellator 136, when Johnson faces Alexander Volkov in a featured heavyweight scrap on Spike TV. The AKA representative had no qualms about jumping into deep water against a former heavyweight champion. After all, Johnson’s resume already includes triumphs over Tim Sylvia, Derrick Lewis and Tony Lopez, and that’s not to mention his daily work in the San Jose, Calif., gym with the likes of Cormier and Velasquez.
“[Bellator] came to me and said, ‘Do [you] want to go right in or do [you] want a warm up fight?’ I’m ready to go. I train with Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier and Luke Rockhold. I’m not able to go with these guys in the room unless I’m ready,” he said.
When Johnson first made the journey to AKA, he weighed around 320 pounds, roughly the same weight he was when he clocked a 4.7 second 40-yard yard dash as a college running back. A little more than a week out from his showdown with Volkov, Johnson was already on weight. With a svelte frame comes improved stamina, according to Johnson.
“Now that I’m training I’m always coming forward. I’m trying to get that Cain Velasquez cardio,” he said. “I believe I have that now. It opened up my world to training. I thought I was training the right way, but I wasn’t.”
In addition, the father of three young daughters has worked to add to his in-cage skills, which primarily centered around wrestling when he got started. Johnson wouldn’t mind getting a little experimental when he squares off with Volkov.
“Obviously I know I have the better ground game. I want to see where my striking is with him. I know he held the belt. He’s really never fought anybody like me. I have not showcased anything that I have besides my wrestling,” Johnson said. “My striking has gotten so much better. I’m so much more comfortable with guys standing now.
“If I’m in trouble I can always take him down, but I don’t plan on doing that. I plan on beating him everywhere.”