With Jon Jones’ suspension still in place, the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight division moves on. Daniel Cormier holds the belt, and he wears it well. He first earned it by defeating Anthony Johnson at UFC 187, but “Rumble” is back with a vengeance, having knocked out three straight opponents on his path back to the title. The two best active light heavyweights in the world will meet at UFC 210 on Saturday in Buffalo, New York, and that is must-see TV. Speaking of the best fighting the best, former middleweight champion Chris Weidman will take on Gegard Mousasi in the co-main event. Mousasi, too, has compiled an impressive, knockout-filled winning streak, and Weidman will need to fight hard to prove he still belongs in the title picture after a brutal loss to Yoel Romero in December.
Former Bellator MMA champion Will Brooks will attempt to regain the momentum stolen from him by Alex Oliveira late last year, as he takes on submission specialist Charles Oliveira. Further down on the preliminaries, blue-chip prospect Kamaru Usman will have his hands full with the precise striking of divisional dark horse Sean Strickland.
Let us take a closer look at each UFC 210 “Cormier vs. Johnson 2” matchup, with analysis and picks (latest odds):
UFC Light Heavyweight ChampionshipDaniel Cormier (18-1) vs. Anthony Johnson (22-5)
THE MATCHUP: Since his return to the UFC in 2014, only one man has managed to make Johnson look mortal. His name is Cormier, and in the absence of Jones, he is undeniably the best light heavyweight on the planet. Still, the gap between first and second place is miniscule. Cormier beat Johnson but not before “Rumble” dropped him in the first 30 seconds of the bout. Johnson only spent about three minutes striking in open space, but he still managed to connect with 23 crushing blows, including several clean head kicks, a nasty uppercut and the overhand which sent Cormier tumbling to the canvas. Johnson’s power was so great that he actually managed to stagger Cormier with a pair of right hands, even as his left leg was resting on the other man’s shoulder. If Cormier were not the best active light heavyweight in the world, Johnson would almost certainly be the champion right now.
What went wrong for Johnson? For one, Cormier is beyond tough. He is also incredibly disciplined. Rather than shelling up, desperately exchanging blows or turning his back to run, he stayed sharp after Johnson knocked him down. As “Rumble” came forward to renew the assault, Cormier was smart enough to change levels and attack the legs. “DC” may not have been a prolific takedown artist during his wrestling career, but he has honed that skill in the UFC’s light heavyweight division. Repeatedly he got in on Johnson’s hips, and though he was never able to blast the power puncher off his feet, he latched onto him like a pitbull. Whether using a seatbelt grip to make Johnson carry his weight or hitting neat angles to turn a snatch single into a spectacular slam, Cormier committed to his wrestling and made it work.
You could say that this momentum shift was Johnson’s fault. After knocking down Cormier, he attacked with such reckless ferocity that his first big miss sent him tumbling to his knees, at which point Cormier muscled him around. Johnson may not be able to wrestle tit-for-tat with Cormier, but he would be well-advised to approach this second fight with more self-control. He should take a note from Conor McGregor and maintain distance at all costs, even as he pressures the champion.
Still, Johnson has always struggled to maintain momentum against a disciplined, determined opponent. When Rich Clementi survived the early onslaught and caught Johnson in a rear-naked choke in 2007, some chalked it up to inexperience. When Josh Koscheck did the same in 2009, you could have perhaps called it coincidence. However, when Cormier repeated the deed at UFC 187, that right there is a pattern. Johnson relies heavily on keeping the initiative, leading the dance, pressuring his opponents and forcing them to react to him. The moment he stops thinking he can land the big shot and starts thinking he needs to, his confidence crumbles. Henri Hooft has turned Johnson into a much better, more technical striker, but one imagines that his notoriously negative corner work does not help.
Cormier has been dropped twice in his last three fights. He was also hurt by an Anderson Silva body kick at UFC 200. He is 38 years old, and sometime soon, his ability to withstand punishment will fade. Johnson absolutely can crack Cormier, but if “DC” survives the first impact, “Rumble” will need to maintain discipline and keep a cool head or fall prey to the same demons that have haunted him for a decade.
THE ODDS: Johnson (-120), Cormier (+100)
THE PICK: Johnson is a very, very dangerous man. Allow him to hold the initiative, and you will be hit. Cormier will almost certainly eat a few heavy shots in the early seconds of this rematch, and he will likely eat a few more whenever he allows Johnson to stand at range. If you assume Cormier can take those strikes, then suddenly it matters less that Johnson does land and more how he lands. If Johnson loses his cool and swings for the fences, Cormier will be able to tie him up; and as soon as Cormier ties up Johnson, the momentum will shift. “Rumble” will need to be workmanlike and ignore the voice in the back of his head that urges him to finish it quickly. Unfortunately, that is not something he typically manages to do, especially when his opponent is willing to meet his force head on. Both men have faced serious adversity in their careers, but only Cormier has ever managed to come back from it. The pick is Cormier by third-round submission.
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