This weekend we’ll be treated to a rematch for the light heavyweight title between Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Daniel Cormier. The first fight saw Cormier recover from an early knockdown to dominate Johnson with his wrestling before finishing him with a rear naked choke in the third round. The second time around, I see two ways the fight plays out: Either Cormier hits his takedowns and outwrestles Johnson, or Rumble defends the takedowns and dominates with his striking. I see very little chance of Cormier winning on the feet or of Rumble winning on the ground. Considering the result of the first fight, I think it’s more interesting to discuss what Rumble can do to ensure he keeps the fight standing. We’ll start by looking at what went wrong the first time.
This was the first of many times Cormier got a hold of Johnson. Immediately after dropping Cormier with an overhand, Rumble goes in for the kill. He stalks Cormier towards the cage and once Cormier runs out of room he steps in with another big overhand. Notice the deep step of the lead foot combined with the dropping of the right hand and external rotation of the right foot. All of this indicates a loaded up punch from Rumble’s right hand, so Cormier easily ducks under the predictable overhand. Sacrificing distance, mobility and balance, Rumble throws his entire body into the punch and gives Cormier a free opportunity to wrestle. Cormier doesn’t even move his feet, Rumble does all the work for him. Throughout the fight, Rumble would find Cormier ducking under his punches and forcing him against the cage where he was caught in extended wrestling exchanges. All of that wrestling drained his energy and kept him from getting into his rhythm on the feet, which finally led to him shooting on Cormier, having his back taken and getting choked out. In order to avoid this in the rematch, Rumble will need to be much more measured and versatile with his striking, starting with his jab.
Despite being known for his superhuman power punching, Rumble actually has a very sharp jab in his arsenal. Here he snaps Phil Davis’ head back with it and claims the center of the cage with controlled footwork. A sharp, snapping jab is one of the most important tools a striker can use against a wrestler. It allows the striker to measure and control distance, hitting the opponent from the farthest distance possible while keeping both feet on the ground. This is one of the most important principles of striking against a wrestler—denying the opponent the position and range to shoot. To take an effective shot, the wrestler must step forward with his level lower than the opponent’s. Thrown correctly, the jab offers a serious threat but requires very little commitment and leaves few openings. It can be used to attack at the range a wrestler will be looking to set his shots up from, and the fighter can take angles while jabbing to make it very difficult for the wrestler to secure their legs or drive into their hips. Of course, the jab is also used to set up more devastating attacks.
Once the lead arm is established as a threat, it can be used for craftier purposes. As Teixeira steps forward, Rumble times him. He shoots his lead arm out, but what initially looks like a jab turns into a sneaky hand trap. A slapping hook to the right arm of Teixeira helps Rumble to line up his uppercut and convinces Teixeira to duck into it, while also serving to control the right arm and prevent it from being used to counter or defend. If you pay attention to Rumble’s fights, you’ll see him using his lead arm for this type of control constantly to set up some of his best knockouts.
Rumble makes great use of his lead hand to control Little Nog as he tees off for the finish. Holding Nog in place and taking his right hand out of the equation, Rumble unloads with right hooks around the guard and uppercuts between it. By pinning the right arm of the opponent and attacking with his own, he makes it difficult for the opponent to escape because he can feel their movement. This allows him to pick his shots very intelligently and the combination of his power shots on the one side and his control of the other make counters unlikely. When the opponent does try to move, his control is dynamic enough to keep up.
After hurting Gustafsson, Rumble leads with a high kick before swarming. As he attacks, he uses his left hand to line up his punches before unloading with his right. When he attacks with his left, his right arm transitions to control instead. This allows him to keep the pressure on and pick shots, landing even on a moving target while keeping his opponent purely on the defensive. His controlling arm is used to blind the opponent, measure distance, feel where the opponent is going and manipulate their balance. In wrestling, the hands are considered the first line of defense. When the opponent gets past the hands, the forearms are the next line of defense. Rumble has a system that allows him to transition from offensive striking to defensive grappling as his head control can also be turned into frames to directly prevent opponents from closing distance.
After missing with a right hand, Rumble shoots out a jab. Manuwa ducks it, looking to come in underneath it and get a hold of Rumble, but Rumble snaps the jab back and jams his left forearm across Manuwa’s throat. Physically stopping Manuwa’s advance with this frame, he then stands Manuwa up tall with an uppercut that narrowly misses as Manuwa pulls back. Rumble throws his left kick with the distance created before again blinding and measuring Manuwa with his left hand as he recovers from the kick to line up a deadly overhand. His ability to control and frame with his arms allows him to keep opponents off him when they get past his jab, and is a huge factor in denying wrestlers the distance and position to shoot on him. In addition to this, he also makes great use of angles.
While there’s a lot of subtlety that could be analyzed here, the most important aspect is Rumble’s footwork. Davis makes multiple attempts to rush him, but each time Rumble pivots off sharply to get off the line of attack and kill Davis’ momentum. First Rumble attacks with his uppercut using the same setup that caught Teixeira and angles off to his right when Davis charges, pushing Davis past him with his right hand. He almost caught Davis with the uppercut so he tries it again, this time cutting off to his left when Davis ducks the uppercut and clinches. He tries to break the clinch while circling to the left with a left hook but Davis maintains control and sets up a shot. However, Rumble sprawls back at an angle, taking his hips in the opposite direction while blocking Davis’ head with his left forearm and then posting with his left arm as he stands up to maintain distance. Rumble used his excellent angles and control with his hands to keep Davis off his hips throughout the fight, and should look to do the same against Cormier.
While so far this article has focused on striking against a wrestler by denying opportunities to shoot, a second important principle is punishing the attempts to shoot. A wrestler who is allowed to shoot with impunity can continue to regardless of whether or not he gets stuffed. In a lot of cases, he only needs to succeed once to win the round or even the fight. As a result, the striker must look to skew the risk vs reward in their favor. As you may have noticed in the previous examples, Rumble does this with his uppercut.
Every time Davis changed levels, Rumble tried to catch him ducking into an uppercut. He didn’t manage to drop Davis with it like he did Gustafsson and Teixeira, but he did hurt Davis and make it dangerous for him to shoot. Note again the angles Rumble uses as he implements the uppercut strategically. He’ll need to make liberal use of that uppercut against Cormier in order to deter his wrestling. Ideally, he should be combine it with his overhand to set up a deadly double threat. If Cormier leans back to pull from the uppercut, he’s open to the overhand. If he ducks the overhand, he’s open to the uppercut. Rumble will need to pick his shots intelligently and avoid committing to wide, predictable swings without establishing his distance. He’ll also need to keep his eyes open in exchanges and be prepared to adjust on the fly.
Rumble starts stepping his right foot forward to throw his left kick but Davis ducks in to shoot. Rumble immediately bails on the kick and shoots his hips back. He uses an overhook with his left arm and a pivot to his left to turn Davis into a right hook, left hook combination as he breaks out of the clinch. This adaptability will be key in the rematch—especially considering Rumble spent the entire second round on his back after Cormier caught one of his kicks. He’ll need to be very careful with his kicks because he almost always throws out that left kick when he thinks the opponent is hurt, and letting the man with the best singles in MMA catch your leg is always bad news. I’d like to see him focus more on setting up his hands, only kicking when he has Cormier reacting to his punches.
Rumble has a tough job ahead of him. He’ll need to use his jab, head control and frames to measure distance, keep Cormier off him and set up his shots, pick his shots carefully to catch Cormier out of position without opening himself up, and use his angles to stay off the cage and defend Cormier’s shots. This is what he looks like at his best:
Rumble starts by controlling the center, slowly walking Manuwa back towards the cage. When Manuwa shoots out a jab to keep him away, Rumble follows it back with his own jab and lands a nice low kick as Manuwa retreats. As he recovers from the kick, he transitions his weight smoothly into a hard 3-2 combo that pushes Manuwa all the way to the fence. Knowing he’s in danger, Manuwa steps in behind his jab and ducks into a clinch attempt as Rumble squares up to throw a big overhand. While this is what got him in trouble against Cormier, here he is able to whip his right leg around with a hard pivot before shifting his weight over it with a left hook. This sharp angle creates space which Johnson then uses to put a right hand behind the hook as Manuwa attempts to shoot. Rumble extends his lead arm to measure, but as soon as he realizes Manuwa is getting underneath him he clamps his forearm down and sprawls his hips back at an angle to his right. He maintains control with his frame as he throws an uppercut, overhand, uppercut combination—moving out to his right the entire time. In this short sequence we see his control of the octagon, his jab, his powerful overhand, his head control and frames, his uppercuts and his angles. He’ll need to combine all of these with the same level of fluidity in order to defeat Daniel Cormier.
Cormier is smart, tough and strong. When he can’t get his man down he’ll use a powerful single collar tie to break down the posture and land brutal uppercuts. If he manages to get an underhook, he’ll pin the opponent against the cage and work them from there. Once he has a hold of a leg, a whole series of finishes (most famously his high crotch lift) are going to be chained together relentlessly until the opponent goes down or exerts a ton of energy defending. Rumble needs to avoid giving up any of these positions, just as Cormier needs to avoid the overhand right, uppercut and left kick of Johnson. It’s a compelling matchup and on Saturday we’ll see if Anthony Johnson can make the necessary adjustments to stifle the Olympian.