Anthony Johnson competed in three divisions for the UFC, so he’s as qualified as anyone to assess its roster even after joining a promotional rival.
Across two separate stints with the UFC from 2007-2012 and 2014-2017, Johnson signed on for fights at 170 pounds, 185 pounds, and 205 pounds (the middleweight bout with Vitor Belfort was a one-off that Johnson actually missed weight for by 11 pounds, a UFC record up until this past Saturday when Rafael Alves came in 11.5 pounds heavy for a featherweight bout). Johnson was a budding contender at welterweight before issues with making the 170-pound limit eventually forced a move to the light heavyweight division, where he twice competed for a UFC championship.
Johnson, 36, retired in 2017, but announced in December that he had signed with Bellator. His debut is booked for Bellator 257 on April 16, when he fights fellow ex-UFC fighter Yoel Romero in the opening round of the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix.
During an appearance on The Spaniard Show podcast hosted by Charlie Brenneman—who Johnson defeated at a UFC event on Oct. 1, 2011—Johnson spoke about his excitement over starting his career fresh with Bellator.
“Signing with Bellator it was just a new beginning for me,” Johnson said. “I had a lot of fun in UFC, I give all of my credit for the most part to the UFC because the world wouldn’t know who Rumble Johnson was or is if it wasn’t for UFC. So I give all of them credit. I wish we all could be getting them fat checks like the NFL players and the NBA players, but it is what it is, I’m a always preach that.”
Johnson and Romero aren’t the only high-profile signings that Bellator has added heading into its 2021 campaign. Established fighters like Rustam Khabilov, Brett Johns, and Vanessa Porto could make their Bellator debuts this year, and former UFC contenders Corey Anderson and Cat Zingano already found success in their first Bellator fights.
The way the Grand Prix bracket is set, Johnson will have to emerge from a field that includes Romero, Anderson, Vadim Nemkov, Phil Davis, Ryan Bader, Lyoto Machida, and Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov. Nemkov is the current Bellator light heavyweight champion and with the exception of Anderson and Yagshimuradov, all the names in the tournament have won or competed for UFC and/or Bellator titles in the past.
Johnson likes how the level of competition in Bellator stacks up against his old stomping grounds.
“I’m just ready to go and fight,” Johnson said. “I look forward to the competition that’s out there. I think we can compete with the UFC with what we have. A lot of people think that just because the Bellator promotion isn’t what the UFC promotion is that the fighters aren’t the same calibre, and there’s always levels to everything. Every business, every promotion. But Bellator is no joke.
“Look at my guy, my teammate Michael Chandler went over there and destroyed Dan Hooker. Smoked him. But I knew that was coming. I’m like, y’all don’t realize how dangerous Michael Chandler is. And even though he came from a smaller promotion, he’s still an elite fighter. He wasn’t there being the champ and fighting the best of the best for no reason. He went to war with Eddie Alvarez and to me, Eddie Alvarez is for sure the greatest fighter ever in my opinion because he’s been to every organization and won the title. People don’t give that man credit.
“I also see that fans are now starting to understand that you don’t have to be just a UFC fighter to be successful and be able to feed your family and be something. So don’t be afraid to go outside of the box if there’s other things out there you want to be able to do in other promotions, go for it. Try it out. And I think Bellator for me was the right move.”
Watch Johnson’s appearance on The Spaniard Show, where he also discusses the origins of his fighting career, struggling to make the 170-pound limit in his early UFC days, and his business ventures outside of MMA: