Anthony Johnson remembered the first time he saw Daniel Cormier. He was watching the 2001 NCAA wrestling championships on television when Cormier lost to Cael Sanderson. Sanderson had a 159-0 record with four national titles at Iowa State before winning the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics.
If Cormier didn’t gain Johnson’s respect in defeat against the greatest collegiate wrestler in U.S. history, he certainly did two years ago when Cormier choked out Johnson in Ultimate Fighting Championship 187. The two will meet again April 8 for the light heavyweight title in UFC 210 in KeyBank Center.
“Not in a million years did I imagine that I would be fighting a guy that I saw on TV,” Johnson said Friday before catching a flight home to Georgia. “Wrestlers watch wrestlers. I remember being in my dorm room in junior college and watching him wrestle for the national championship. It’s crazy how it all works out. It’s just a small world.”
Johnson is known as “Rumble,” a nickname befitting his success and style in mixed-martial arts in recent years. At 32, he believes he has reached his prime. He has been compared to a young Mike Tyson, a savage during his rise to the world heavyweight title in boxing in the late 1980s. Cormier, 37, has what Johnson desires, the light heavyweight belt.
Starting at 6 a.m., the combatants in Buffalo’s main event spent Friday promoting UFC 210. They spent 10½ hours together across a dozen interviews with the local media while traveling in separate SUVs. Cormier had lunch at Chef’s – “Man, what a great place,” he said – while Johnson ate at (716) Food and Sport.
In other words, they kept one another at a comfortable distance.
Cormier: “We could do interviews and stuff, but riding around all day and eating lunch? That’s just too much. I’d rather go by myself.”
Johnson: “We don’t want to hold hands and sleep beside each other, you know. But we’re respectable.”
Their partnership made for an interesting day Friday. UFC protocol calls for fighters to ride in separate vehicles while promoting fights. “I might have a drink or something and want to crack him,” Johnson said with a laugh. Friendly with one another but not exactly BFFs, they couldn’t resist the banter.
Johnson, for example, wore a Sabres cap all day after attending their win Thursday night over the Avalanche. He met co-owner Kim Pegula, was introduced on the video scoreboard and had a good time with fans. Cormier shook his head in disgust, scoffing at the oldest trick in the book.
Cormier: “I call that a cheap pop. You go into a city and you’re like, ‘Hey, Buffalo! I love it!” and people are like, ‘Oh, weee, yaaaay.’ I mean, come on.”
Johnson: “He hates it because Buffalo loves me already. I came to the hockey game, and they were cheering me on. They didn’t even know who this guy was. It says something about him. I made him rise to the occasion.”
Cormier: “I didn’t get in until 1 o’clock in the morning.”
Johnson: “He didn’t want any part of it.”
Cormier: “Stop lying. I had my son’s birthday party.”
Johnson: “The crowd loved me.”
Cormier: “Cheap pop. You gotta be kidding me.”
Johnson: “The fans were amazing, though. At first, they didn’t know who I was. They heard UFC and put my picture up there – and they put his picture after me – they finally realized the big dog was there. They showered me with roses.”
Cormier: “Oh, my god. You sound like Eddie Murphy in ‘Coming to America.’”
The two fighters were laughing while going back and forth and seemed to enjoy one another. They shared their mutual respect knowing the fight was two months away. They also knew whatever warm-and-fuzzies they felt Friday would turn into genuine disdain once they climbed into the octagon with a title on the line.
Cormier (18-1) is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in UFC. His lone defeat came against Rochester native Jon Jones, who was stripped of his title and suspended after testing positive for a banned substance. Cormier wants to beat Johnson in part because it would set up a rematch with Jones.
Johnson (22-5) is considered among the most dangerous fighters in UFC. His devastating striking ability was on display in August when he knocked out Glover Teixeira in 13 seconds. Raise your hand if you think you could have lasted longer by running around the octagon. No matter, seven of his last 10 victories have come by first-round knockout.
Johnson lost four of his first 14 fights before figuring out how to best utilize his wrestling skill with his punching power. He has lost only one fight in the past five years, and it came at the hands of Cormier. Johnson was forced to submit after getting caught in a chokehold.
Cormier: “God forbid he wins because we’ll have to fight again. We would both be 1-1. I need to finish him off in April and be done with him.”
Johnson: “It’s going to happen. I’m looking forward to the rubber match.”
Cormier: “No chance – absolutely no chance.”