Preview: UFC 210 – Cormier vs. Johnson 2

After three weeks of inactivity the UFC comes roaring back into our sitting rooms this Saturday night with its latest pay-per-view offering. Held at the KeyBank Arena in Buffalo, New York, UFC 210 maybe doesn’t have the big-name attractions many look for, but it’s a fine card throughout with a really intriguing headliner.

In that main event slot the UFC light-heavyweight championship will be up for grabs as champion Daniel Cormier takes on bazooka-fisted Anthony Johnson over five rounds.

After Cormier won the title against Johnson at UFC 187 in May, 2015 the pair were set to rematch during UFC 206 at the back end of last year. Those plans were scuppered by a Cormier injury though and Johnson chose to sit out and wait until this weekend instead of taking a fight in the interim.

In the first match-up, Johnson came out strong and hurt Cormier with an early flurry of fast, powerful strikes which looked like they could get him the finish. But it was that thought of finishing which actually played against Johnson as he overextended and gave Cormier the chance of clinching; which he gratefully accepted. From there Cormier took control, got takedowns, wore Johnson out, broke his spirit and finished him. And to an extent, that fight encapsulated both men’s careers to date.

A highly respected former NCAA and Olympic wrestling stand-out, Cormier has been know for (shout out to Mike Goldberg) embracing the grind throughout his athletic career. A year after being unable to compete at his second Olympic Games due to kidney failure, Cormier made his MMA debut at Strikeforce Challengers in 2009. Immediately, “DC” made an impact with six finishes on the bounce including one against a man who would go on to become world heavyweight boxing champion Lucas Browne.

The elite portion of his career really kicked off in 2010 as he defeated UFC veterans Jeff Monson, Antonio Silva and Josh Barnett to win the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix title. An easy win over Dion Staring followed that before Cormier was brought over to the UFC where he beat both Frank Mir and Roy Nelson.

With AKA teammate Cain Velasquez atop the heavyweight division, Cormier then moved down to light-heavyweight and made extremely light work of both Patrick Cummins and Dan Henderson to earn himself a title shot against Jon Jones. That bout was a relatively close affair which Jones won but Cormier didn’t have to wait long to become champion thanks to the out-of-cage antics of “Bones.” In fact, it was only five months later when Cormier defeated Johnson in the aforementioned fight for the vacant title. Since then Cormier defeated Alexander Gustafsson in a really close five rounder and also took Anderson Silva’s perfect light-heavyweight record away over three rounds at UFC 200 when his original opponent Jon Jones was fell out due to a potential USADA infringement.

For Dublin, Georgia native Johnson, the road to UFC 210 has been a lot less expected but possibly even more rocky than Cormier’s.

Entering MMA as a junior college wrestler, Johnson debuted in 2006 and found himself in the UFC just three fights and ten months later. And although he won five of his first seven fights inside the Octagon, Johnson’s early career was ravaged with problems. Eye injuries were a big issue but his inability to make weight at welterweight, and then middleweight, saw Johnson cut by the UFC after losing to Vitor Belfort in 2012.

That was an eventual catalyst for a move to 205 lbs where he had great success in Titan and World Series Of Fighting before getting back into the UFC in 2014. Brutal knockouts of Rogerio Nogueira and Alexander Gustafsson followed that before Johnson lost out to Cormier. Since then fights with Jimi Manuwa, Ryan Bader and Glover Teixeira have all ended in KO for Johnson and he has more than earned his second shot at glory.

When looking ahead to Saturday night it’s important to look at each man’s individual game, but it might also be smart to look at the happenings since their first meeting.

As we know, Cormier is a talented wrestler who has adjusted his base extremely well to full contact. To do that, a large percentage of the transition relied on striking. Cormier isn’t the most powerful hitter in the world but he does have some simple, fundamental weapons which help him to get the fight to where he wants it. His jab is effective, he is well able to follow it with his right hand while his hand fighting at close quarters is also a big plus.

All of those things help him to compete but also change things up and bring him closer into range and subsequently towards the takedown. And closeness really is the key. If Cormier can get you against the fence or clinched in open water, it’s a simple matter of fact that you are going down. And likely staying down.

The exact same thing could be said of Anthony Johnson’s striking. If he hits you, you’re going down and staying down.

To say Johnson is the hardest hitting pound-for-pound fighter in MMA today wouldn’t be an understatement. And he knows it.

To utilise that power Johnson throws early and often. He has a nice straight jab to start things off but it’s what comes after that really matters. The real brilliance of what Johnson does is simple. Combination striking. The jab moves into the right hand while kicks to the body and legs intertwine vicious, accurate, fight ending hooks from both hands. The lucky thing is, if you give Johnson the opportunity to strike, you’ll only have a few seconds to regret it before being woken up.

But this isn’t boxing or kickboxing. This is MMA.

What Cormier showed in the first fight -and what others have shown before – is that if you weather the early Johnson storm and get him to the ground, he is beatable.

Or, was beatable, at least.

Since that first fight with Cormier a lot has changed for both men. Johnson not only has three wins by KO, but he has shown improvements in his wrestling too. Working with Neil Melanson, he has taken down Jimi Manuwa and looked sharp on the ground as well as stopping Ryan Bader’s wrestling attempts before finishing him on the floor.

While Cormier at the same time hasn’t had it so positive. Setbacks because of Jon Jones and injuries to himself are a worry but the fact that he is now 38 years of age means that the end can’t be too far away. And although that might not be on Saturday, it also might not need to be when faced with a monster like Anthony Johnson.

Unlike many rematches, I think Saturday night will be a lot different to their first meeting. Yes, Johnson will be looking for the KO. And, yes, Cormier will be looking to get it to the floor. But it’s very unlikely to play out the same way.

And by that I mean it won’t be so easy for Daniel Cormier. As I mentioned above, Johnson made a fatal mistake in the first fight by losing his head and getting reckless. I doubt he does that again. That means Cormier will have to come through the fire to win again or he’ll have to dominate from moment one. And if the past is anything to go by, both of those options are highly possible.

What we have here is basically a pick ’em fight in my book. Cormier can win with his well hidden, well set-up and well executed wrestling and grappling, while Johnson can spark you out in the click of a finger.

The side I’m leaning towards is Johnson – just barely. I think the mammoth work he has put in on his wrestling will give him a chance to catch Cormier early. If he does that, and doesn’t make the same error as last time, Anthony Johnson will be the new light-heavyweight UFC champion.

Outside of that names like Irene Aldana, Myles Jury, Cynthia Calvillo, Kamaru Usman and former Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks are worth looking out for but the biggest appetiser to the headliner comes in the co-main event as Gegard Mousasi takes on Chris Weidman in the middleweight division.

Weidman, a former UFC 185 lbs champion, is currently coming off of two heavy knockout losses and many see this as a huge risk again Mousasi who is surging in form at the moment with six wins in his last seven fights.

In many ways, these two are very similar. Good solid strikers. Strong, dominant wrestlers. Mousasi probably has an advantage in the striking, Weidman is probably a better wrestler. In all likelihood, that means this one is going all three rounds.

At their peaks, I’d favour Weidman heavily here but due to recent occurrences it’s not nearly as clear cut. I do think Mousasi will have some success striking and will be hard to take down but overall, if his chin isn’t an issue due to damage it has taken, I see Weidman’s power striking and superior wrestling getting him the win.

FULL FIGHT PICKS

Daniel Cormier vs. Anthony Johnson – First round is all important, I’m taking a Rumble KO
Chris Weidman vs. Gegard Mousasi – Razor thin but I’m going Weidman because of power
Cynthia Calvillo vs. Pearl Gonzalez – Calvillo via submission
Thiago Alves vs. Patrick Côté – Côté in a close three rounder
Will Brooks vs. Charles Oliveira – Brooks takes a dominant decision

Myles Jury vs. Mike De La Torre – Jury
Kamaru Usman vs. Sean Strickland – Usman
Charles Rosa vs. Shane Burgos – Rosa
Patrick Cummins vs. Jan Błachowicz –
Cummins

Gregor Gillespie vs. Andrew Holbrook –Gillespie
Josh Emmett vs. Desmond Green – Emmett
Katlyn Chookagian vs. Irene Aldana – Aldana
Jenel Lausa vs. Magomed Bibulatov – Bibulatov

BET OF THE WEEK

I’m going for a 2/1 treble of Bibulatov, Jury and Weidman.

START TIMES

Early Prelims – 11.15pm on Fight Pass

Prelims – 1am on BT Sport & Fight Pass

Main Card – 3am on BT Sport

Lead MMA writer and analyst for SevereMMA. Co-host of the SevereMMA podcast, out every Tuesday. Economics and Mathematics graduate from UCC. Previously of hov-mma and fightbooth. As heard on 2FM, Red FM, Today FM and more. Follow me on twitter for updates @SeanSheehanBA and on Facebook Facebook.com/seansheehanmma