In April 2008, a highly regarded Ultimate Fighter runner up in Tommy Speer stepped into the Octagon at UFC Fight Night 13. Hailed as the next Matt Hughes, Speer squared off against Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, a relative unknown.
The result sent Speer packing, and made Johnson a welterweight to watch.
It took the California fighter a mere 51 seconds to dispose of Speer with a brutal right hand that literally left Speer asleep, sitting up, on the side of the cage.
After that highlight reel knockout, Johnson stepped back into the cage three months later to face Kevin Burns at UFC: Silva vs. Irvin.
The bout almost ended Johnson’s career.
“I felt great,” Johnson said about his feelings heading into the match. “Those damn eye pokes are what really got me.” A previous injury that had not fully healed prevented Burns from closing his hand, resulting in several unintentional pokes to Johnson’s eye. Johnson weathered the storm, but said he did not alert the referee due to previous instructions prohibiting communication with an official during the bout.
“I dealt with it,” he said of the first few pokes. “I would’ve said something from the beginning but [referee Steve] Mazagatti told me not to talk to him during the match. I was doing what the man asked me to because I respect the officials. [Kevin] poked me in the eye the first time and I had my guard up, but his finger went through. I looked at Mazagatti and he didn’t say anything. But I’m not mad at Mazagatti or Kevin.”
The fifth and final eye poke sent Johnson sprawling to the canvas. Burns pounced, earning a controversial technical knockout as a result. Mazagatti did not have access to an instant replay and called the contest for Burns.
Johnson later appealed the ruling, but was denied.
Though Johnson harbors no ill will towards, he is not hesitant to express his disapproval at the way things transpired. “I think it was stupid that Kevin would go into the fight knowing he couldn’t close his hand with the danger it put my career in and how dumb it made him look as a fighter.”
In an age where mixed martial arts is on the verge of mainstream appeal, Johnson doesn’t believe bouts ending the way his and Burns’ did made the sport palatable to skeptical onlookers. In my opinion it made the sport look really bad too, everybody that doesn’t know the sport already thinks we’re beasts, and then you watch for the first time and see somebody damn near get their eye poked out because somebody is being dumb and not taking care of injuries. It made him look bad.”
To Johnson’s credit, he stopped the crowd from booing Burns in the post fight interview. I wasn’t mad at him, like I said. Things happen and they happen for a reason, obviously that’s the way God wanted it to end,” he said reflecting on the incident. “Now if it happens again, I’m not going to be as nice.”
After the bout, Johnson learned that he suffered a detached retina, an injury that would require surgery to heal. Facing the prospect of never being able to fight again, Johnson reveals that he was more afraid of the needles involved in his recovery.” I’m scared of needles, so they were giving me shots in my arm. I’m a big baby when it comes to needles,” he said. “At the end of the surgery I was drunk and I couldn’t see. And it hurt. I could feel the stitches in my eyeball; I didn’t even know they could put stitches there until after I had the surgery. It’s something I don’t want to experience and something I don’t’ want anybody else to experience.”
The incident, surgery, and subsequent recovery have led to a rejuvenated Anthony Johnson—and that’s bad news for Kevin Burns. The two are scheduled for a rematch this Saturday at The Ultimate Finale inside the Pearl at The Palms hotel in Las Vegas.
“I’m great. I feel more confident. I’ve changed up some things and you’re going to see a different Anthony Johnson,” he said.
Don’t look for Johnson to go into the rematch as an irrational, unintelligent fighter looking for revenge. Everything is still business. I’m not going to take anything personal until he actually pokes me in the eye again.”
If that happens, watch for an in ring metamorphosis that will rival comic book character Bruce Banner’s transformation into The Hulk. “That’s when I’m going to go crazy because I’ll know he did it on purpose. The first fight I let it slide, this time there will be no excuse. Man up or get the hell out of the cage. I’m not hating on him, I’m not mad at him, it is what it is and we’ll settle it on December 13.”
When all is said and done, Johnson is looking to make a statement and end the fight with a highlight worthy knockout.
“I want to be on every highlight reel there is knocking somebody out. I’m trying to posterize Kevin. I’m trying to knock people out like Chuck Liddell did. He didn’t go to the ground; he just punched you in your mouth.”