It was a bit of a shock when the announcement was made that former middleweight contender Vitor Belfort would be facing Anthony “Rumble” Johnson at UFC 142 in January.
Not because Johnson’s not a worthy opponent by any stretch, but because he’s fought at welterweight for virtually his entire career and looked to be only a fight or two away from potentially earning a title shot at 170.
Johnson dominated Dan Hardy back in March and just came off of a thunderous knockout over Charlie Brenneman in October. So why move to middleweight now and face a fighter like Vitor Belfort?
“It’s a new challenge,” Johnson told MMAWeekly.com on Wednesday. “I’m still a welterweight fighter, but why not step up to the plate whenever you’re asked to do something from the top organization in the world, and I really respect my bosses so why not?”
There had been rumors swirling prior to the fight announcement that Johnson could be in consideration to face Carlos Condit during the Super Bowl weekend show (likely to be dubbed UFC 143), with a potential No. 1 contender’s tag attached to the match. Johnson denies that he was ever even in discussions about facing Condit, but when Belfort’s name came up he couldn’t sign fast enough.
“It’s just about the challenge. Nobody talked to me about facing Carlos Condit or anybody else,” Johnson revealed.
“As soon as I got the offer, I was excited. My blood just started boiling because that’s a challenge and Vitor is such a great fighter, so I’m all about challenges. Why not step up to the plate and accept the challenge? I’m excited. I think my agent is more excited than I am. He’s so happy for me and he knows I can do well at any weight class. We’re both excited.”
Johnson’s agent, Glenn Robinson of Authentic Sports Management, helped put together the team that will prepare “Rumble” for the challenge ahead in facing Vitor Belfort. The team now known as the Blackzilians consists of several top fighters including former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, coach Mike Van Arsdale, and heavyweight Matt Mitrione recently joined the roster at Authentic and trained with the camp for a week prior to his fight at UFC 137.
If Johnson is successful in defeating Belfort, he will have beaten a top ten middleweight after back to back wins over very tough competition at welterweight. Will Johnson be swayed to stick around at 185 pounds if he wins or will he be just as committed to 170 pounds at that point?
“I don’t know, we’ll see what the end results are you know what I mean? If it goes out as planned, I just might stay at middleweight if not I might go back to welterweight. We’ll just see at the end of the day,” said Johnson.
“As of right now, it’s just a one-time thing.”
The challenge of facing a fighter like Vitor Belfort isn’t an easy one, but something Johnson looks forward to preparing himself for. Johnson shows extreme admiration and respect towards Belfort, and this fight is actually him coming full circle in his career.
Johnson met Belfort for the first time back in 2006 and it was a moment that he still remembers to this day.
“Vitor was actually at my very first MMA fight,” said Johnson. “He might not remember it, but I remember it. After the fight, it was in L.A. at Pangea Fights and he was there, Shogun (Rua) was there, and after the fight I shook Vitor’s hand and he told me ‘good job.’ Now I’m like the guy that watched my very first fight, I’m actually fighting him now.
“It’s pretty interesting. I’m just overwhelmed with how everything turned out for me.”
Facing Belfort in Brazil is also a new twist for Johnson, who says he’s only been out of the United States a couple of times, but he’s excited to meet the fans and hopefully give them a fight they won’t soon forget. Even though there isn’t a title on the line or even a guaranteed title shot opportunity in the fight with Belfort, Johnson is just ready for the battle ahead.
Facing Vitor Belfort in Brazil is just about as big of a fight as you can imagine.
“Nobody saw this coming,” Johnson said about the match-up. “The UFC is just giving the fans what they want.”
Johnson will head into training camp in Florida alongside his teammates with the Blackzilians as he prepares for his showdown with Vitor Belfort at UFC 142 on Jan. 14 in Brazil.
(Follow Anthony Johnson on Twitter @Anthony_Rumble)