ByThe Naked Gambler, writer at
MMA hierophant. Follow me on Twitter at @NakedGambling for mostly nonsense with some analysis mixed in.
The Naked Gambler

Anthony "Rumble" Johnson is a man of conflicting extremes.

Within the confines of steel walls, he casts dueling images; one of a titan, his touch laying waste to the fiercest of mortal men; the other, a fragile figure, hopelessly vulnerable and inescapably flawed.

As an individual, he is no less conflicting. Many see him as the kind, jovial man who calls his grandmother, the woman who raised him, before every fight; she prays for him, and his opponents. They, too, are someone's child, as she often reminds him.

But there's also another level and side to Anthony Johnson, and "Rumble" can not be so easily typecast. For Johnson, there are no easy answers.

© Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports
© Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Against Glover Teixeira in August, he showed us the depths of his savagery. Brutal, efficient, and irresistible, he left the Brazilian powerhouse motionless on the canvas in a mere 13 second. That night, he showed us "Rumble."

At UFC 210, opposite , he showed us . He grappled with the Olympian, initiating the clinch and repeatedly attempting to take the fight to the floor, only to, himself, be taken down. His back was snatched in an instant, and then, his neck. It felt effortless and familiar, a scene played out so many times in the past with little variation.

The frustration of the crowd, the media, the fans, and even Johnson's own corner were palpable. "Why the [expletive] does this happen every single time?", his longtime striking coach Henri Hooft could be heard asking, distraught by his star student's performance. Then, Johnson made his most frustrating move yet; he retired.

At both his technical and athletic peaks, he exited the sport, leaving behind these contrasting images, each embodied quintessentially by his final two performances; his most stunning, for better and for worse.

He was perhaps the greatest, most enticing knockout artist in light heavyweight history, and the division's most challenging possible opponent for the yet-unbested . The feeling that we never quite witnessed the peak of his potential lingers like a stench in the air.

The tragedy of untapped, unrivaled talent is one encountered frequently in the history of sports, even as far back as the 19th century, when chess prodigy Paul Morphy toured Europe and the United States, dominating the world's best players in one-sided fashion, and being hailed as the world champion before the concept of a chess world champion had even existed. The game, however, was not Morphy's life; he saw it as a hobby, an outlet, but not a lifestyle. It was transient to him, and he grew disinterested, before abandoning chess entirely. The most commanding player of his era, modern strategists now view his style as rough, even unrefined despite his dominance, and he has come to be remembered, forever more, as "the Pride and Sorrow" of chess. For what was, and what would never be.

The demise of talent is often mourned, selfishly but understandably, as much as the demise of the individual; we focus not on their achievements, but on a hypothetical iteration of the same being, stripped of their mortal flaws and repurposed solely for glory. The artist is, arbitrarily, separated from his art, attempting to divide what is inextricably linked.

Truthfully, the manifestation of immense potential offers little reprise from tragedy. Those whose identities as fighters supersede their identities as individuals tend to meet cruel ends in MMA, where so few great fighters exit on their own terms, instead being cannibalized by the young.

MMA is a sport of long and bitter twilights, where our elder statesmen are often forced to profoundly and repeatedly fail before we, and they, can say goodbye. While the loss of a man with Johnson's talent is lamentable to the fanbase at large, the personal tragedies inherent to pugilism, in both the short and long term, are mitigated, or avoided entirely; a small mercy which too few of our idols are afforded.

Anthony Johnson exists, and is best observed, on a landscape of middle grounds, contradictions, and countless shades of gray. None would claim that he maximized his potential, but to say that he left us too early feels short-sighted. To call him a quitter would be harsh; to say that he never broke would be a lie.

Is it better to burn out, or to fade away? Fittingly, Rumble leaves us with no clear answer.


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