When a fighter sticks around long enough in the UFC, it’s easy for fight fans to start to subconsciously place the fighter within a certain role. Some are champions and title challengers. Some are gatekeepers. Others just show up to try to knock someone’s head off for a paycheck. There’s a certain hierarchy that both the UFC and its fans seem to follow. After a fighter spends a year or two inside the Octagon, they can get stuck in a certain spot in that hierarchy, and it’s in this spot that fans, and sometimes the UFC brass, expect them to stay.
For the most part, once a fighter is stuck in a certain role in the minds of fans and the UFC brass, it’s a battle trying to get out of the spot and make some progress in the rankings. Over the past few years, we’ve seen guys like Matt Brown and Neil Magny have to scratch and claw their way to the top and go on six- or seven-fight winning streaks to even get a fight against a top contender, mostly because their earlier UFC fights had fans convinced they were never going to become viable contenders. Even lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos has had a hard time creating believers out of fight fans after struggling over the first part of his UFC career, and he has wins over two former champions and a plethora of lightweight stars.
The point is, once a fighter gets cast into a role on the roster, they’re going to have to go on a serious run and post some fantastic performances in order to convince fans that they’ve taken the next step, and even once they do, the doubters are still going to be aplenty. This is with good reason, too. Guys like dos Anjos and Robbie Lawler have broken the mold lately, but going from an average UFC fighter to champion just doesn’t happen often enough to make fans into believers.
The UFC on Fox 18 headliner later this month is a perfect look at two guys who have broken through the glass ceiling and overcome adversity in their UFC careers. These guys are Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Ryan Bader, both of whom have broken free of gatekeeper roles to become legitimate contenders at 205 pounds. It’s also a great example of two guys that have worked their asses off to become top-five options in a division where hardly anyone believes they’ll become champion.
For Johnson, the journey to title contention ended up having more to do with his battles with the scale than his actual fights in a cage. Always considered one of the most talent-rich fighters in the sport, Johnson’s first stint with the UFC was marred by consistently missing weight due to an ill-advised weight cut to 170 pounds. Even though he’d shown several flashes of brilliance in his UFC welterweight career, his constant trouble with the scale had him on shaky ground for almost the entirety of his run. When he missed weight by a large margin in what was supposed to be his middleweight debut, the UFC decided to cut ties with him following a loss to Vitor Belfort.
That’s when Rumble had to reinvent himself. To his credit, he found a way to pull it off and remain relevant outside of the Octagon. He went on a huge winning streak after he left the UFC and fought at both heavyweight and light heavyweight. His performance ended up giving the UFC a reason to pull Johnson back into the mix and the results have been spectacular thus far. After impressing in his first few performances back, Rumble shocked a packed house in Sweden by taking out their hometown hero Alexander Gustafsson in the first round. Johnson parlayed the win into a fight against Daniel Cormier for the vacant championship. Though Johnson came up short in the fight against “DC,” he had the former Olympian badly hurt in the first round and was a punch or two away from wrapping UFC gold around his waist.
Then there’s Bader, who was an undefeated The Ultimate Fighter winner from back when TUF still kind of mattered. He was a bonafide future star in 2011 before he ran into Jon Jones. In what was billed as a fight between the two top prospects in the division, Bader was outworked and finished by Jones in the second round. From there, the prospects went on entirely different paths. Jones won the light heavyweight title a month later and held it for three years before having it taken away from him due to legal difficulties last summer. Meanwhile, Bader spiraled into a funk of mediocrity for a number of years following the loss, going 3-3 before steadying the ship and going on the five-fight winning streak he’s currently riding.
Yet, despite his impressive streak of fights and a huge win over former champion Rashad Evans in his last outing, Bader still feels like a completely forgotten contender at light heavyweight. “Darth” has begged and pleaded for a title fight and crashed a post-fight press conference to trade barbs with the aforementioned Cormier, but it seems like fans still aren’t willing to relieve Bader of his gatekeeper role quite yet. That’s a different scenario than what’s happened with Johnson, who has slowly but surely gained enough believers to be considered a bonafide title challenger.
There’s no doubt that Johnson and Bader are fighting for a chance at a title shot when they face off later this month. One of these two men is all but guaranteed to get a shot at the belt in 2016, and it’s easy to start wondering if either Rumble or Bader could go on a dos Anjos/Lawler-esque run and capture a UFC strap. However, with current champion Cormier and former titleholder Jones, who is widely considered to be among the best fighters in the world, fighting for the belt next, it’s highly unlikely this will happen.
Rumble has proven he can give Cormier some trouble, but he was dominated for the most part on the mat by the former Olympian and looked to be fading before he was submitted in the third round of the title fight. It would take a major game-plan adjustment or a huge bomb from Johnson to turn the rematch the other way. Considering how dominant Cormier was in the first match-up, these are tough things to bank on. As for a fight with Jones, it’s impossible to pick against the former champ, even though Rumble provides a blend of power and speed that Jones has never seen before. You don’t become the best fighter in the world by chance, and until someone proves they can take out “Bones,” it’s hard to assume anyone can.
The outlook isn’t much better for Bader, who struggled against Jones in their fight at UFC 126. While obviously this is a very different Bader than the one from five years ago, the improvement Jones has made over the same period turned him into a serious contender for greatest-of-all-time status. A match-up with Cormier is a little more winnable for Bader, but it’s tough to see how Bader emerges with the victory there either. Cormier’s wrestling game is immaculate and he finds ways to completely shut down about 90 percent of his opponents. Even with Bader’s strength coming from his wrestling game, it seems like a tough match-up for the former Pac-10 champion. It’s difficult not to favor Cormier on the feet after watching him go toe-to-toe with a fantastic striker like Gustafsson.
Johnson and Bader have shattered expectations with their performances over the last few years. They have earned their spots near the top of the division too, but it seems that the winnerof their upcoming contest is going to peak with this performance. For Bader, earning a UFC title shot would be validation after being written off after his loss to Jones. For Johnson, a win represents a chance to redeem himself after he was seconds away from winning the belt in April. These two have battled their way through adversity and find themselves at the top of the sport, slowly defying the roles they’d been cast in during the process. Yet, with a challenge like Jones or Cormier awaiting the winner, this is likely as far as these two are going to go.