Life lights a fire under Anthony Johnson

By FIGHT! contributor Jon Lane

Anthony Johnson loves anything involving the likelihood of getting hurt. At the age of six something compelled him to emulate a trapeze artist. He tied a rope from one end of his swing set to the other, and while bouncing on a trampoline attempted to catch the rope with his teeth.

That didn’t work.

“I felt my mouth and my two front teeth were gone,” Johnson says.

He’s fallen out of trees. He’s jammed his neck in failed attempts at back flips. His kneecap has met fiberglass, denting the passenger’s side door of his grandfather’s truck. “I had a lot of stuff happen to me that I’m surprised I’m even living to tell half of it,” Johnson says.

That was years before Johnson channeled his pent-up aggression into martial arts. Now instead of back flips and circus tricks, Johnson burns off excess energy with shark bait drills at Cung Le’s Universal Strength gym in Milpitas, Calif. Picture yourself sparring not with one partner, but four fresh bodies rotating in one-minute integrals to test your standup game or take you to the ground to where you can no longer take a breath.

“He loves to do it,” says Le, the reigning Strikeforce middleweight champion. “He’ll go until he can’t go nowhere.” That drive is part nature and part nurture, born of rage and tempered by hard work.

Johnson’s father was an alcoholic and his mother a drug addict. He was adopted by his grandparents at the age of two who raised him a small farm in Dublin, Ga. Country strong by the time he enrolled at West Laurens High School, Johnson broke assistant coach Joe Carr’s mark of 101 consecutive wins at the school with his own tally 104. Joe Arminas, the wrestling coach who schooled Rampage Jackson at Lassen Community College in Susanville, Calif., recruited Johnson and pushed him to a junior college national championship in 2004.

Le, who fled Saigon with his mother following the Vietnam War, sees a bit of his own anger in his new protégé. “It burns inside of him,” Le says.

After his highlight reel head kick knockout of Kevin Burns and his stoppage over Luigi Fioravanti, Johnson will look to put the heat on Matt Brown at the Ultimate Fighter 9 Finale at the Palms Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas on June 20.

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