Mixed martial artist Anthony Johnson salutes as he poses on the scale during his weigh-in for UFC 202

This past weekend at Submission Underground Grappling 9, former UFC title contender Anthony “Rumble” Johnson splashed more fuel onto the fire of speculation regarding a potential return to MMA.

The former two-time UFC title challenger retired after a second failed attempt to win gold from Daniel Cormier in 2017, but has kept close to combat sports in retirement. After getting into the legal marijuana business, Johnson took a role at Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship. While he works officially as an ambassador, you can also see him at press conferences and weigh-ins. He’s the mountain of a man who looks slightly bothered while breaking up an altercation between two fighters half his size.

In his return to martial arts, “Rumble” dove straight into shark-infested waters, losing to grappling ace Craig Jones in just 47 seconds. Despite the loss, Johnson kept positive in his post-fight interview, assuring fans that he enjoyed competing, win, lose or draw. The subject quickly turned to a potential UFC return, par for the course in nearly every interview since he abruptly announced his retirement.”Rumble” once again teased the fans, stating he would return if the “price is right.”

Imagine that “Rumble” and UFC President Dana White have hashed out the financial details. Johnson is getting the money he wants, and Dana has secured the return of one of the pound-for-pound hitters to have ever stepped foot in the octagon.

Who is he going to fight?

The criteria

There is a litany of potential fighters across two divisions that could be Johnson’s first opponent post-retirement. Unfortunately, many are not realistic options. To narrow down the list of fighters that could feasibly step into the octagon with “Rumble” should he decide to return to UFC, a few things need to be taken into account.

First, and most importantly, his comeback fight is happening under the UFC banner. “Rumble” is still under contract with the promotion. Barring a buyout or a Johnson-Askren type trade, he’s staying put.

Next, the fight will be at heavyweight.

Rumble has stated in several interviews that a possible return will only take place at heavyweight, and judging by the current size of the man, I don’t think he’s lying. There are several enticing fights for “Rumble” in the light heavyweight division, but after a career of cutting alarming amounts of weight, I don’t think he’s interested in that part of the fight business in 2019.

Third, as the man himself has made clear, the price needs to be right. That narrows the search even more. The opponent needs to have enough of a “name value” to not only entice “Rumble” back to the sport but to give the company enough potential return on investment to pay “Rumble,” eliminating any up-and-coming heavyweight or any fighter without sufficient “name value” with casual fans.

Finally, and this could potentially upset a lot of people, Jon Jones will not be his first opponent, nor is it likely they will ever fight. In some of his previous interviews, “Rumble” stated he only has eyes for Jon Jones upon a potential return. The dream match-up was set to headline UFC 187 before Jones’ hit-and-run incident and is a fight many still want to see. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed for the foreseeable future. Jones, the current light heavyweight king, has expressed some interest in a heavyweight fight, but it would likely be for an immediate shot at the UFC Heavyweight Championship, especially if Daniel Cormier is still on the throne.

With these rules in mind, three potential opponents stand out from the rest of the field.

Junior dos Santos

Junior “Cigano” dos Santos meets all of the criteria for a comeback opponent for “Rumble” Johnson. The 35-year-old former champ has plenty of “name value” to draw fans. A clash with Johnson would make for a great future ESPN headliner. “Cigano” was recently knocked out by Francis Ngannou in a little over a minute. The loss likely derailed dos Santos’ title hopes for the time being. It is the perfect time for a fight with Johnson.

It’s unlikely that neither the UFC nor “Rumble” is interested in Johnson returning to competition to test his takedown defense and grappling prowess. He likely won’t need to worry against Junior. Instead, fans can expect an intriguing striking clash. Dos Santos’ highly praised technical boxing would take center stage against the boulders that Johnson calls his fists.

JDS has made his recent living through dominating the ranked hopefuls of the division but falling short against the upper-echelon. He is still one of the best heavyweights in the world, but clearly, a step or two removed from his championship prime. His last three losses have come by (T)KO, giving “Rumble” a viable path to victory, especially if he returns inspired and rejuvenated by his time away from the sport.

Both men are 35-years-old and similarly sized with “Rumble” giving up two inches of height, but possessing an inch reach advantage over the Brazilian. A pairing between these two vets would be a definite “Fight of the Night” contender on any card.

Alistair Overeem

The logic behind this match-up is very similar to that of a potential match-up against Junior dos Santos. Alistair Overeem provides “Rumble” with a high-profile, high-level striking opponent who likely won’t test how he handles chain wrestling. A veteran of 63 professional mixed martial arts bouts, Alistair is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. However, a win over the highly decorated, multi-sport, multi-organization world champion is still a shiny trophy to place on your mantle.

“The Reem” provides a different striking battle than Junior dos Santos. He is a more traditional kickboxer as opposed to the purely boxing heavy attack of JDS. The 39-year-old Overeem has been finished by strikes in all of his UFC losses. He has been forced to adapt his style into a calculated kickboxer who picks his shot instead of overwhelming his opponent. Overeem still does some of his best work in the clinch with some of the most devastating knees from the Thai plum position in the division. “Rumble” provides an interesting contrast as an aggressive striker who rarely waits on his opponent to make the first move. Alistair will need to tread carefully if he wants to get into range to clinch.  Johnson has built a career off of only needing one opportunity and one punch to end his opponent’s night.

There may even be some added motivation for both sides to agree to fight one another.

Overeem used to train at the Florida based “Blackzilians” gym with Johnson before departing in 2014. At that time, Johnson stated that he didn’t have beef with Alistair after the move, but didn’t care about him and never considered him a Blackzillian. He and fellow former Blackzillian Gilbert Burns suggested Overeem was the type to hurt his teammates intentionally.

Overeem called the criticism “p-ssy behavior” and regrets ever training at the Floridian gym.

It’s unclear if either man harbors a grudge, but it would only add to the fireworks this fight could produce.

Francis Ngannou

Ideally, this fight would take place after Johnson’s debut. That is assuming Johnson has more than one fight left in him, Ngannou is not a veteran entering the twilight of his career but is an always improving monster in his physical prime. “The Predator” is one of the few men in the history of the company who can make a legitimate claim to having more one-punch knockout power than Johnson. He’s the younger man, the taller man and will have a sizable reach advantage. Allowing Johnson to take a “warm-up” fight would serve to ensure he shook any “ring rust.” After all, he’ll be facing a man whose previous three bouts have lasted less than three minutes combined. “Ring rust” could translate to “lights out” in a hurry.

Realistically, however, there aren’t many plausible scenarios that would prevent the UFC from jumping at the opportunity to book this fight. Unless Ngannou becomes champion or continues his winning streak to where no option exists outside of a title shot, this fight will certainly be at the top of Sean Shelby’s list.

Ngannou entered the peak of his destruction while Johnson was on the sidelines retired. He seamlessly replaced Johnson as the company’s hardest hitter. Hesitation in booking this fight opens up the door for possibilities to arise to rob the fans of the clash between these two behemoths. The UFC’s advertising department could throw a few of each man’s knockouts over halfway decent music for a trailer. That’s all that is needed. The fight will sell itself. That one friend you have who thinks UFC is a cool sport but hates when they go tue gr0und will come out of the woodwork to ask where you’re watching the fight. It has the potential to be that big.

If this fight does come to fruition, pray to the “just bleed” gods it doesn’t end up like Ngannou’s fight with Lewi—-on second thought, let’s not jinx anything.

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