Anthony Johnson's arduous road to a UFC title shot

Rumble draws inspiration from grandfather (2:00)

Anthony "Rumble" Johnson's grandfather passed away in 2007. But the UFC light heavyweight contender still draws inspiration from the man who raised him. Rumble explains that relationship to ESPN's Brett Okamoto. (2:00)

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- One thing we know for sure about UFC light heavyweight Anthony Johnson: He doesn't always say much.

Those who know him will tell you: this has always been the case. It's not that Johnson is boring. In February, he orchestrated a prank on UFC president Dana White during a Los Angeles news conference by faking a brawl with now-former champion Jon Jones.

He's just quiet.

Michael Johnson (no relation to Anthony Johnson), a UFC lightweight who lived with Anthony for one year in 2011, calls "Rumble" the "the silent, bodyguard type."

Former UFC champion and Blackzilians teammate Rashad Evans says, "A.J. is the kind of cat you're never going to know his moves. He's very private. He's the kind of guy you see one minute, and the next, he's gone. He doesn't even say bye. He just dips and you're like, 'Oh. A.J. [is] gone.'"

Johnson's manager, Glenn Robinson, likes to say no one really knows the fighter's full story. They know bits and pieces. They know he used to cut an insane amount of weight to fight at welterweight. They know the UFC released him in 2012, after he came in heavy for a pay-per-view co-main event against Vitor Belfort.

Most are aware he's been accused of domestic violence -- twice. In 2009, he pled no-contest to a misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to probation. Last year, he was temporarily suspended by the UFC when a civil case was filed against him alleging domestic abuse. The case was eventually dismissed.

And of course, everyone knows Johnson will fight Daniel Cormier for the vacant light heavyweight title at UFC 187 on Saturday in Las Vegas -- a title that was stripped from Jones last month due to legal issues.

With the biggest fight of his career looming, it would seem there's never been a better time than now to get into that full "A.J. story" to which Robinson refers.

Why did he punish himself cutting weight all those years? Is there anything he wants to say about the domestic-violence accusations that have been brought against him? What would it mean, at this point in his life, to win a UFC championship?

It takes a bribe of pretzel breadsticks, chicken breast and macaroni and cheese at a local Longhorn Steakhouse to persuade Johnson to open up, but eventually he does -- providing more bits and pieces to add to his narrative.

Tough Love

One of the earliest memories Johnson has is of his grandparents, Morris and Pearlene, smearing therapeutic cream over his entire body with a Popsicle stick.

He was born in rural Georgia in 1984, his mother's first son. Jonson has four older sisters, four younger brothers and a younger sister. He has virtually no memory of living with any of these siblings, because his grandparents adopted him when he was 2.

It was at that age that Johnson suffered burns over the length of his body. The exact details of how this happened remain unclear. His mother, who battled a drug addiction, has told him he fell into a bathtub that she was washing clothes in. Johnson says he'll never know for sure.

After that incident, Johnson's grandparents took him in. If they hadn't, Johnson says the state was ready to place him in foster care. Of the 10 children, he was the only one adopted by his grandparents.

Eventually, all but two of his siblings were adopted into other families. He managed to stay in contact with them but says personal interactions ceased at a young age, about 6 years old.

"There was a time when my siblings could have walked up to me and we could have had a conversation and I wouldn't have recognized them as my blood." Anthony Johnson, on his relationship with his brothers and sisters

"There was a time when my siblings could have walked up to me and we could have had a conversation and I wouldn't have recognized them as my blood," Johnson said.

His granddad (as Johnson calls him) became his best friend, but it was a relationship built on tough love. Johnson recalls many "whoopings" in his youth. One time, Johnson forged Morris' signature on a bad report card. When his teacher questioned its authenticity, he told her his grandfather was old and had sloppy handwriting. The teacher called his home to confirm. "She signed my death certificate right there," he remembers.

Morris lost a lengthy battle with cancer in February 2007. More than eight years later, Johnson still struggles when he speaks about it. He leaves messages for Morris on Facebook every year on the anniversary of his death, telling Morris about the family and about his fighting career. Morris never got to watch Johnson compete in person.

What would he think of his grandson now, headlining a pay-per-view event on the Las Vegas strip?

"I think he would have been excited about anything that wasn't jail, drugs or alcohol," Johnson says. "He didn't want me to go down the same path as my parents. I could have been a professional skydiver, as long as I was doing something."

Professional weight cutting

Shortly after his grandfather's death, Johnson tried out for the sixth season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series in Las Vegas. His record at the time was 3-0.

Johnson arrived at tryouts at his walking weight -- about 200 pounds. The season would be contested at the welterweight limit of 170 pounds. He says he'll never forget that was the day he first met Dana White. White took one look at Johnson's size and said a single word: "F---."

"I flew home and waited at least a month for a phone call that said, 'Yeah, you didn't make it. We feel you're too big for the weight class,'" Johnson said. "I was pissed."

As he tells this next part, Johnson's looks sheepish. His eye contact wanders. "One thing you have to know," he said, almost whispering, "is that I'm a guy who likes sweet drinks. I was so mad, I went and bought a 12-pack of Smirnoff Ice. I drank all week. I wanted to get [messed] up."

The Smirnoff binge hadn't yet ended when Johnson's manager at the time called him with a surprise. The UFC needed a welterweight on short notice to fight Chad Reiner. Johnson was lucky. He had just spent the week drinking, but his weight was down since he had been preparing to appear on "The Ultimate Fighter." He says he cut 25 pounds in less than a week and knocked out Reiner in 13 seconds in his UFC debut.

Between 2007 and 2011, Johnson compiled a 7-2 record in the UFC's welterweight division. He missed weight twice during that time. Even when he made weight, he looked terrible doing it. Robinson used to refer to Johnson as a "professional weight cutter." He would visit the gym and Johnson would be on the treadmill in a sweat suit. He'd drive to dinner on the weekend and see Johnson running on the side of the road.

On Jan. 13, 2012, Robinson received a call from Blackzilians coach Henri Hooft, who was cutting weight with Johnson in Rio de Janeiro for the Belfort fight. Johnson was on weight -- 186 pounds (the fight was contracted at middleweight), but he couldn't feel his lower body. A UFC doctor had just ordered him to rehydrate for safety reasons, meaning he'd be heavy at weigh-in. Johnson weighed in at 197 pounds. He lost the fight, and the UFC cut him immediately.

"They said they were poking him with a fork in his foot and he had no feeling of it," Robinson said. "It takes 72 hours for cells to rehydrate. When I saw him fighting the next day, he was slipping all over the mat."

Seven months later, Johnson finally agreed to fight at 205 pounds while contracted to Titan Fighting Championships. In eight fights since, Johnson has never dropped below that weight. He is 8-0 during that time, with six knockouts.

'I'm not that type of person'

On Sept. 5, 2014, a woman who described herself to police as the mother of Johnson's children filed a civil suit against Johnson in Palm Beach County, accusing him of domestic violence.

The UFC indefinitely suspended Johnson after the news broke. On Oct. 29, 2014, the case was voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff, and the UFC reinstated Johnson the following week.

"I thought we were only a couple fights away from it, but now I don't know how many fights away it is. We'll have to see how it plays out." UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, on a possible fight against former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones

Johnson denies the woman is the mother of his children. According to Robinson, Johnson has never taken a paternity test to confirm the children, who have since been adopted by a third party, are his, and he signed away all paternal rights in the event they are.

A second civil case that accused Johnson of stalking, filed by the same woman as the first, was denied on Dec. 8 after a presiding judge ruled the petitioner had "failed to allege facts sufficient to support the entry."

One month later, on Jan. 7, the same woman filed another stalking allegation against Johnson, claiming he had repeatedly called her and sent threatening emails in December 2014.

In subsequent court hearings, Johnson argued the calls and emails had been fabricated by his accuser and even filed a motion for sanctions against her. The case was eventually voluntarily dismissed on March 18. In a court order signed on April 21, the presiding judge wrote that Johnson's accuser "has now agreed in open court to be prohibited from using all the allegations and evidence" in any future filing.

On March 19, Boca Raton police officers responded to a call from another woman, who described herself as Johnson's ex-girlfriend. According to a police affidavit, first obtained by USA Today, the woman later told authorities Johnson came to her place of work, refused to leave and "grabbed her shirt behind the neck and lifted her up." In a follow-up interview with police, the woman said she did not wish to press charges against Johnson.

And in June 2009, Johnson's then-ex-girlfriend accused him of forcefully entering her California residence. According to an article in the San Jose Mercury News, police reports stated the woman suffered a scrape above one eye and facial swelling and had said Johnson "slammed her to the ground." Nearly two months after the police report was filed, Johnson pled no-contest to a misdemeanor charge.

When asked to comment on what happened, Johnson blames the 2009 incident on youth. He claims he still talks to the woman that was involved and they remain friends to this day.

"I didn't understand the law as much as I should have in 2009," Johnson said. "I pled no-contest because that's what my lawyer told me to do. I wanted it to be over with. The courts kept pushing it back, pushing it back, and I said, 'Is there any way we can get this done, today?' I didn't know that saying no-contest would be taken in the public as, 'I did everything she said.'

"We were both just young. Neither one of us got physical with each other. We were just doing whatever we could to get under each other's skin. To this day, we still talk. We've both apologized."

In regard to the more recent matters in south Florida, which led to his suspension from the UFC, Johnson said, "It was like a stab in the heart. I knew I didn't do anything, but when things come out in the media, people believe it so fast. I almost lost my cool, but at the same time I had family, friends and a team. They supported me. I know I'm not that type of person, so I got over it."

Whether it has something to do with Johnson's experience in legal matters -- or just a natural personality trait -- he is noticeably aware of others' privacy. In late April, before the UFC decided to strip him of the title, Jones made a court appearance regarding a felony charge of allegedly leaving the scene of an accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Arrangements were made for Johnson, who was still scheduled to fight Jones at that particular time, to listen in on the court hearing -- but he declined the invitation. "Nah," Johnson said. "That's his business."

The strong, silent type

It's raining heavily outside Jaco Hybrid Training Center, but Hooft, Blackzilians striking coach since 2011, keeps dry underneath the building's overhang. He's talking about Anthony "Rumble" Johnson.

Like many others, Hooft doesn't have much to say about Johnson's private life. Johnson offers very little of it to him, and Hooft doesn't ask. He likes the fact that Johnson comes to the gym, works and leaves. Anything beyond that isn't required.

In trying to compare Johnson to another athlete before him, Hooft immediately thinks of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. He was never in Tyson's locker room before a fight, but he imagines he knows what it felt like.

"When I watch documentaries of Tyson, so quiet and so different than other people in the beginning of his career -- Anthony is the same," Hooft says. "The thing about Anthony is on fight day, like Tyson, boom -- they change. Fifteen minutes before a fight, I've been doing this for 30 years, guys' faces change. Anthony's face changes.

"I can't predict fights in terms of win or lose. I can only see if a guy is ready to fight or not. If Anthony is ready, the other guy better be ready to stand up against that violence. The change in violence from people who are so calm is amazing to me."

And that might really say it best. This weekend, inside the UFC Octagon at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the usually calm, quiet Johnson will transform, and Cormier better be ready to stand up to the violence that follows. At least for that potential 25 minutes, that's the full "A.J. story."