LAS VEGAS – It didn't take UFC welterweight slugger Anthony Johnson (9-3 MMA, 6-3 UFC) long to realize his decision to outwrestle Dan Hardy for a victory wasn't very popular.
The sellout crowd at Seattle's Key Arena tipped him off to the assault that would soon follow on Twitter.
"After hearing all the boos, I kind of expected it," Johnson told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
). "I didn't care. I got the win, and that's all that matters. As long as you win and avoid that loss, you're still going to the top one way or the other. It didn't bother me."
Fighting for the first time in 16 months at March's UFC Fight Night 24 event, Johnson was paired against a fellow striker, but "Rumble" elected to rely on his rarely-seen wrestling background en route to a one-sided unanimous-decision win.
While an effective plan, the approach was anything but what Johnson had promised to do in the buildup for the fight.
However, Johnson believes the ensuing backlash was entirely unwarranted.
"That was the plan; I knew he would bite on it," Johnson said. "He's a striker, I'm a striker, and most people don't expect me to shoot. Well, I shot. I just used one of my strengths to my advantage against somebody who doesn't have that strength. You can't get mad at me for that.
"I lied to you, but that's part of the game. What am I supposed to do, hand over my gameplan to Hardy? I planned on taking him down from the start."
In fairness, Johnson did drop Hardy with a high kick in the opening round, so it's not as if he avoided the standup game entirely.
"The head kick wasn't planned," Johnson said. "I saw it, my senses kicked in, and I kicked. All of a sudden, I saw him on the ground, and I thought, 'Well, I didn't even have to wrestle for that one. I'm going to go ahead and get on top and do what I do.'"
Johnson is now 4-1 in his past five outings, and the win over Hardy was his first UFC fight to go the distance. His reward? A main event fight with Nate Marquardt (31-10-2 MMA, 10-4 UFC) at this June's UFC on Versus 4 event. It's Johnson's first time to headline a UFC card, and the 27-year-old is appreciative of the role.
"It's an honor to be able to headline a fight," Johnson said. "All these fighters are talking about fighting for the title, which is natural. You want to go to the top and be the best. But life is moving pretty fast for me right now. I fought Josh Koscheck in a co-main event. Then I fought Hardy in a co-main event. Now I'm fighting in the main event. I'm like, 'Man, I could get used to this.'
"I love it. I think all the hard work is paying off."
In Marquardt, Johnson will face an opponent with nearly four times as many career fights. Johnson said he's not intimidated by the former King of Pancrase, but he realizes he's facing the biggest challenge in his five years as a professional fighter.
"Everybody that I've beaten has had more fights than me," Johnson said. "You can't say I'm a seasoned vet because of my 12 fights. This guy has had more than 40 fights. But he's human. When he gets cut, he bleeds the same color blood I do: red.
"He's a great fighter. He's a respectable man. I have nothing bad to say about him. I love Nate, just like I loved Hardy. I still love Hardy. These guys are athletes, and they're fighters. We go out there and put it on the line, one way or the other. Some people might not like how we put it on the line, but we put it on the line.
"With Nate, I've got to come out sharper than I've ever been before. Nate's good on the ground. He's good in the standup. He's good in wrestling. It don't matter. This is a guy that's going to be my biggest test right now. It doesn't make me nervous. I just get excited. I love challenges in life, and this is a challenge."
The fight will be Marquardt's first at 170 pounds after recently elected to drop from the middleweight division. There may be some irony that the massive, 6-foot-2 Johnson – a man who has dealt with his own weight struggles from time to time, not to mention loads of criticism – is Marquardt's first opponent in a contest that could seemingly be switched to a catchweight affair in the blink of an eye.
Nevertheless, Johnson said he has no concern he'll be on weight – and that Marqaurdt will also find the cut simple.
"The criticism doesn't bother me," Johnson said. "It comes with the territory because of how big I am. I'm actually bigger than Nate.
"Even though he's not used to cutting down to 170 pounds, Nate is going to be fine. I think he's going to make 170 just fine."
A November 2009 loss to Koscheck left Johnson on the outside of the UFC welterweight title picture, but with current champion Georges St-Pierre having dispatched of nearly every top-ranked fighter in the division, fans have been clamoring for new blood. A win over a seasoned veteran like Marquardt would certainly put Johnson's name in the discussion once again.
"Rumble" realizes the opportunities that lie before him. He's in no rush, but he's fully committed to the cause.
"I still have a lot of improvements to make," Johnson said. "I know deep down and personal inside that I'm not near as good as I know I can be. But right now, I'm pushing myself to be something nobody else can be. I think I'm going to do just fine in this weightclass.
"When my time comes, that's when I deserve it, and I'll be ready. I'm not trying to push anything or rush anything. If they want to give me five more fights before they give me a title shot, then I'm going to do that. That means I'm going to keep getting better and better with each fight.
"Do I feel like right now I can beat GSP? I'm an athlete. I'm a fighter. Of course I'm confident in myself. I think I can beat him. But I'm not going to huff and puff about it. Yeah, he's beaten pretty much everybody in the weightclass, the best of the best, but he hasn't beat me. I know I can give him a run for his money. I know it would be a tough fight, but I think it would be a great fight."