Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, who went 13-6 in the UFC from 2007 through 2017 and compiled a 23-6 overall MMA record, died Sunday at age 38. The cause of death was organ failure due to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, which is a rare disorder of the immune system.
Johnson competed in the UFC at welterweight, middleweight and light heavyweight, and was known as one of the most feared punchers in the sport. He was 3-0 when he debuted in the UFC on June 12, 2007, knocking out Chad Reiner in just 13 seconds in Hollywood, Florida.
He scored 17 of his 23 MMA wins by knockout, and as he massively bulked up in his career, he kept his power with him. He twice challenged for the UFC light heavyweight title, losing to Daniel Cormier both times by rear naked choke. Cormier defeated Johnson first at UFC 187 on May 23, 2015, for the vacant title that had been stripped from Jon Jones.
At UFC 210 in Buffalo, New York, on April 8, 2017, Cormier won again by rear naked choke submission. That was Johnson's final UFC, and his penultimate MMA, bout. He retired to open a marijuana business, but signed with Bellator and fought with the promotion once. He knocked out José Augusto Azevedo Barros at 1:30 of the second round at Bellator 258 on May 7, 2021, at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut.
"He was always a great kid," UFC president Dana White said of Johnson. "He was always in fun fights and he had that one-punch KO power that not many people ever had. He was a good human being. I send my condolences to his family."
Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is not considered a death sentence and is generally a treatable form of cancer. It is a disorder of the lymphatic system. Together, the lymph nodes drain fluid and waste products from the body. The lymph nodes act as tiny filters, removing foreign organisms and cells.
But in non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, lymph node cells multiply uncontrollably and then invade other bodily tissues.
Actress Jane Fonda announced earlier this year she is being treated for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Actor Gene Wilder developed it in 1999 and recovered. His death in 2016 came as a result of complications from Alzheimer's disease.
Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, or HLH, is a rare disorder of the immune system that primarily affects infants and children, though it can impact persons of any age.
Johnson was an engaging and soft-spoken man who as a fighter was known for his power, his incredibly large physique and for difficulty making weight. He scored wins over many iconic fighters and scored KO victories over ex-UFC light heavyweight champion Glover Teixeira; Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader; Antonio Rogerio Nogueira; and Jimi Manuwa.
Former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman was one of Johnson's closest friends. Johnson was private and kept his illness hidden as much as possible. Usman referred to himself, Johnson, UFC Hall of Famer Rashad Evans and current UFC lightweight Michael Johnson as "the fantastic four."
Usman said Sunday he was talking with one of his coaches several weeks ago and expressed concern he'd get a call delivering bad news.
"He was kind of like a turtle," Usman told Yahoo Sports. "He'd be in that shell most of the time, but then he'd open up and come out of the shell and show you who he was. He'd pop his head out, show you who he was and then go back in."
He said Johnson came to his home several months ago and they had a good conversation, but even then, he didn't have all of the details.
"You know, it was a little like [the late actor] Chadwick Boseman," Usman said. "Chadwick kept his issue private and we were all so shocked and surprised [when he died in 2020]. Rumble would give you these nonchalant stories, and he was having dialysis on his kidneys but he never really told you fully what was going on. He didn't want to be treated differently. He didn't want people seeing him losing all this weight and going through these situations and treat him differently because of what was going on. He was such an incredible athlete.
"He had the feet of a welterweight and the power of a heavyweight and he was able to transfer that throughout his career. He was truly special and gifted and he didn't really have to try hard. He felt he was working hard, but there were levels he didn't go to, maybe didn't want to go to. He was natural. I admired that so much. He made it look easy. He'd hit a guy and the guy would just crumble. I mean, I worked so hard and put this time in and I'd wind up and hit this guy with everything and he'd be standing there. Rumble was a different caliber than the rest of us."
Cormier said of Johnson on Twitter, "For a guy who struck fear in so many peoples heart Anthony Johnson was a caring person."
Rest Easy my brother. For a guy who struck fear in so many peoples heart Anthony Johnson was a caring person. From random text to check ins during loss. What a person he was, Rumble will be missed. Sometimes life doesn’t seem fair. Horrible news #RIP #Rumblesquad @Anthony_Rumble pic.twitter.com/HH2SO1dPj7
— Daniel Cormier (@dc_mma) November 13, 2022
Long-time MMA referee John McCarthy, who is now a broadcast analyst for Bellator, remembered Johnson fondly in a tweet.
"AJ was one of the good guys," McCarthy wrote. "He was a great man with a huge heart."
Crushed and devastated to learn that @Anthony_Rumble has passed away. AJ was one of the good guys, he was a great man with a huge heart. God Bless you AJ, I will miss you my brother. RIP Rumble
— Big John McCarthy (@JohnMcCarthyMMA) November 13, 2022
Johnson's background was as a wrestler and he won the NJCAA national title at 174 pounds in 2004 for Lassen Community College.