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Henri Hooft admits frustration, but denies leaving 'Rumble' high and dry after UFC 210

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Longtime coach Henri Hooft likes to be first in to the octagon after one of his fighters competes. He also likes to be the first to pack up and get out.

The way he sees it, most of his work is already done at that point. You should congratulate – or console – your fighter, shake hands with opposing coaches, and get to packing.

Hooft said he was in the octagon just moments after his longtime charge Anthony Johnson (22-6 MMA, 13-6 UFC) submitted to champ to Daniel Cormier (19-1 MMA, 8-1 UFC) in their rematch in this past Saturday’s UFC 210 pay-per-view headliner. Hooft tried to reassure his fighter despite the way the action unfolded – a near carbon copy of Cormier and Johnson’s first meeting two years prior.

“I tell him, ‘Don’t worry, it’s done now, you can’t change anything, keep your head up, and you did your thing,’ Hooft said of his words to Johnson in an interview with MMAjunkie.

But when the cage got a little too crowded for his liking, Hooft said, he started making his way backstage at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y. He planned to meet up with Johnson at the medical tent and check in.

“Of course I was disappointed, but I didn’t want to just stand there for nothing,” Hooft told MMAjunkie.

What he didn’t know as what Johnson planned to do at the conclusion of the fight, which was to formally announce his retirement. The second fighter to do so at UFC 210, “Rumble” said he would fight no more and called for his coaches to be by his side.

At that point, Hooft was in the locker room. Johnson’s searching briefly turned a vulnerable moment into an awkward one.

So the coach quick-timed it toward the cage. But by the time he was back in the arena, Johnson was already walking to the back. Unwittingly, he’d planted the seed of a major controversy over his work.

Corner audio from the fight revealed Hooft and his fellow coaches’ confusion and anger as Johnson chose to wrestle Cormier, an Olympian, rather than put to use the standup skills that have knocked out more than a dozen opponents.

Hooft, coach Neil Melanson and other unknown voices are heard telling Johnson not to wrestle, and repeatedly exclaim, “Why isn’t he listening?” Between rounds, Hooft tries to encourage Johnson to stay on his feet, concluding, “If you stand your distance, it’s an easy game. Why make it difficult?”

Johnson followed instructions in the opening moments of the second round. But after a clinch, he pushed for another takedown, prompting the coaches to go mostly silent as Cormier won a scramble and the fight went from bad to worse.

After the champ submitted Johnson with a rear-naked choke – the same hold he ended their first fight, only one round earlier – Hooft cries out, “Why, why the (expletive) does this happen every (expletive) time, man? Crazy.”

Online forums exploded over what happened to Johnson inside the cage, with some even suggesting that he’d thrown the fight. Then commenters turned their attention to Hooft and his absence during Johnson’s farewell speech. To outsiders, it looked as though the coach had abandoned his fighter at the height of his need.

Hooft was aware of the backlash, and he chose to stay offline for a few days. To critics who say he abandoned a member of his team, he denied he would ever do that with one of his fighters. And he points out that he was there for Johnson – just not when cameras caught it.

“I didn’t know that he was retiring that evening,” the coach said. “If I knew that he was making a speech, or he said, ‘Listen, this is going to be my last fight, so stay here,’ that’s something different. But I had my emotional moment backstage.

“I heard (his retirement), and they said, ‘Hey, they want you back in the cage,’ and when I walked back, he was already out of the cage. I saw him where the doctors are, because that’s where I wanted to wait for him, and we shed a tear together.”

Hooft said he and Johnson have been in contact since the fight, but they haven’t talked about what happened. It’s best, he said, for the fighter to get some space from the whole thing before they pick it apart and analyze what went wrong.

What lingers for Hooft is disappointment over the way the whole thing out. Of course, he didn’t want Johnson to wrestle Cormier, and there was nothing he could do about it once it happened. The title fight turned out to be Johnson’s last shot at the light heavyweight belt, so the feeling of what could have been stings a lot more than usual.

But as to what happened in Johnson’s mind, that’s something Hooft can only guess at. All he knows is that things were going great until the title challenger stepped into the cage.

“Most of the times, the fighter knows himself why it didn’t happen and what happened,” he said. “It’s very difficult to explain, the moments right before the fight and the moments right after that fight. Winning is easy. When you lose, you start looking at what happened and what can get better.

“Everything was perfect until the fight started. Only Anthony knows. It happened to me, too, as a fighter. It can happen to anybody, but it’s very difficult to explain.”

In their contact since the fight, Hooft said, Johnson has done a lot of blaming himself for what happened. Publicly, he’s been nostalgic about his career and looked optimistically toward a new career venture, which he declined to name.

Hooft said that contrary to Johnson’s denials, the venture involves work with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, though he didn’t know what the work entails. Despite that, he expects to see Johnson back in the gym, working out, but without that same level of pressure.

While Johnson pointedly said he’d grown tired of getting punched in the head and grappling, Hooft hopes he eventually gets tired of that and comes back to fighting.

“It was a great career, and we had a really good time,” he said. “As a coach and a friend, hopefully in two years or so, he gets bored of what he’s doing and he comes back. He’ll probably be a heavyweight, knowing Anthony, with the way he eats and drinks. And then we’ll start back at heavyweight. But that’s up to him.”

For more on UFC 210, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.



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