Nearly three years to the day of his unceremonious UFC exile, Anthony Johnson rewrote the script.
Thrown into one of the most daunting road games in promotion history, Johnson cemented himself as perhaps the most dangerous and unlikely challenger to Jon Jones' light heavyweight throne, utterly demolishing previous No. 1 contender Alexander Gustafsson at UFC on FOX 14 and silencing a stunned crowd of 26,000 inside Stockholm's Tele2 Arena.
Johnson's final salvo, a series of ferocious right hands to head of the defenseless Swede, signaled a moment few observers ever thought possible back when Johnson was an emaciated welterweight struggling to find his way. Because "Rumble," at age 30, reborn as a monstrous 205-pounder, is now the next man that will test MMA's pound-for-pound king.
"It just didn't seem real," Johnson said at Saturday's post-fight press conference.
"I was like, ‘I can't believe I just beat the guy who, in my opinion, beat Jon Jones.' So I was really in a state of shock. Nobody's ever stopped Alexander before like that, so I was just... speechless, really."
It's true, nobody ever had stopped Gustafsson in such a decisive way -- not even Jones after throwing everything he had at Gustafsson for five grueling rounds at UFC 165. Yet for Johnson, it took less than three minutes.
A single hard counter right hand midway through the opening round put Gustafsson on wobbly legs. From there, the finish was Johnson's for the taking.
"My gameplan was just to pressure and make him fight my kind of fight," Johnson explained. "That was all. I couldn't let him get comfortable, because once he starts doing his Ali Shuffle, then you know it's about to be a long night.
"I heard his corner say ‘front push kick', and I'm a kickboxer, so I heard it and I know what I do whenever somebody does something like that, I know how to counter it. It was just perfect timing. When they said ‘front push kick', I was like, alright, go ahead. And boom."
The fight's sudden end left Gustafsson in tears, and his countrymen in a haze of disappointment and disbelief. Gustafsson was supposed to get his blockbuster rematch against Jones late last year. An injury opened the door for Daniel Cormier to storm in and usurp Gustafsson's spot, but Cormier failed against Jones as well, just as all others have done before him, and Gustafsson's opportunity would never be stronger than it was on Saturday.
For that reason, perhaps, while Jones chided the Swede from afar, Johnson instead sympathized with his foe and the pain that comes with a dream dashed.
"Alex had a goal. I felt really bad," Johnson said. "I saw him crying and I know how it is whenever you have a goal and something gets in the way and basically sidetracks you, or whatever you want to call it. I've felt this pain before, so I just, I don't know -- I guess I'm human, so I just felt bad for, I can't say ending his goal, but he didn't reach his goal tonight. And I'm sure he'll be back 10 times harder next go-round."