Just three short years ago, Anthony "Rumble" Johnson was dismissed as a head case. He seemed likely to go down as a fighter who boasted all the physical tools, but one who was never going to quite get it together.
It was right around this time in 2012 when Johnson lashed out at fans on Facebook after badly missing weight for a UFC bout against Vitor Belfort, which was far from his first weight-cutting mishap, then was cut from the roster following a submission loss.
"Rumble" hasn't lost a fight since.
When the Blackzilians standout blitzed past Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC on FOX 12 last summer, it was dismissed as just a win over an aging fighter. But there was no disputing Johnson's transformation from cautionary tale to legit championship contender after a jaw-dropping performance against Alexander Gustafsson in the pre-dawn hours Sunday morning in Stockholm.
A one-sided beatdown, in front of the 30,000 of Gustafsson's countrymen, the second-largest crowd in UFC history, put an exclamation point on Johnson's turnaround.
Early in his career, Johnson stubbornly tried to fight at welterweight, where bad weight cuts led to things like losses to Rich Clementi.
He was still too big at middleweight, as the Belfort fiasco proved.
But now that he's fighting where he should be, the results speak for themselves (which, incidentally, provides food for thought for other fighters who cut ungodly amounts of weight to go down further than they should). Nine times Johnson has gone to battle since his humiliation in Brazil against Belfort. Nine times he's been victorious. Six of his opponents have been knocked out.
If there's something scarier than Johnson's sheer power, though, it's his composure. The old "Rumble," the one prone to public outbursts, has been replaced by one who exhibits almost a zen-like calm, even after scoring the biggest victory of his career in a most inhospitable environment.
"I never gave up, I never thought I'd be in this situation," Johnson said. "It's a blessing. My coaches, the Blackzilians, they never gave up on me. A lot of people doubted me. At times I doubted myself, you know, when certain situations, but I'm here, I don't plan on looking back and going backwards at all."
Is this where the joyride ends, or will it culminate in yet another unthinkable moment when he meets Jon Jones? The fact this question can even be pondered with a straight face says all you need to know about just how face "Rumble" has progressed.
UFC on FOX 14 quotes
"It's just a lot of pain. I not only lost my fight, I lost my fight in front of 30,000 fans, so that's a tough thing to deal with, and it still is." -- Gustafsson, on coping with his loss to Johnson.
"I want to fight right now." -- 44-year-old Dan Henderson, following his fifth loss in his past six fights.
"Not impressed Alex" -- A Jones tweet, later deleted, which was aimed at Gustafsson.
"Eight seconds ... you want less than that?" -- Makwan Amirkhani, asked if he wanted to give a rematch to Andy Ogle, whom he knocked out in eight seconds Saturday.
Stock down: Dan Henderson. Look, we all love Dan Henderson. But it's getting tougher and tougher to watch Hendo's fights, and the outcomes are getting worse and worse. Last night marked five losses in his past six bouts. He's been finished in four of those fights. And it could have been much worse had Gegard Mousasi taken that free shot at his eye, the one he held back on. As is, Hendo ended up at the post-fight press conference sporting an eye patch. Henderson is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and deserves all the plaudits which will come his way for his legendary career. But he's 44. Time has caught up with him. He no doubt can continue to pick up paychecks in this post-Ortiz-Bonnar world, but there's nothing left for Henderson to prove.
Stock down: Alexander Gustafsson. Yeah, I know, I'm being Captain Obvious here. But the Swedish superstar laid an egg on an evening built entirely around him, one which was designed to make a rematch with Jones as big as possible. Instead, Gustafsson is as far away from a title shot as he's been in quite awhile, and he's taken wicked punishment in his last two losses. One has to wonder if "The Mauler's" peak has passed.
Stock down: Phil Davis. The performance we saw from Phil Davis on Saturday night against Ryan Bader was one we've seen before. Davis goes on a run, puts on an impressive performance, hits a certain level ... then seems to freeze when he's put in the spotlight which could put him over the top. Davis always seems to be holding a little something back in his fights. Sometimes he gets away with it, sometimes he doesn't. But if he's going to live up to the potential that seems to be just out of reach, he's going to have to tweak his approach.
Stock up: Makwan Amirkhani: The Finland native made quite a debut splash in the UFC. Taking a bout with Andy Ogle on short notice, Amirkhani scored the fifth-fastest knockout in UFC history, in just eight seconds. He took home an extra $50,000 and proved to be quite an interesting personality in the post-fight press conference. Whether Amirkhani is legit or whether UFC on FOX 14 was his Houston Alexander-beating-Keith Jardine-in-48-seconds moment, remains to be seen. But someone you never heard of before yesterday made his next fight a must-watch, and that in and of itself is a win.
You never know what you're going to get when Joe Rogan puts on the headset. Sometimes you're going to get astute, concise analysis. Sometimes his humor will make you laugh, others it will make you cringe. Sometimes he captures the emotion of the moment in a way few others can.
But for some events, you get Evil Joe Rogan. You know, the one who sounds distracted. The one who makes borderline homophobic remarks on live television. The one who sounds like perhaps he should get a good night's sleep before the fights instead of doing a Friday night standup comedy gig. The one who swings wildly, misses, and then aggressively doubles down.
The latter was on display in the wake of Amirkhani's eight-second knockout of Ogle. Amirkhani used a flying knee to put Ogle right into that unique haze in which a dazed fighter tries to takedown the referee after the fight's been waved off. There are few more obvious signs a fighter is done. And with the defenseless position Ogle was in when the ref stepped in, the stoppage spared Ogle several more uncontested shots.
But Rogan decided the stoppage was some sort of travesty, and stepped all over Amirkhani's coming-out moment, needlessly casting a pall over his big moment. Rogan was so over-the-top that when FOX went back to the studio during the break between, both Brian Stann and Daniel Cormier made it clear they felt the stoppage was absolutely correct, a rare total rebuke of a broadcast teammate.
Why does this matter so much? Well, later in the card, we saw the stoppage in the Mousasi-Henderson fight. I felt the stoppage was correct, given we were talking about a 44-year-old with several recent stoppage losses, but Hendo disputed the stoppage, making it a talking point. We then saw referee Marc Goddard let Gustafsson absorb quite a bit of punishment before waving off the main event. There were valid questions about the consistency of the officiating last night. But the man in position to offer the opinion everyone was going to hear had already picked the wrong dog in this fight. You take the good with the bad with Rogan. Saturday was as bad as it gets.
Fight I'd like to see next
As much mockery as the UFC took for the "Time is Now" hashtag, there's little doubt the big events kicking off 2015 have delivered so far. Jones vs. Cormier did huge business. Even all the post-fight Jones controversy promises to be the sort which only makes him a bigger star; and Cormier gained in stature even in defeat. Last weekend, Conor McGregor's stardom was cemented, with the most-watched basic cable MMA fight since 2009. A huge title fight with Jose Aldo Jr. came out of his victory. Donald Cerrone won twice in this span, and likely has a fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, the sort of PPV co-main event that instantly makes a card strong. And now, while we're not getting the Jones vs. Gustafsson rematch, the way last night went down makes Johnson an intriguing new opponent for the champ.
So, given all the other pieces have fallen into place, why not go ahead with the one obvious remain match out of all this? Gustafsson vs. Cormier is a headliner on its own, without a championship belt. The winner gets right back into the mix. It's not like light heavyweight is teeming with big matches which haven't already been made, so may as well go as high- stakes as possible.