SAN JOSE, Calif. – Two years ago, Robbie Lawler and Anthony Johnson were UFC rejects, among the scores of promising fighters who failed to live up to their billing.
Saturday, in front of a national television audience on Fox, both men took giant steps toward the top of their respective divisions.
On a night with very few finishes at the SAP Center, Johnson delivered the one jump-out-of-the-chair moment when he blew out Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in just 44 seconds.
Johnson roared from his corner and stalked the highly respected veteran from Brazil. He blistered him with four consecutive powerful uppercuts, putting a quick end to Nogueira's night and perhaps his legendary career.
The devastating knockout rocketed Johnson toward the upper reaches of the light heavyweight division, where stars such as champion Jon Jones and elite contenders like Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson ply their trade.
Lawler moved to the very top of the welterweight division, earning the next crack at champion Johny Hendricks with a unanimous decision over a tough-as-nails Matt Brown.
Lawler hit Brown with shots that may have felled a moose, but Brown steadfastly kept stalking forward. Lawler was the better man though – not by a wide margin, a tribute to Brown's grit and better-than-believed ability – and racked up points while battering Brown's face.
Brown was transported to a local hospital for a precautionary examination. He was shaking his hand, as if he may have broken it, and he took so many massive kicks to the ribs that it wouldn't be a shock if he broke at least one of them.
That Brown lost four out of five rounds on two judges' cards after fighting as hard and as well as he did on Saturday is a testament to his tenacity.
"Robbie and I were talking in the back, and even though he lost, Matt Brown probably went up in the rankings tonight," UFC president Dana White said in tribute.
As good as Brown was, though, this was Lawler's night.
The fifth round was fought at a fierce pace, and Lawler ease off until he ripped Brown with a kick to the midsection that finally felled him.
It turned out that Lawler had clinched the victory after the fourth round and didn't need the fifth, but he fought as if he needed it badly.
It's that kind of effort and attitude that has endeared him to White, as well as mixed martial arts fans around the world. In the last eight months, Lawler has beaten No. 2 Rory MacDonald, No. 7 Jake Ellenberger and No. 5 Brown, while losing a razor-thin decision to Hendricks in a title fight.
He's come a long way from the innocent young man who appeared to wilt under the massive spotlight that was on him early in his career.
"I just wanted to go out there and look to stop him and that's what I tried to do," Lawler said. "There's two winners in that ring, or in cage tonight. He was very impressive. He put on a good performance."
Brown vowed he wouldn't be finished and that he would keep coming and he was true to his word. He had a cut around his eye, his nose and mouth were dripping blood and it seemed he had injured both a hand and a rib, but he never let up the attack.
All Brown could do later was pay tribute to his opponent.
"That guy is one hell of a fighter," Brown said. "I never could get a read on him and he always was moving forward."
Johnson moved forward so quickly when the bell rang that it looked as if he thought he'd entered himself in a 100-meter sprint.
He was eager to get his hands on Nogueira and it didn't last long when it did.
It was the last win in his resurrection as a fighter.
Things got so bad for Johnson, a one-time welterweight who came in 11 pounds heavy for a middleweight bout at UFC 142 on Jan. 14, 2012, that he was bounced from the promotion.
He was submitted in the first round by Vitor Belfort and cut from the UFC the next day. And as much as it hurt, he says now losing his job was the best thing for him.
It made him take stock of himself and become more professional.
"After I got cut by the UFC for not making weight, I realized I was making myself look like a fool," Johnson said. "I was hurting my team. I was hurting my family. I was hurting myself. Sooner or later, you've got to grow up in life and I think that in the two years I was away from the UFC, I grew up quite a bit. I still have a lot of growing up to do. I'm still a big kid."
Not too many kids punch like that powerful 30-year-old man in search of a career-defining win over a UFC legend did.
Both Johnson and Lawler needed to change and, to their credit, they did.
It's not a surprise that now one of them is getting a title shot and the other isn't that far away.
The ability was always there, but the other things, like the professionalism, the dedication and the awareness that there are always things to learn, have caught up with the talent.
It's put both Lawler and Johnson on the verge of stardom.