It was one of those moments where you had to be there.
You know the kind of moment I'm talking about. The ones you never forget. The ones that seem to stick around even as you grow old and forget everything else.
It was July 11, 2015. The event: UFC 189.
Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald were in an Octagon in Las Vegas. They weren't in the main event; that was Conor McGregor and Chad Mendes. Lawler and MacDonald were an afterthought. They were fighting for Lawler's welterweight title, but they were just another fight on a stacked card, there to satiate the hardcore fans and not much else.
But then they stepped in the cage, and something resembling magic happened. It was brutal and bloody, so much so that it was uncomfortable to watch, which is saying something in a sport built on brutality and bloodshed. For four rounds, the two men beat each other senseless, rendering flesh torn and swollen and bruised.
And then came the moment.
The bell sounded to end the fourth round. Both men were bleeding profusely from multiple facial wounds. Both were disfigured and swollen. Neither was all that recognizable. But instead of retreating to their corners, Lawler and MacDonald just stared at each other. They were unflinching and unmoving, refusing to give an inch. They stood there for what felt like an eternity but was actually just a few seconds, and then they were separated and ushered away from each other.
I've covered the sport a long time. I'd never seen anything like it. And I'll never forget it.
When the end finally, mercifully came for MacDonald, it came with more of a whimper than a bang.
Lawler didn't put MacDonald away with a booming head kick or deadening left hand, the way he did so many others. What happened instead was that MacDonald's face, having gamely endured a horrific amount of punishment, finally just gave way. It had enough.
It was a jab that did it, a jab straight to the nose, and normally that kind of thing wouldn't be enough to even make Rory's eyes water, but because the cartilage that made up Rory's nose had already been smashed to pieces, MacDonald's body just shut off. You know he would've powered right through it, except he couldn't, because his body reached its breaking point and he crumpled to the canvas, doing the only thing he could do at that point, which was to cover his face with his hands and hope the war was over.
In the minutes following the merciful end, time stood still. Those of us on media row could barely breathe. Journalist Shaun Al-Shatti was sitting next to me on that night, and all we could do was just stare at each other in disbelief. Speaking felt impossible, or perhaps there were just no words that could adequately describe it.
The fight was nearly unanimously voted the 2015 fight of the year by media outlets. It was voted the greatest fight in UFC history by ESPN readers. I've seen thousands of UFC fights over the years, and I would not disagree with the results of that poll. And the event itself remains the single greatest UFC event I've ever seen.
Another thing I am sure of: That night and that fight changed both men forever.
This aptitude for violence may have become more pronounced over the past few years, but it's not a new thing for Lawler.
He's pretty much been this way since he started his career at Pat Miletich's gym, training with Midwestern kindred spirits like Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver and Miletich himself. It's the reason Dana White originally signed Lawler back in 2002.
"I signed him as a Christmas present for myself," White told me during a 2013 interview. The only problem: It was a Christmas present ahead of its time. But Lawler had different priorities back then. Namely, he was concerned more about the size of his check than the amount of blood spilled by either him or his opponent.
"When Robbie was younger, his thing was money," White said. "You know, 'I want to fight for whoever is going to pay me the most money. I need money.'"
Lawler doesn't need money now. He doesn't need championships, either, because he's already won everything there is to win. He doesn't need the roar of the crowd. What he seemingly needs more than anything is a way to satiate the monster that reared its ugly head against MacDonald.
Unfortunately for both Lawler and his opponents, that's a bad thing.
On Saturday night, Lawler faces Donald Cerrone. It is a fight made possible by a confluence of events once thought impossible. Cerrone, possibly the most active fighter in the history of the sport, saw his prospects at lightweight dry up, and so he made his move up to welterweight.
He was immediately considered too small for the division. But then, wonder of wonders, Cerrone began looking like a top-tier welterweight fighter, reeling off four consecutive wins over the likes of Patrick Cote, Rick Story and Matt Brown before running into human buzz saw Jorge Masvidal.
Cerrone is a thrilling action fighter from the same mold as Lawler but with one notable exception: If a fight turns into a war like the one Lawler had with MacDonald, it is likely Cerrone will check out.
This is not to say he doesn't have heart because he clearly does. But Cerrone's threshold for enduring the career-changing battle is lower than Lawler's, and that puts him at a distinct disadvantage against a fighter like Lawler, a fighter who seems to have no regard for his present health or long-term well-being.
There is no way of knowing how long Lawler can continue doing what he does. He made his professional debut in 2001, and 16 years is a long time to fight other men in a cage, especially when you tend to find yourself in ultra-violent fights more often than not. There will come a day when, like MacDonald on that night two years ago, Lawler's body will simply reach a point of no return. The switch will flip, and he won't be able to endure the kind of punishment he has both received and dished out over a Hall of Fame career.
It is not likely that Saturday will be that day. Cerrone's welterweight run has been impressive thus far, but he's about to step in the cage with a different kind of opponent, a different kind of human being. Unless Lawler is simply past the point of no return, and unless his chin has departed for good, he will prove an insurmountable foe for Cerrone.
But the one thing we are guaranteed is that, for however long the fight lasts, there will be blood and violence. Because that is the Robbie Lawler way.