I’ve been putting off writing about Robbie Lawler for a few weeks now, even in the immediate aftermath of his welterweight title-defending win over Rory MacDonald at UFC 189 in July.
The fight-think piece aspect of this column has been making something of a comeback in recent months, and I’m doing my best to space them out. These are, after all, the most self-indulgent pieces that appear in this space — right next to the ones I write about running, which is why you pick up this paper every week, and not because toilet paper isn’t free, right? — and at this point I’m pretty much operating on either the good graces or inattentiveness of my editors. So keep those comments coming, you guys! Whatever you’re saying, it’s fortunately not working.
Anyway. The UFC currently has 11 champions across 10 weight classes (Jose Aldo and Conor MacGregor are champion and interim champion in the featherweight division), exactly two of whom you care about: MacGregor and Ronda Rousey. And it’s understandable: both have managed, through a combination of talent and marketability, to transcend pop culture boundaries and engage the public consciousness at large.
What they’ve done in such a short span of time — Rousey has been champion since February 2013, MacGregor interim champion for a matter of months — is impressive, but both athletes have also benefitted greatly from huge pushes by the UFC’s marketing and publicity divisions, efforts that have paid dividends for all parties involved, while other champions remain all but anonymous to the public, even as far as casual fight fans are concerned.
Robbie Lawler is one such champion, and I have no idea why. Maybe it’s his soft-spokenness, his hesitance to engage in trash-talk, his everyman look and demeanor. But his career journey has been — sorry for this — epic in the up-and-down, redemptive sense, and is worthy of some recognition, even if it’s just some yokel like me talking about it to all both of you reading this.
First of all, though he’s only 33, Lawler has been around the fight game for literally all of his adult life. He made his professional debut at 19, and his UFC debut at 20, all the way back at UFC 37 (remember when I mentioned that he defended his title recently at UFC 189? Yep.), defeating veteran gatekeeper Aaron Riley by decision.
Lawler was a product of the then-famed Miletich Fighting Systems camp out of Bettendorf, Iowa, which also churned out UFC champions in Tim Sylvia and Matt Hughes. He was the archetypal sprawl-and-brawl fighter, using his solid wrestling skills to stay on the feet, where he held an absolutely murderous power advantage.
After KOing Steve Berger and Tiki Ghosn in his next two fights, Lawler stepped up to meet Pete Spratt. Spratt was no fool, and focused his game on taking away Lawler’s legs, which nullified the latter’s punching power. Spratt demolished Lawler with leg kick after leg kick, eventually winning when Robbie had to submit due to a hip injury as a result. He bounced back with a dominant decision over Chris Lytle, after which he was matched up with fellow rising star Nick Diaz.
The Diaz fight sort of laid out everything that was wrong with Lawler’s mindset at the time. While certainly not lacking for skills, he became easily unfocused if his opponent didn’t stand in front of him and engage in a boxing match. He was also young and brash, and could be goaded into making mistakes, and Nick Diaz is nothing if not good at goading. He repeatedly taunted Lawler, dropping his hands and sticking his chin out, prompting Lawler to lean in with big, wild, swinging hooks that Diaz easily evaded.
During one exchange, Diaz caught Lawler coming in with little more than a short hook, knocking him out. Lawler protested, and it was a flash KO, but the fight was clearly done. A subsequent move up to middleweight proved fruitless in the UFC; Lawler lost his next fight to Evan Tanner, and was released.
For the next eight years, Lawler bounced around from promotion to promotion, fighting at middleweight or in catchweight bouts, picking up minor titles and rebuilding himself. There were bumps: wins over Falaniko Vitale (twice), Frank Trigg, Melvin Manhoef, Scott Smith, Adlan Amagov and Matt Lindland were tempered with losses to Jason Miller, Renato Sobral, Luke Rockhold, and Lorenz Larkin.
When the UFC acquired Strikeforce, it was on the heels of Lawler’s loss to Larkin, and Robbie was brought into the promotion — let’s be real — with the intention of being a warm body with a recognizable name to build up younger contenders. In his first fight back, however, Lawler surpassed expectations, not only by making 170 pounds for the first time in eight years, but by TKOing Josh Koscheck, a wrestler that represented the type of fighter Lawler had traditionally struggled with. He won his next fight as well, a head-kick KO against Bobby Voelker, after which he was slated to face rising star Rory MacDonald in a title elminator.
MacDonald was already a superstar in Canada; training partner to Georges St. Pierre, he was thought to be the heir apparent to the welterweight throne, but Lawler took a close-yet-clear split decision. He then fought Johny Hendricks for the vacant title, but came up just short in another split decision. After bouncing back with wins over Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown, he faced Hendricks again, with the split decision this time going his way. Thus, Robbie Lawler became UFC champion 13 years after his promotional debut.
What’s most impressive about Lawler’s resurgence is the sheer amount of patience, will and maturity that it took. He never amassed much of a win streak between his UFC tenures, and the double-digit losses that he took could have destroyed the confidence and resolve of a less mature athlete. But he kept fighting, kept improving, gradually and quietly. As a result, Lawler has transcended at least two guard-changes in his divisions, and now seems poised to rest atop the 170-pound throne indefinitely.
Give this man an award, some recognition, a cookie, something. Or just watch his next fight. A lot of people still won’t expect him to win — and he probably will.