Robbie Lawler at some point had to have wondered whether or not he would ever reach the mountaintop.
Twelve years, six months and 26 days after he debuted in the Ultimate Fighting Championship as a brick-fisted, throw-caution-to-the-wind 20-year-old, Lawler finally put his hands on UFC gold when he defeated Johny Hendricks by split decision in the UFC 181 main event on Dec. 6 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. The victory brought the welterweight championship to Lawler, Sherdog.com’s “Fighter of the Year” for 2014.
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“I always believed in myself and believed I was capable of doing great things and winning world titles, but first you have to get to those positions,” Lawler told the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” program. “It was definitely tough during the down times to believe in yourself, but I just kept trying to get better and that’s what I did. I never gave up and never made excuses.”
Lawler’s career-defining 2014 campaign began against Hendricks, too, as he wound up on the wrong side of a unanimous decision against the Team Takedown representative in an unforgettable UFC 171 clash for the then-vacant welterweight crown on March 15 in Dallas. A frontrunner for “Fight of the Year,” the bout saw the two man exchange a record 308 significant strikes, according to FightMetric data. A late surge from Hendricks, including a key fifth-round takedown, provided the bearded Oklahoman with a narrow path to victory.
The defeat sent Lawler back to the drawing board, where his hunger only grew. Wins over Jake Ellenberger at UFC 173 and Matt Brown at UFC on Fox 12 followed, setting the stage for an anticipated rematch with Hendricks and giving the “Ruthless” contender one more shot at the title. While their second encounter fell short of its predecessor in terms of quality, it was memorable in its own right.
The two high-caliber welterweights engaged in another back-and-forth battle for 25 minutes. Lawler stormed out of the gate with stunning aggression, tearing into the incumbent champion with repeated knees to the body. Hendricks survived the initial onslaught, carried the fight into the second round and found his groove. The Oklahoman smashed Lawler with two-, three and sometimes four-punch combinations, often punctuating them with heavy leg kicks. Lawler seemed frozen at times, but he never went away.
Late in the fourth round, Hendricks jumped on a single-leg and held on for too long, eating punches and elbows in a crouched position. The sequence seemed to turn the tide. Lawler shut down the “Bigg Rigg” again in the fifth and forced him into the same position of vulnerability, punishing his head with hammerfists and his body with digging elbows. Hendricks returned to his feet, only to be met by a blitzkrieg of winging punches from Lawler, the challenger clearly the fresher and hungrier of the two.
“It felt a lot like the first fight: Who’s going to win this last round? Who’s going to cement their place and win the title?” Lawler said. “I just felt like I went out there and looked to finish. That’s what I tried to do -- I tried to hurt him, tried to finish and win that title. That was just a mental spot, just keep moving forward, keep fighting. It was a good thing I wasn’t throwing punches still, I was just so excited and my body was ready to go. It was weird.”
Two of the three cageside judges -- Marcos Rosales and Glenn Trowbridge -- ruled in Lawler’s favor by 48-47 and 49-46 scores; a third, Sal D’Amato, cast a dissenting 48-47 nod for Hendricks.
“I was confident. I felt like I did a lot of damage, ducked a lot of shots, landed a lot of knees and kicks,” Lawler said. “Obviously, Johny’s a competitor. He does a great job of winning rounds, but I just felt like I was the one doing the most damage out there. It was a close fight.”
Lawler, who became American Top Team’s first UFC champion, has gone 6-1 since returning to the Octagon in February 2013.
“It’s starting to sink in a little bit. I went to the gym and everyone was excited. The whole place was chanting. It’s awesome to be a part of it,” Lawler said. “I would like to relax, but obviously I want to work on some things and get better as a fighter. I would like to have some time to spend with my family, so I want to fight again maybe in late May, June or July. The bosses might have something to say about that, so we will see what happens.”
What comes next remains to be seen. Canadian Rory MacDonald appears to have a rightful claim on the No. 1 contender’s seat, but all signs point to Lawler and Hendricks completing their trilogy.
“I’m very confident in my skills and think, if we fought again, I would win,” Lawler said. “Johny is a hell of a fighter, a hell of a competitor, and I look forward to meeting him again. Now that we have each won one apiece -- and they were close fights -- I think we need to figure this one out.
“If the bosses think that makes sense and that’s the fight everyone wants to see, I’m sure they will make it happen, but I’m just relaxing right now. I’m not even thinking about that.” he added. “I’m sure Dana [White], Lorenzo [Fertitta], Joe [Silva] and Sean [Shelby] will put their heads together, and we will see what happens.”
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