Saturday, July 11
MGM Grand Garden Arena | Las Vegas
When we look back at the best fights in MMA history, they often bring back happy memories to be enjoyed, celebrated and fondly remembered. The Sherdog.com 2015 “Fight of the Year,” which featured Robbie Lawler opposite Rory MacDonald in the UFC 189 co-main event, was not necessarily that sort of fight. Make no mistake: It was a thrilling exhibition of skill, courage and will. Nobody that witnessed the war that was waged will forget it anytime soon. However, this was also a fight where the violence and brutality inherent to the sport was inescapable.
Lawler-MacDonald 2 was truly an awesome fight. It was not awesome in the sense that one might declare “Mad Max: Fury Road” an awesome movie. Rather, it was awesome in the sense that witnessing the Mongol Horde stampede across the plains towards the sack of another city must have been an awesome sight. It was impressive, unsettling and even disturbing. When MacDonald collapsed into a crumpled heap in round five, unable to identify minutes later what year it was, it was hard not to be in awe of what had just transpired. It was the sort of fight that you would use to demonstrate what hellacious competitors Lawler and MacDonald are but not necessarily the sort of fight you would show to your mom to explain why you love MMA.
The stakes were high going into UFC 189 for both Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight champion Lawler and challenger MacDonald. For Lawler, it was a chance to prove he was deserving of the top spot in his division. He had won the title in his previous fight over Johny Hendricks via split decision, and his previous win over MacDonald had also come via split decision. Lawler was universally respected, but many doubted whether he was truly the best in a talented and balanced welterweight division.
MacDonald was in a similar spot, feeling the need to prove himself. He had chased the welterweight title for years, and now facing him for the title was the man who had handed him the most disappointing loss of his career. Both of his professional losses to Lawler and Carlos Condit followed the same script: He appeared to be the better fighter early, but his opponents pulled away late through sheer force of will. Lawler-MacDonald 2 was crucial, not only in that it was for the welterweight crown but in the way that it could come to define each man’s career.
Sometimes when the stakes are so high, fighters are cautious and extremely careful about not making mistakes. That was not the case with Lawler and MacDonald, who got after it in short order, throwing back and forth with malicious intent. According to FightMetric, 378 of the 386 strikes thrown in the fight were significant strikes. Neither man was looking to win with the jab. Eighty-one percent of MacDonald’s strikes and 97 percent of Lawler’s targeted the head. Rare was the punch that did not seem designed to bring the fight to an immediate close. Soon, both men would be covered in blood.
Just like in the first fight, MacDonald would build an early lead. He landed more significant strikes in each of the first four rounds. Lawler was saved by the bell in the third, as MacDonald had him badly hurt and was looking to finish. That was the most danger either fighter was in until the final round. The fight overall was far from a blowout, but MacDonald was landing enough to pull away on the scorecards of the official scorers. As the fifth round began, all three judges had the fight scored 39-37 for MacDonald. Lawler did not know it, but he likely needed a finish to retain his championship.
There are fighters you might tend to count out in that sort of a position, but Lawler certainly is not one of them. Lawler has been in epic battles time and time again, from Aaron Riley, Frank Trigg and Scott Smith to Melvin Manhoef, Johny Hendricks and Matt Brown. In a firefight, Lawler is as dangerous as they come. Indeed, he proved his mettle one more time at UFC 189. MacDonald already looked like a horror-movie victim going into the fifth round, his disfigured face drowning in a sea of blood. One straight left hand was just too much, and MacDonald collapsed to the mat and covered up. The Canadian had endured enough, too much really. Lawler had done it.
UFC 189 was the Conor McGregor Show, with an arena full of Irish fans there to see the featherweight get what had been to that point the biggest win of his career. McGregor certainly came through in his own right, but the Lawler-MacDonald rematch may be better remembered in the years to come, particularly since McGregor’s win over Jose Aldo at UFC 194 is likely to overshadow the victory over Chad Mendes. It was the sort of violent spectacle that does not come along very often, and it takes that sort of extraordinary event to steal the show from McGregor.
There is a reason fans are drawn to contests with such an unsettling level of violence like Lawler-MacDonald 2. Pushing through the way Lawler and MacDonald did puts the human body and psyche through the sort of test that exhaustion at the end of a highly competitive basketball game just cannot offer up. Without the brutality, the stakes just are not as high. Lawler walked through hell and left no doubt as to what sort of competitor and man he is in victory. He will always have that, no matter where his career takes him.
The next day, Tristar Gym trainer Firas Zahabi posted a picture of Lawler and MacDonald posing together at the hospital. They both looked in bad shape, particularly MacDonald, yet there was peacefulness in the wake of their mayhem. After their second fight, there was nothing left to prove. They had gone through hell and were bonded together by the experience. The pain of the struggle would eventually pass, but the memories of the 2015 “Fight of the Year” would endure.
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