Few in MMA hit harder than Robbie Lawler. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
The ageless, ever-violent Robbie Lawler squares off with intelligent brawler Matt Brown in the main event of what promises to be a fantastic, action-packed Ultimate Fighting Championship card on Fox this Saturday at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. Filled with exciting, largely relevant matchups from top to bottom, shows like this are close to best-case scenarios for the promotion and the network; while both parties might prefer a bit more name value at the top, entertainment rules with free events on national TV.
Under the Lawler-Brown headliner, the card features a matchup between the resurgent Anthony Johnson and the long-lost Antonio Rogerio Nogueira; Clay Guida takes on Dennis Bermudez in a high-paced featherweight clash; and Fox staple Josh Thomson opens the show against the fast-rising Bobby Green. A solid action fight between Jorge Masvidal and Daron Cruickshank headlines the preliminary bouts, which include a few other potential barnburners, as well.
Let us take a closer look at each of the 12 fights on the UFC on Fox 12 lineup, with analysis and picks:
WelterweightsRobbie Lawler (23-10, 8-4 UFC) vs. Matt Brown (19-11, 12-5 UFC)
The Matchup: Raise your hand if you ever thought Lawler and Brown would be fighting for a UFC title shot in 2014. Now put your hands down, liars. This is one of -- if not the most -- unexpected top-contender matchups in the UFC’s recent past.
Once given up for dead after going 1-4 against not-outstanding competition in 2010-11, Brown is currently riding a seven-fight winning streak -- six by knockout and one by decision -- that has seen him take down opponents ranging from the barely remembered Chris Cope and prospect Jordan Mein to high-level gatekeeper/mullet-owner Mike Pyle and most recently the frustratingly inconsistent but undeniably talented Erick Silva.
This fight is Brown’s chance to prove he belongs in the top 5 of the insanely competitive UFC welterweight division and an opportunity for the resurgent Lawler to earn another shot at kingpin Johny Hendricks. With victories over Josh Koscheck, Bobby Voelker, Rory MacDonald and Jake Ellenberger since his return to the UFC in February 2013, Lawler has conclusively shown he is a legitimate top welterweight. His title clash with Hendricks was one of the best fights of this or any year; and but for a late takedown by the Oklahoma State University wrestler, the decision might have gone to the grizzled, 13-year veteran.
This is the kind of fight that keeps hardcore fans up at night with droplets of sweat dotting their brows. Lawler and Brown have an intimate, slow-dancing-at-the-senior-prom type of relationship with brutal, entertaining violence, and when this matchup was announced, the excitement was palpable. There is almost no chance this will be a bad fight, and it has a great shot at becoming an instant classic.
The excitement surrounding this matchup is a function of the recent development in the styles of both fighters. Once a low-output and rather limited puncher, though one with heart-stopping power in his shots, Lawler has evolved into a complete and technical striker with a full repertoire of strikes to go along with vastly improved timing, sense of the range and the ability to throw volume while still maintaining crushing force. His newfound capacity for changing speeds -- touch, touch, touch and then throw a brutal shot -- and conserving his energy late into the fight is likewise remarkable. Moreover, the fight with Hendricks was incredible largely because Lawler has evolved into an above-average defensive fighter with a talent for head movement, parrying and countering shots in the pocket -- something he had not really shown before.
All of these are skills that take thousands of hours and repetitions in the gym to fully develop. Lawler has made the most of his 13 years in the sport. While he has lost a step athletically from his freakish peak, he has more than made up for it with greater technical proficiency as a striker to go along with his always serviceable takedown defense and nearly forgotten skill in offensive wrestling and top control. It seems unlikely Lawler will need those latter facets of his game against Brown, who has likewise shown remarkable improvement during his recent winning streak. Aside from the occasional trip or muay Thai-style sweep, the Ohioan prefers to fight at range and in the clinch. Although he calls himself an intelligent brawler, “pressure fighter” is almost certainly the better label. He moves forward relentlessly with left hook-straight right combinations punctuated by quick kicks until his opponent backs himself into the fence. Brown’s use of long, rangy high kicks to corral his adversary as he attempts to circle away from the relentless assault is particularly notable and exceedingly clever. Against the cage, Brown really goes to work, unleashing a brutal barrage of knees to the head and body mixed in with a dazzling array of horizontal, diagonal and vertical elbows. It is not an exaggeration to say Brown is the best fighter at close range in the division and possibly in the entire UFC.
Brown will certainly have an advantage over Lawler in the clinch, although the “Ruthless” one is hardly a slouch there himself; if he tries to match Brown shot for shot, it seems certain the sheer pace of “The Immortal’s” onslaught will overwhelm him despite his marked edge in power. I doubt Lawler will want that kind of dirty, close-range fight, however, and his precise, technical footwork will make it difficult for Brown to corral him against the cage for long.
At range, where the fight is likely to take place, the advantage has to go to Lawler. For all of Brown’s talents as an aggressive, forward-moving striker, he has little to offer going backwards. Given Lawler’s speed and newfound countering ability, it seems likely that he will be able to get off his strikes consistently and make them count. Combined with Brown’s tendency to back off when he gets hit -- this was how Mein and Silva both enjoyed some success -- Lawler should be able to create enough space to enforce his game. Brown’s vulnerable liver/solar plexus has likewise become a liability often enough to constitute a pattern, and a striker as experienced and savvy as Lawler has certainly made note of it.
The Pick: Lawler’s a substantial favorite, reaching 4-to-1, according to some oddsmakers. That is high but understandable. While Brown will be able to get Lawler to the fence and will almost certainly land some shots on his still-hittable opponent, I doubt he can do so consistently enough to either finish the inhumanly tough Lawler or land enough volume to take a decision. After a close and thrilling first round, Lawler will land a big counter knee or kick to the body for the knockout in the second round.
Next Fight » Anthony Johnson vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira