Robbie Lawler found new life at 170 pounds. | Photo: D. Mandel/Sherdog.com
Comeback Fighter of the Year
By Joseph Myers and Chris Nelson
“Ruthless” Robbie Lawler was almost an afterthought when it came to discussions of the top fighters in the sport of mixed martial arts at the end of 2012.
Lawler was coming off of a unanimous decision loss to Lorenz Larkin and had dropped four of his last six fights. He seemed to be lost in the shuffle at 185 pounds, and with the closure of Strikeforce and the subsequent migration of its top fighters to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, his future seemed cloudy at best.
However, following a year that saw Lawler drop to welterweight, return to the Octagon for the first time since 2004 and post three victories -- including two highlight-reel knockouts -- to earn a UFC title shot, it is safe to say Lawler is back in the spotlight. His resurgence made him Sherdog.com’s “Comeback Fighter of the Year” for 2013.
The 31-year-old Lawler, who now trains at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., started his year at UFC 157 in February, when he took on “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 alum Josh Koscheck. The fight was the first at 170 pounds for Lawler since he was knocked out by Nick Diaz at UFC 47 in April 2004 and his first appearance in the Octagon since a first-round submission loss to Evan Tanner at UFC 50 in October 2004.
Koscheck secured a pair of early takedowns against Lawler, but the “Ruthless” one was able to get back to his feet each time. Koscheck tried for another takedown, but Lawler sprawled to avoid it and nailed his counterpart with a left hand. He followed with a series of right hands on the ground to finish the fight 3:57 into the first round. Lawler earned “Knockout of the Night” honors and picked up his first win in the Octagon since beating Chris Lytle via unanimous decision at UFC 45 in November 2003.
“I was raining down hard shots, and he was going to take a beating,” Lawler said. “He wasn’t coming back.”
After beating Koscheck, Lawler returned to action in July, when he faced another former Strikeforce fighter in Bobby Voelker at UFC on Fox 8. There, Lawler -- who had won the Icon Sport and EliteXC 185-pound titles during his time away from the UFC -- took control from the beginning. He kept Voelker off-balance with a variety of power shots, body kicks, head kicks, flying knees and even a takedown in the opening five minutes. In the second round, Lawler uncorked a left head kick that felled Voelker like a tree before he finished him off with one last right hand to the face. Referee Dan Miragliotta called a halt to the proceedings at the 24-second mark of the second stanza. Suddenly, Lawler had won two straight.
That hot streak earned Lawler a fight with fellow top-10 talent Rory MacDonald at UFC 167 in November. Ahead of the fight, Lawler knew he would have his hands full with the Tristar Gym export, who had won five in a row since losing his UFC debut to Carlos Condit in June 2010.
“He’s well-hyped because he wins fights, and he’s a great talent,” Lawler told Sherdog.com. “He should be hyped up because he’s really good. I need to be on point. He does everything well. His spacing is really good, he moves his feet well and he mixes it up with kicks and punches. He can get takedowns. He’s a well-rounded fighter. That’s why he’s ranked very high.”
In the first round, Lawler used leg kicks to keep MacDonald from executing his game plan and controlled the tempo of the fight, earning the round on two of the three judges’ scorecards. MacDonald rebounded in round two with a takedown and elbows from the top, likely evening the match at a round apiece. With the fight up for grabs going into the final five minutes, Lawler sent MacDonald crashing to the canvas with a left hook and tried to finish on the ground. However, MacDonald survived. Even though the Canadian landed a takedown and some ground-and-pound late in the frame, Lawler still emerged with a split decision victory.
“I’ve had a tough road, up and down, but I kept getting up and pushing forward,” Lawler said. “That’s what happened tonight.”
After the victory over MacDonald, UFC President Dana White said he believed Lawler’s priorities had changed in the eight-plus years he was away from the Octagon.
“He’s a completely different animal,” White said. “He doesn’t even talk about money anymore. Now it’s about winning that title. He’s getting older now; he’s not this young, crazy kid anymore. He’s got a wife, [and] he’s got kids. Now it’s about, before this opportunity goes away, I want to take a run at the title.”
After he defeated MacDonald, Lawler credited the move to American Top Team with playing a big role in his career renaissance.
“When I come down here, they tell me what to do [and] who I’m working with,” Lawler said. “They tell me when to show up and they take care of everything else. [There is a] lot of talent here to push me, to try to beat me up and get me ready.”
As if three victories were not enough to make 2013 a great year for Lawler, news came in December that UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre was taking a leave of absence and vacating his 170-pound title. White announced Lawler and Johny Hendricks -- who lost a controversial split decision to St. Pierre in the UFC 167 main event -- would fight for the vacant championship at UFC 171 in March.
It was the culmination of a year-long arc that saw Lawler go from a fighter with an uncertain future to one firmly entrenched near the top of the welterweight division. However, Lawler is not interested in talking about the year he put together. He remains focused on what is to come.
“I’m pushing forward and I’m getting better every day,” he said. “I want to fight and I want to be the best in the world, so I’m not going to be looking too much into what I’ve accomplished because there’s so much ahead.”
How do you get mentioned as a “Comeback Fighter of the Year” with just one bout? In the case of Alvarez, what happened inside the cage in 2013 was only a fraction of the story.
To grasp the full meaning of Alvarez’s return, we must rewind to 2011, when he suffered a fourth-round submission loss to Michael Chandler in a back-and-forth instant classic for the Bellator MMA lightweight championship. Alvarez had reigned over Bellator’s 155-pound division since June 2009 but, due to the promotion’s tournament format, had defended the belt only once, instead engaging in superfluous fights with the likes of Josh Neer and Roger Huerta. The same format prevented Alvarez from getting an immediate rematch with Chandler; instead, the Philadelphia native would have needed to win another tournament.
Rather than going that route, Alvarez rode out the final two fights on his Bellator contract with non-tournament wins over Shinya Aoki and Patricky Freire.
When Alvarez tried to ink an eight-fight deal with the UFC, however, Bellator invoked a clause which allowed it to match the UFC’s offer.
This led to months of legal wrangling in which Alvarez tried to free himself from the Viacom-owned organization. With the battle threatening to stretch into late 2014, even UFC President Dana White commented that Alvarez should go back to fighting for Bellator. In the end, Alvarez lost a year sitting on the shelf, only to rejoin Bellator in August.
The upside for Alvarez and MMA fans was that he would receive a rematch with Chandler at Bellator’s Nov. 2 event. The bout did not disappoint; it was another bloody, grueling, seesaw affair. This time, after going the full five rounds, it was Alvarez getting the split decision and the belt wrapped around his waist by stunned Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney.
In that moment, Alvarez made a remarkable, one-fight comeback and became a sort of MMA folk hero. Not only did he put on a phenomenally gutsy performance to even his score with Chandler -- a third meeting will happen in 2014 -- he also got to stick it in the face of the company which tried to hold him back.
3. Urijah Faber
Faber’s sole fight in 2012 was a lopsided loss to Renan Barao at UFC 149. It saw the Brazilian crowned as new UFC interim bantamweight champion and led some pundits to speculate that Faber’s best days were behind him. However, any doubts about Faber’s status as an elite 135-pounder were laid to rest in 2013, when “The California Kid” put on four consecutive sterling performances.
The leader of Team Alpha Male began his campaign by settling an old score with Ivan Menjivar, whom Faber had beaten by disqualification in 2006.
Faber ran through “The Pride of El Salvador,” first roughing up Menjivar with elbows on the ground and then forcing him to tap on his feet with a rear-naked choke. Up next was a stiffer test in the form of Scott Jorgensen, a durable wrestler with heavy hands who had been finished by only two men in 20 bouts. Faber became the third when, after nearly sinking a guillotine choke in round one, he dragged Jorgensen into deep waters and coaxed a fourth-round rear-naked choke submission.
Faber’s third fight -- and, ultimately, his stiffest test -- of the year came against dynamic Brazilian Iuri Alcantara at UFC Fight Night 26. Alcantara gave the former World Extreme Cagefighting ace a scare in the first round of their August meeting, taking full mount and punishing Faber with rough ground-and-pound before threatening with multiple armbar attempts. Faber stormed back, using his trademark wrestling and constant striking from top position to claim the final two rounds and scores of 29-28 across the board.
In hindsight, the outcome of Faber’s Dec. 14 fight against Michael McDonald should have been clear. Faber was a slight betting favorite against the 22-year-old prospect, but once the bell rang, things never looked close. A right hand dropped “Mayday” midway through round two, and Faber capitalized with a guillotine choke victory, the seventh of his career. The win capped off a remarkable year for Faber and led to his being awarded a title shot in a rematch with Barao in 2014.
4. Jake Shields
Shields’ fighting style will probably never make him a fan favorite, but there is no denying he won two decisions against top-flight competition in 2013.
The former Strikeforce middleweight champion came to the UFC in 2010 on a 15-fight winning streak and soon found himself in contention for Georges St. Pierre’s welterweight belt. Things unraveled quickly from there, as the Cesar Gracie student was routed by GSP in their five-round affair and then knocked out in 53 seconds by Jake Ellenberger in his next bout. The latter defeat came only weeks after his father and manager, Jack Shields, unexpectedly died at 67. In 2012, Shields returned to middleweight with a win over Ed Herman, but the victory was overturned when Shields was flagged for a “prohibited” substance in his post-fight drug test.
After serving a six-month suspension, Shields came back down to 170 pounds and was slotted against one of the division’s rising stars, Tyron Woodley, at UFC 161 in June. It was not a pretty fight, but despite going 0-for-18 on takedown attempts, Shields doubled Woodley’s striking volume through three rounds and managed to earn
two scorecards of 29-28.
Shields’ next assignment was not any easier, as he went up against fellow grappler Demian Maia, who had put together an impressive three-fight winning streak that included victories against the likes of Jon Fitch and Rick Story. Before a partisan crowd in Barueri, Brazil, Shields utilized takedowns and grinding ground-and-pound to eke out a narrow, hard-fought decision after 25 minutes. It was not the type of performance that would land Shields another UFC title shot, but it will keep him fighting quality opponents in 2014.
For a guy who retired three years earlier, Gonzaga had one heck of a 2013.
When Gonzaga was released by the UFC in 2010 on the heels of a loss to Brendan Schaub, the Brazilian grappling ace said he would be spending his future on the mats rather than inside the cage; and while “Napao” mostly stuck to that promise -- he fought only once in the next 14 months, a regional bout near his adopted home of Ludlow, Mass. -- Gonzaga answered when the UFC came calling in December 2011.
After returning with a first-round submission of previously undefeated countryman Ednaldo Oliveira at UFC 142, the remainder of 2012 was filled with disappointment for Gonzaga, who saw multiple bouts fall apart due to injuries. The former heavyweight title contender got a quick start to 2013, however, returning in January to finish Ben Rothwell with a guillotine choke -- Rothwell’s first submission defeat since 2005.
Things were not all rosy for Gonzaga in 2013. In April, he suffered a brutal loss at the hands -- or, more accurately, elbows -- of rising star Travis Browne. However, what Gonzaga did after that defeat is precisely why he landed a spot on this list.
Three months after falling to Browne, Gonzaga was back in the cage at UFC 162, where he scored a blistering, 17-second knockout of Dave Herman. Just three months later, he entered the cage as an underdog against Shawn Jordan at UFC 166 and notched another crushing KO, this time in 93 seconds. Few could have predicted such a return to form for the man who famously drubbed Mirko Filipovic in 2007, and fewer still could have known that, in 2013, 34-year-old Gonzaga would once again climb back into the heavyweight top 10.
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