A rejuvenated Robbie Lawler outdueled Rory MacDonald at UFC 167. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
LAS VEGAS -- Make no mistake about it, mixed martial arts is a young man’s game. Just don’t tell that to Robbie Lawler, who is experiencing a career resurgence at age 31.
When the San Diego native made his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut back in May 2002, Rory MacDonald was 11 years old. Two years later when Lawler met Nick Diaz at UFC 47, many experts at the time believed the two fighters, both just barely in their early 20s, were the future of UFC’s welterweight division.
It was all over at 1:29 of the second round. Diaz knocked out Lawler, and in many ways, it took another decade for the heavy-handed striker to find himself on the brink of a title shot again. Before his return to the UFC earlier this year, Lawler fought in six other promotions, always chasing that elusive dream of getting back to the big time.
“I’m the one who brought Robbie Lawler into the UFC, and I was 100 percent behind this kid when he came in,” said UFC President Dana White. “When he was younger, all he [cared] about was making money: ‘I want to fight where whoever is going to pay me the most money. I need money.’ There were so many times that Robbie and I had talked throughout the years when he fought for other organizations, and he would be like, ‘I want to come back and fight for you guys. I want to come back and fight for the UFC.’ I said, ‘Kid, it makes no sense. I’m not going to pay you what these guys are paying you. It doesn’t make sense here. They need you over there, and they got to pay you to keep you.’”
According to White, Lawler would always relent with, “Yeah, you’re right.”
Although he won a few championships while fighting for those other promotions as a middleweight, the slugger had lost three of his last four fights entering 2013. When Zuffa bought Strikeforce and began folding its roster into the UFC, the situation did not look all that good for the once promising prospect. Had the man known as “Ruthless” perhaps seen his better days pass him by?
A first-round knockout in his return to the UFC in February answered more than a few questions, as he plowed through Josh Koscheck and won “Knockout of the Night” honors. However, because the bout took place on the undercard of Ronda Rousey’s historic UFC debut in the first-ever women’s fight inside the Octagon, few people were talking about Lawler’s triumphant return in the days that followed. Five months later, he knocked out Bobby Voelker, and momentum seemed to be on his side once again.
“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, he’s got kids. Now it’s about, before this opportunity goes away, I want to take a run at the title.”
Prior to UFC 167 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, he was considered the heir apparent to longtime welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. The 24-year-old Canadian had lost a little momentum, though, as his last fight -- a decision over Jake Ellenberger -- was almost universally panned as beyond boring by the entire MMA community. That is exactly why White thought Lawler would be the ideal matchup.
“The thing about Rory, [he] has a style where he sort of nullifies the fight. He does weird things,” White said during the pre-fight press conference. “This is going to be a great fight for him because Lawler’s style won’t allow that. Robbie Lawler has good wrestling, and he comes in to take your head off.”
At first, Lawler downplayed his role, saying he was “excited to come and work and wake up every day, excited that I have a fight in 10 weeks or whatever. I’m just excited to be here.” Later, he let his guard down ever so briefly, adding that he was “coming to fight. I’m sure Rory is coming to fight. We’re going to meet in the center of the Octagon, and we’re going to get it on, plain and simple.”
The veteran fighter delivered, as promised.
In the opening round of their fight, Lawler and MacDonald tried to chop down one another with a myriad of kicks. Neither man had a significant advantage, but two of the three judges at cageside scored it for Lawler. For much of the second round, MacDonald’s shots were connecting, both standing and on the ground. All three judges scored it in his favor, despite boos in response to times when he appeared to be stalling in top position. Round three was all Lawler. He pummeled MacDonald relentlessly and had him in trouble several times. The fight was not going to end on the ground, if Lawler had a say in the matter, as he wanted to stay standing and look for one of his patented blows to give him the 19th knockout of his career.
Alas, it did not materialize, and the final seconds ticked off the clock. Both fighters would have to await the official announcement, as the decision was not immediately obvious. Moments later, Lawler’s hand was raised and his return to glory was cemented: three UFC wins in a row and the possibility of a title shot in 2014.
No longer a smug kid, Lawler took a moment to say something privately to MacDonald before the uber-hyped prospect exited the cage.
“I said, ‘Just be you.’ Who cares what all the fans think, as long as he stays true to himself?” Lawler told the media afterward. I don’t really know Rory that much, so I just said, ‘That was a good fight.’ That’s about it.”
In some respects, that brief post-fight moment had come full circle. In 2004, Lawler was “the next big thing” who was just derailed by a high-profile loss and was probably left standing there wondering what was next. On the flipside at UFC 167, his empathetic words most certainly came from a place of experience. For his own fortunes, though, the usually stoic Lawler could hardly contain his excitement at the post-fight press conference. He even offered a solution to the swirling discussion of St. Pierre looking to go into quasi-retirement.
“I think we should probably do, like, if Georges takes off for half a year or a year, [Johny] Hendricks and I fight for an interim title; and when Georges comes back, I’ll beat him up, too,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
Lawler also was not interested in pausing for any sentimental trip down memory lane, one in which he reflects on his accomplishments of the last year.
“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.”
Well, he just took out the No. 3-ranked guy in his division, and that elusive UFC title shot could soon be within reach. For now, White, long one of Lawler’s biggest supporters, summed up his year about as perfectly as it can be done: “Very impressive.”