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“Ruthless” Robbie Lawler has reached a crossroads at 38, just as most great fighters do. The former Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder has looked largely like a spent force in four consecutive losses, and his one-sided defeat against Neil Magny in the UFC Fight Night 175 co-main event had to be particularly disappointing. Lawler will need to assess how much longer he wants to continue a career that began less than three months after Bill Clinton left the White House.
It’s understandable that a fighter with a style so ferocious that he won three consecutive Sherdog “Fight of the Year” awards—vs. Johnny Hendricks in 2014, vs. Rory MacDonald in 2015 and vs. Carlos Condit in 2016—would eventually wear down, and if anything, Lawler has enjoyed more longevity at a high level than most of his peers.
The struggle individual sport athletes have with deciding when to call it a career will exist for as long as those sports themselves. Team sports make it easier on athletes when no major league team will sign them, but in individual sports, it all falls on the athlete. There’s the promise of more money, the drive of continuing a longtime pursuit and the uncertainty of what comes next. However, the always-fraught decision has to be particularly difficult for Lawler because of the nature of his career.
When Lawler burst onto the UFC scene in 2002, he was thought to be one of the future superstars of the sport. He had the Miletich Fighting Systems pedigree, the wrestling ability and the fearsome striking. The UFC elected to put Lawler in the first MMA bout on cable television and then had him open a UFC 40 card that was to that point the biggest pay-per-view event in Zuffa history. Lawler seemed like a sure thing, which made it all the more shocking when it all quickly fell apart for him.
First, there was the encounter with Pete Spratt, a co-feature that was supposed to be a showcase fight. The problem? While Spratt had serious liabilities on the ground, Lawler was looking to stand with everyone at that point, and “The Secret Weapon” had dangerous striking. From there, he was taunted and knocked out by Nick Diaz. In hindsight, that doesn’t look like a bad loss at all, but at the time, the perception was that he had been taken apart on the feet by a jiu-jitsu guy. A move up to middleweight looked like a mistake when he was submitted by Evan Tanner, and just like that, the UFC let him go.
The fact that the UFC was willing to let Lawler walk so shortly after he was such a prominent part of its plans speaks volumes. Lawler was being written off by many in the sport, and he was just 22 years old. He would prove his doubters wrong in the coming years, stringing together an impressive record after leaving the UFC and becoming a prominent part of EliteXC’s early Showtime programming. Brutal knockout wins in a variety of promotions solidified his reputation as a knockout artist.
In spite of that run of success, Lawler would find himself counted out again not that long after. A quick submission loss to Jake Shields was understandable, but a listless loss in a standup fight in what would be the last prominent win of Renato Sobral’s career was something else. Lawler didn’t win a single round on any judge’s scorecard against either Tim Kennedy or Lorenz Larkin. It sounds silly now, but Lawler looked like an old 30 losing to Larkin and once again many wrote him off. He was given a chance to return to the UFC but opened as a 4½-to-1 underdog against Josh Koscheck.
Lawler, of course, knocked out Koscheck and proceeded to go on the best run of his career—a run that elevated him from an entertaining fighter to watch to the best fighter in the world in his weight class. He permanently cut off the progress of men who looked like potential dominant champions in their own rights. Lawler isn’t a big talker, but it had to be satisfying to prove the doubters wrong in such a big way again. Of course, the flipside of that is Lawler learned a lesson that’s likely to work against him today.
Lawler found himself written off twice in his career. In each instance, he not only worked his way back up, but he rose to a higher level than he had ever been before. When you learn that lesson—to not give up on yourself and to keep working—and it pays off in spades on multiple occasions, why would it make sense to give up on yourself now? Sure, Lawler is older now, but he has worked through bad series of losses before, and he didn’t become champion by assuming the worst. That’s the problem with perseverance in MMA. It’s a blessing early but a curse late.
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