Ben Askren’s UFC debut this weekend will finally answer one of mixed martial arts’ greatest ‘what ifs’, as he prepares to get in there with one of the sport’s most ferocious veterans.
Robbie Lawler could be fighting any single fighter within the UFC’s welterweight roster and he’d undoubtedly command the interest of the fans.
Ever since his UFC 201 title-loss to the still-reigning Tyron Woodley, though, it’s been hard to know exactly how much Lawler still has in the tank.
A thrilling but tightly-contested showdown with Donald Cerrone and a five-round defeat at the hands of the former lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos showcased a Robbie that was by no means lacking in the intensity that made him an icon.
Despite this, Lawler was not able to turn in a championship-level performance against a pair of career-long lightweights and over the course of the eight rounds he shared with both, his ability to really move in for the kill just wasn’t there.
In the two fights since he lost out to Woodley by way of first-round knockout, it’s hard to argue against the fact that ‘The Ruthless One’ hasn’t shown himself to be fully rejuvenated.
Is it right to expect a 36-year-old to be able to muster up the strength for another title-run in a division as stacked as 170lbs? Maybe not.
But if there’s one thing that has epitomised the man’s career since its earliest days, it has been his ability to completely mess with people’s expectations.
After being cut from the UFC back in 2004 at the end of his original run, Lawler fought on the global scene for a few years before finding a new home in the now-defunct Strikeforce.
Posting a 3-5 promotional record then saw him enter the UFC once again at the age of 31, having lost three of his last four and with a reputation – in the eyes of many – as a reckless brawler.
Jump forward two years and the UFC welterweight strap was wrapped firmly around his waist.
Where the Lawler who faltered in Strikeforce was almost limited in his aggressive approach, the one who held the belt used controlled chaos masterfully to break his opponents.
You just cannot count out a man with that ability to re-invent himself.
So often we see fighters who get career-long categorisations due to the traits that define them most.
The brawler is often an incredibly difficult typecast to break, and yet, when Lawler arrived back to the UFC with a 19-9 record on the back of the biggest dip in form of his career since he originally got the axe, he would go on the run that would elevate him to the pantheon of greats.
After over a year on the sidelines since losing out to RDA in Winnipeg, who’s to say that we won’t see another renaissance in this man’s career in 2019.
That or his time out from the sport – coupled with his age will continue to catch up to him noticeably.
It’s hard to know, but if anyone can pull off another extraordinary u-turn…
For all of the questions that surround the return of Robbie Lawler, though, the long-awaited UFC debut of Ben Askren is even more uncertain – a milestone in MMA history that has been almost a decade in the making.
Nobody is doubting his technical prowess on the mat. Or at least, no-one who knows what they’re talking about is.
After wrapping up his career in 2017 with a win over a battle-worn Shinya Aoki, it did seem as though Ben was content to leave one of the greatest questions of the modern MMA era unanswered.
In fairness to him, he did not owe us anything.
A fiercely passionate wrestler with his eye set on a full transition into the world of coaching, it took a complete u-turn on the part of the UFC and its president Dana White to bring this man out of his self-imposed state of semi-retirement.
At 34-years-old, the question now is whether he can carve out a run in the UFC that holds up to the high standards he has set in his career until now.
Like Lawler, he has been out of action for just over a year but we do know that he has never left the mats.
Askren was never a fighter who relied heavily on his speed or athleticism and in his 18-fights, he has barely sustained any noteworthy damage.
When contrasted with Lawler, it’s almost fair to say his career has been the direct opposite.
Instead of reinvention, Askren refined what he already had.
Instead of a late-career resurgence, he consistently prevailed.
And yet, when you look at both careers side-by-side, Lawler is the guy to have faced the greats of his era and to have held the most prestigious prize in the sport.
This could mean absolutely nothing once the octagon doors close Saturday, though.
Are going to see a resurgent veteran or a weathered warrior?
Is the enigmatic nature of Ben Askren about to have its curtains drawn back in one violent swing of Robbie Lawler’s left hand?
Or are we about to learn that the finest wrestler in MMA today is all he is stacked up to be after all?
Either way, this fight is nothing short of a bettor’s nightmare.
Stay clear of this one in the bookies!
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena