When the conversation turns to the greatest UFC title fight in history a few contenders always spring to mind.
There’s Frankie Edgar’s magnificent comeback against Gray Maynard at UFC 125 that saw the bout end in a split-decision draw. Maybe Anderson Silva’s first win over Chael Sonnen at UFC 117 is more up your street.
With Sonnen seemingly en route to one of the most fascinating upsets in MMA history, the longtime middleweight champion pulled off an incredible triangle choke in the final minute of the final round to steal the victory and retain his title.
There has been a lot of classic fights but Robbie Lawler’s title defence against Rory MacDonald at UFC 189 must surely go down as the most brutal and fascinating title fight in UFC history.
Article originally published on July 31, 2019.
Ahead of the former champion Robbie Lawler’s return to the UFC octagon this weekend, relive the fight that put his status as a legend of the sport beyond any doubt.
Even if he turns in the worst performance of his long and storied career against Colby Covington this weekend in Newark, there is absolutely nothing that Robbie could do to erase the memories of him at his best.
And while there are those who point to his frantic fifth-round assault against Carlos Condit or his incredible come-from-behind KO of Melvin Manhoef as their own personal favourite, it was his UFC 189 showdown with Rory MacDonald that will forever be known as his signature win inside the octagon.
As a rematch of the pair’s original showdown back in 2014 – a fight that Lawler won by split-decision – there truly was the sense that the highly-regarded Tristar Gym prospect MacDonald would be able to step up to plate and usher in a new era for the 170lb division with a victory over its battle-worn champion.
Rory had it all. He looked the part, he trained with the right people (namely Canadian superstar Georges St-Pierre), and above all else, he stood as the fighter that many were pointing to as the first of a new breed.
Where many had entered mixed martial arts through the gateways provided by boxing, wrestling, muay-thai, and others, Rory stood as a lifelong student of MMA. He was a man trained with a singular focus and purpose and with this, his first crack at UFC gold, we were about to see a passing of the torch on one of the biggest stages the sport had ever known.
The narrative was there from the start and it really did seem as though the new technology was being primed get the better of the old.
MacDonald was loose from the get-go, peppering the face of the champ with his jab and poking at the body with the ball of his foot. Lawler, though no doubt impressive and finding his mark in spots, began to slip behind after a period once MacDonald began to repeatedly catch him with head-kicks in the third.
The biggest moment of the fight for Rory came at the end of the third through a brutal barrage of shots he unloaded on the staggered Lawler – a sequence that would have finished a lesser man.
In trouble again through the beginning of the fourth, Robbie somehow managed to completely shift the fight’s momentum back in his favour once again as the fourth round ended – leading to the now iconic staredown between the two, a moment they shared in full knowledge of the fact that it would all come down to the fifth and final round.
Later, we would find out that Lawler was behind by two rounds on all three of the judges’ scorecards.
There were those who criticised the champ for bottling it in the fifth round the first time he took on Johny Hendricks for the title back in 2014 – citing a lack of intensity and fire, a pair of traits that have since become synonymous with the name Robbie Lawler.
He had, of course, won the belt against Hendricks in the rematch by overcoming that very same hurdle but in this fifth round, with his status as champ on the line, he proved his mettle and grit beyond any question with an all-out assault on the challenger.
The chin of The Red King would not be cracked but in a truly unique finishing sequence, Lawler, through his persistence and ferocious power, managed to completely shatter his opponent’s nose, leaving him dripping in scarlet and curled into a ball on the floor.
It was horrific, no doubt, but once ‘Big’ John McCarthy pulled the two men apart and called it there and then, we had just witnessed one of the most violently beautiful displays of heart, resilience, and adaptability the sport had ever known.
With Lawler set to return to the UFC octagon this weekend to take on Colby Covington, relive his finest hour in full below, courtesy of the official YouTube account of the UFC.