Mixed martial arts is a fickle sport. One minute, you’re king of the hill and the next, you’re dead to the world. Getting to the summit is the most difficult part and for every meteoric rise to the top, there are countless that never make it. However, there are also the select few who take the path less travelled.
This path is the one of sheer grit and determination; taken by fighters who get hit with setback after setback but refuse to accept defeat. Fighters like “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler.
Nobody embodies this never-say-die attitude better than the reigning UFC welterweight champion. Lawler has experienced more setbacks than most on his journey and through a combination of hard work, talent and a manic love for busting skulls, he has reached the pinnacle.
Lawler was only 19 years old when he made his professional debut back in 2001, going on to tear through his first four fights with first-round KOs. His obvious talent and penchant for the spectacular saw him picked up by the UFC shortly after and make a successful Octagon debut against Aaron Riley at UFC 37. But it wasn’t all smooth-sailing for Lawler. He went 4-3 in his first seven UFC fights and was subsequently released after dropping successive losses at the hands of Nick Diaz and Evan Tanner.
The former was a typical Lawler war, where – to the surprise of everyone – Diaz opted to stand and trade with the renowned striker. Diaz himself was only 20 years old and a relatively unknown quantity, so his tidy boxing skills weren’t widely recognised at that point. After a tumultuous opening stanza, Diaz separated a forward-pressing Lawler from his senses with a short right hand in the second round, something which nobody else has done since.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the fight and something almost symbolic of Lawler’s career came in the first round. Diaz managed to rock the San Diego native with a quickfire one-two, only for Lawler to snap out of it and become enveloped by a momentary fit of rage. Resembling a cornered lion, Lawler drove forward, swinging wildly and visibly infuriated. Not the wisest move against an operator like Diaz, but a testament to the fire he has displayed throughout his career. However, even starring in such a pulsating encounter wasn’t enough to save him from the chop after a submission loss to Tanner.
But Lawler didn’t let this affect his career trajectory and moved up to middleweight, fighting nomadically in promotions like King of the Cage, EliteXC and Pride. He eventually found a home in Strikeforce, but a record of 3-5 during his time there suggested that either he would never make it as a top fighter, or that – at the very least – adjustments were needed to get there.
A change of fortune
When the UFC took over Strikeforce, “Ruthless” found himself back where he was nearly nine years previous and decided to return to welterweight. This is where his fortunes changed for the better.
Lawler’s first fight back at UFC 157 saw him pitted against Josh Koscheck, whom he knocked out in the first round. Two more wins against Bobby Voelker and a highly-rated Rory MacDonald saw Lawler given a title shot against Johny Hendricks at UFC 171. In yet another setback though, Hendricks took a unanimous decision victory after five rounds and Lawler was back to square one. But as he showed before, setbacks are not a problem. “Ruthless” fought his way to a rematch with wins over Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown, finally wresting the welterweight belt from Hendricks via a split decision.
Given Hendricks has gone 1-3 since that fight, it would be fair to say that “Big Rigg” himself was already on the way down. But this isn’t to take anything away from Lawler, who has since defended the title twice and overcome some extremely testing times in doing so.
In his first defence, he stopped Rory MacDonald in a rematch that took 2015 Fight of the Year honours. Midway through, he was hammered with a head kick that threatened to end his reign before it began, but managed to hold on. Arguably behind on the scorecards, he then rallied to shatter the Canadian’s nose and batter it until “The Red King” could stand no more.
His second defence was less convincing but just as enthralling, taking a split decision from Carlos Condit at UFC 195. This was a point of contention among some who claim Condit won the fight, but whether he did or not is of little consequence. The result is consigned to the history books and for all the excitement he delivers; few would begrudge Lawler of the belt.
Excitement is now a Lawler hallmark and every time he steps into the Octagon, people expect fireworks. Win or lose, his enthusiasm for battle is as infectious for opponents as it is for fans. Named as the most hit fighter in recent years, Lawler’s presence on any card promises action.
Rightfully going in as favourite against Tyron Woodley at UFC 201, Lawler has been around long enough to know that nothing is a given and will no doubt be well prepared for the challenge ahead. With dangerous opponents like Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson breathing down his neck and the potential return of George St. Pierre on the horizon, there is no room for complacency.
The career of Robbie Lawler has undoubtedly taken the path less travelled and come what may on Sunday, we’re in for one hell of a fight.
Anthony Hayde, Pundit Arena