By Daniel DeMarco |Copy Editor|
Some stories are even too unbelievable for a movie script. It doesn’t always stop them from making those kinds of movies, but it takes away from a serious film when you walk out thinking: “Yeah, it was a pretty good movie, but that would never actually happen.”
On occasion, what’s realistic and what is true don’t quite match up; those are the stories that live on and become stuff of legend.
Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler has provided us with one of those stories; he revived his career beyond the expectations that anyone could have reasonably had in these last two years.
Beauty behind the comeback
There is something about a comeback that we love.
They are inspiring. We can’t help but smile and feel good when someone gets knocked down and pulls themselves back up.
Comebacks happen over many different scales of time. We may enjoy the comeback of a team being dominated over the course of a game, only to even up the score and finally gain a lead in the waning minutes.
We feel good about the college student
who was on the verge of failing and getting kicked out of school, but managed to turn it all around and make the Dean’s list.
Those that span years are perhaps the most impressive though and are the ones
we feel most tender and sentimental about.
When they pull themselves even higher than they were prior, it becomes more than a feel-good moment; it becomes an incredible story.
Saturday’s Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 189 event allowed us to witness a landmark episode in the long-storied-career of the veteran fighter Lawler.
UFC 189 hosted one of the best fight cards in MMA history.
And yet, amongst the full main-card of incredible fights, Lawler’s first title defense was the one people will talk about for a long time when he and challenger Rory MacDonald battled in the fight of the night, doubling as an instant contender for fight of the year.
That fight alone would stand as a great achievement in any fighter’s career, but for Robbie Lawler it’s a great achievement in an even greater career; one that will go down in MMA history books one day.
Lawler made his debut as a professional fighter in early 2001. Four victories and a little over a year later, he joined the UFC at age 20, debuting at UFC 37—back when the organization wasn’t nearly as prestigious as it is today.
He began his UFC career as a powerful striker out of the legendary Miletich Fighting Systems—one of the best MMA training camps in history, which produced other great fighters such as Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, Jeremy Horn, and Jens Pulver—with the potential to become a future champion.
Like most fighters, things didn’t pan out quite that way. Lawler had a good start with three straight victories, but then lost three of his next four UFC bouts and was on to other MMA organizations.
Lawler jumped around smaller organizations, such as ICON Sport, King of the Cage, and IFL, even making a one-time appearance for Pride Fighting Championship—the long-time business and MMA competitor of UFC—before settling down with the infamous EliteXC.
In his September 2007 debut, he won the middleweight championship and managed to hold on to the title, until the organization folded in late 2008 with his first defense against “Hands of Steel” Scott Smith, resulting in a no-contest and winning their rematch by technical-knockout.
After, Lawler moved on to the MMA organization Strikeforce after they purchased multiple fighter-contracts from ProElite (owner, at the time, of the recently folded EliteXC).
Strikeforce, in its time, served as the closest potential rival to UFC and featured its share of world-class talent.
Lawler’s Strikeforce career didn’t serve as anything you’d call fantastic as he only managed three victories in his eight fights with the organization, including an unsuccessful bid for the middleweight championship.
Though, to give credit where it’s due, his three victories were quite memorable—all three being spectacular knockouts, including a devastating knockout of the veteran Matt Lindland and an all-time-great-comeback, one-punch-knockout against Melvin Manhoef, who up to that point was on his way to a brutal one-sided victory against Lawler.
Lawler was always a noteworthy name and a fighter you didn’t want to miss at this point, given his experienced career and his often exciting fighting style, but there was no quarrel with the notion that he was on the backside of his career and we were getting to see those final memorable moments before he fell back to hopping around the small organizations or retiring.
He would remain in the memories of long-time and hardcore fans for being somewhat of a journeyman in the sport, winning some titles in second and third-rate organizations and having some memorable fights, but never being quite good enough to excel in the big leagues.
And as fans, we’re used to that. Lawler wasn’t the first, and he certainly wouldn’t be the last to have such a career; he was a notable name in the sport with a lot of experience and a good, respectable career to be proud of.
But then things started getting interesting.
Life takes a turn
Strikeforce fell into hard times in the second half of 2012. Two scheduled events
were cancelled, back to back, due to prominent fighters getting injured and pulling out of their fights.
The organization announced that it would have one final event, and then would cease its promotions.
Zuffa, LLC is the parent company that owns UFC, but they also owned Strikeforce after purchasing it in early 2011; this meant that once Strikeforce ended, Zuffa could choose to end fighter’s contracts and set them loose into the open marketplace, or absorb them into the UFC.
Lawler was one such fighter they wanted; so after nearly nine years away, Lawler was back in the UFC.
His first fight was set against Josh Koscheck in February 2013, who was in a similar position as Lawler: a veteran fighter who seemed to be on the backside of his career after never being able to make it quite to the top, though, Koscheck had spent almost his entire career to that point in the UFC.
It was a litmus test of sorts, and Lawler blew through it with a technical-knockout in the first round.
In his next fight, he produced another great performance, scoring a near-perfect head-kick knockout in the second round.
It was Lawler’s third fight back though that would truly show if he had turned his career around or not when he was matched up against up-and-comer Rory MacDonald.
MacDonald was widely perceived as the next big thing in the welterweight division and was rightfully the favorite going in.
The fight was memorable and closely contested as it went to a decision; it could have gone either way, but two of the three judges awarded victory to Lawler.
That same night, the long-time welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre defended his title in another fantastic, closely contested fight against Johny Hendricks.
After the fight, Pierre announced he was taking a break from the sport and vacating his title. It seemed obvious who should fight each other to crown a new champion for the division: Hendricks, who had come so close to winning the title that night
and who some still argue should have won , and Lawler, who had just taken out the rising star and emerged as a top contender.
Hendricks and Lawler put on, what many consider, the fight of the year of 2014, for the welterweight title, and arguably the best welterweight fight the UFC had ever seen. It was a five-round clash of two knockout punchers and after four rounds, they had split two apiece.
It was not to be Lawler’s night as Hendricks took the final round, but it was such a great and closely contested fight that Lawler had not lost much in the grand scheme of things; he didn’t win the title, sure, but he had solidified himself as a title contender and there was talk right away to set up a rematch.
Unfortunately, Hendricks suffered an injury coming into the fight and took time off to get surgery and heal up, so there would be no immediate rematch.
It was Lawler’s choice to not wait, but stay active and take more fights while the champ was out. Two months later, he fought Jake Ellenberger, dominating the fight and finishing it in the third round.
Two months following that he was pitted against Matt Brown, a tough and rugged welterweight who had been on a tear himself after resurging his own career—on a seven-fight winning streak at that point with only one of those going the full distance—and the fight was officially considered a title eliminator fight for the champion who would be returning later in the year.
Lawler and Brown put on the fight of the night with another welterweight five-round scrap that would go down as one of the best fights of 2014, but Lawler was the clear winner and got the unanimous decision.
About four months later, Hendricks and Lawler met for their rematch.
The match wasn’t a classic like their first, but once again they put on a very close fight, so close this time you were left unsure who would get the nod.
It was a split decision: 48-47 Lawler, 48-47 Hendricks, and the last judge scored it 49-46 for Lawler, the new UFC welterweight champion. Ten years after Lawler’s unsuccessful run in the UFC, he had made it to the top; it was an incredible feat
, almost unheard of in the combat sports world.
After an active 2014, Lawler had earned time off and no welterweight title fights were scheduled for the near future.
It’s a common sentiment in combat sports that a champion is not truly a champion until he or she can successfully defend their championship. It is said that climbing to the top of the mountain is hard, but staying there is the real test.
A Test for the Ages
Lawler’s first title defense was to come from an old foe; the man he beat to get his original title shot: Rory MacDonald.
Since MacDonald lost to Lawler, he had three fights, winning all three decisively and impressively. He was looking even better than before meeting Lawler the first time.
It was apparent he had that special quality necessary for great fighters where they actually improve after a big loss, rather than lose confidence and let their careers fade.
This was a rematch, yes, but both men were very different from before; both were at the apex of the division.
It took place at UFC 189 this last Saturday, July 11.
After each event, a press conference is held where bonuses are awarded to fighters for different reasons, including “fight of the night.”
UFC President Dana White said, “’fight of the night,’ no-brainer, Lawler versus MacDonald might be the ‘fight of the ever.’”
Neither man was present at the press conference because they were both at the hospital.
They put on a fight that told a whole story. It started off methodical and slow-paced as they felt each other out—both technical strikers at heart.
Lawler seemed to find his stride in round two and through round three, but with about a minute left, MacDonald caught Lawler and had him hurt. MacDonald battered him the remainder of the round, almost finishing him.
Starting round four, it was clear that Lawler was still not fully recovered and
continued to take a beating as he slowly gathered himself between the mayhem. Both men took staggering amounts of punishment through the round.
It was a moment everyone watching won’t forget: both men are covered in blood and the bell to end round four sounds, Lawler spits a mouth full of blood on the canvas and walks
toward MacDonald who is staring right back at him as referee John McCarthy tries to get them to go to their corners; these men were pushing each other to the brink; it was a moment of respect; it was a moment of defiance; it was a moment of pride, and the tension was palpable; you felt the hair on your arms raise.
Round five began and Lawler was down three rounds to one; he wasn’t going to get the decision if the fight went the distance.
One minute in, Lawler landed a straight left hand flush on MacDonald’s broken nose, dead center in his bloody, swollen mess of a face.
It would be wrong to say MacDonald was knocked down or even that he fell; MacDonald crumbled to the canvas.
It was witnessing not the man give up, but his body give up. A person can give up for a variety of reasons; they can be broken mentally and lose all drive, but when the body gives up like that, it comes as the result of devastating trauma and accumulated damage that you can’t simply will your way through; the body just shuts down.
Referee McCarthy immediately waved it off.
Lawler’s post-fight speech was a sight to see. The usually reserved and soft-spoken man was excited and passionate, even as he stood there with his lip literally torn open.
“I showed everyone I’m a true fighter, I come to fight, no matter what happens I keep coming, and I’m trying to knock people out!”
This is the incredible story of Robbie Lawler—and that’s only to date.
If he were to retire tomorrow, it would remain as an incredible story. If he were to lose his next title defense, it would remain.
Lawler did what very few have done; he turned his career around in the most incredible of ways, beating all of the odds and reaching the highest level of his profession.
It was more than a comeback; it was a rebirth. Lawler has personified the phoenix rising from the ashes.
It’s the kind of underdog, comeback story just begging to be an unrealistic blockbuster film, but it’s true.