Patience and perseverance is the new UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler personified.
It only took him 13 years, 7 months and 29 days, 36 professional fights across 11 mixed martial arts promotions and a career full of tremendous highs and devastating lows for Robbie Lawler to realize his dream of becoming UFC champion. But on December 6, 2014, after another grueling five-round war of attrition with Johny Hendricks, Lawler finally won the big one.
And he deserved it.
“It means a lot but it means a lot to me because of all the people around me,” Lawler said during the UFC 181 post fight press conference after his razor thin split decision victory over Johny Hendricks. “There’s a lot of time an effort from a lot of people around me to help me get to where I am today. It’s their victory too.”
When Robbie Lawler made his professional fighting debut shortly after his 19th birthday back in 2001, it was apparent that young product was loaded with a ton of promise. He made his UFC fighting debut in 2002 at UFC 37 and after a stellar start to his MMA career (7-0, 6 knockouts), Lawler’s shooting star was brought back down to reality when he lost three of his next four fights and was ousted by the UFC in 2004.
Unlike many fighters who are cut by the UFC and spiral downward, Lawler clawed his way back to the company in one of the more unconventional fashions possible. His record away from the UFC was only 11-6 (1 no contest) and he looked like he was on the downside of his career as he lost four of six fights right before Zuffa (the UFC’s parent company) purchased the company that Lawler was fighting in, Strikeforce. It wasn’t as if Lawler had burned the house down outside of the UFC. However, when Strikeforce was bought out, with it came Lawler’s contract.
Lawler, who had gone 3-5 in his last eight fights, was thrown into a fight with former title contender Josh Koscheck and was expected to lose and be sent on his way. But that’s not quite what happened as Lawler scored a scintillating 1st round knockout and looked like a fighter reborn. Victories over Bobby Voelker and Rory MacDonald closed out his 2013 campaign as “Ruthless” would win numerous Comeback Fighter of the Year awards from a bevy of MMA publications and earn a shot at the vacant UFC welterweight title against Johny Hendricks after Georges St-Pierre decided to walk away from the sport. Lawler’s dream was deferred when he lost a close decision in a Fight of the Year candidate at UFC 171 but having to deal with so many setbacks thickened Lawler’s skin as he went right back to climbing the ladder with victories over Jake Ellenberger and Mike Brown.
So, here he was again. The stone faced, heavy-handed Lawler had fought his way back into a rematch with Hendricks and the ever elusive title he had been chasing was finally within reach. All he had to do was grab the brass ring. After all the years of underperforming and being called a waste of potential, Lawler fought in angry bursts that seemed to punctuate the entirety of his career. While Hendricks appeared to try and protect his title by utilizing his wrestling to nullify Lawler’s advances, the 32-year-old opted to impress with a storm of knees, punches and kicks whenever the openings were available. By the time the final bell sounded, Hendricks was shuffling to his corner while Lawler stared a hole into his opponent’s back, perhaps unsure and yearning for a few more minutes to impress the judges.
When the scorecards were read in favor of Lawler, his former trainer, MMA legend Pat Miletich jumped out of his seat in joy. Members from his current team, American Top Team, rushed into the cage and lifted Lawler into the air. Meanwhile, Lawler remained as stone faced as ever. He didn’t crack a smile or react until UFC commentator Joe Rogan began his post fight interview. A sea of emotion then swept over his face as he appeared to have a more difficult fight with the tears that wanted to pour from his ducts than he did with Hendricks.
He finally did it. Everything that he was accused of not becoming, he finally earned. It was a lot of near misses in a career of being an almost was, but Lawler can finally shed the notion that he would never reach his potential. All he wants to do now is go home and let it all soak in.
“I can’t wait to get home to my family,” an exasperated Lawler explained. “It’s been a long year. I’ve been on the grind just striving to be champion. I would just like to just take some time off and let (UFC President) Dana White and (UFC Matchmaker) Joe Silva figure out what’s next for me. But I just want to be a family man for a couple of weeks.”
He’s certainly earned the time off and if he gets nothing else for Christmas, he can look at his shiny new welterweight title and take great pride in the trying journey that it took to finally reach the pinnacle of his career.