History often repeats itself in the fight game and the warrior’s story usually ends the same way. Combat sports’ toughest and bravest men and women will more times than not pay the price for their courage at their own journey’s conclusion. The harder a fighter fights in their prime, the harder they often fall in the end. It’s a story you become familiar with when you watch enough fist fights and sadly, one that will reoccur to almost everyone, even those that seem frankly immune to such a distressing possibility. Robbie Lawler was once one of the revered men on that very shortlist.
After over a decade of competing at the top level, Lawler had gone through some ups and downs before returning to the UFC at Welterweight in 2013. ‘Ruthless’ was clearly more motivated than before and the rest is history as Lawler ascended the stacked 170lbs ranks and won the Welterweight title at the second time of asking. He wasn't just a part-time champion either, successfully defending the title twice, defeating world class operators Rory MacDonald and Carlos Condit. The once almost journeyman Middleweight had revived his career dramatically and was now the best Welterweight in the world. On paper the story was absolutely spectacular but the fights themselves told another story, a much more violent and damaging one.
Lawler had never been afraid of a blood and guts war but he may have found himself too comfortable with them in his rise to the top. In his first attempt at capturing the title, Lawler went back and forth with Johnny Hendricks for 25 incredible minutes in a memorable battle that, in the minds of many, was the 2014 Fight of the Year. Most fighters want to be involved in at least one truly timeless bout in their career but making a habit of it is a different scenario altogether. That had become the case for Lawler too, who did 25 more minutes with Hendricks as well as five rounds opposite Matt Brown and more famously, two absolute instant classics with MacDonald and Condit.
On paper those wins only read as just that: wins. The truth was though that those fights had to have taken something from Lawler and the question was really more about how much they’d taken. If you had watched for long enough you likely knew where this Lawler story was headed. We relate to and cherish those fights in which men and women push themselves beyond a pain barrier even imaginable to us because sitting from our comfy sofa we understand how incredible those feats really are. A slick armbar or choke finish? Not so much for most of the audience but a bloody and brutal war people relate to, rightly or wrongly.
Robbie Lawler was that guy. Was he immensely skilled? Sure. Very athletic? Absolutely but what made Lawler popular was his innate ability to thrive in the chaos. An ability to live in the most violent of moments all with a smile on his face. These stories only end one way but we all hoped to be wrong with Lawler. Maybe he’d be different? After all he’d made a fool of the experts before so why couldn't he do it again? Well those hopes were shattered in July 2016 when Lawler entered the cage to defend his crown against Tyron Woodley. After just over two minutes of minimal action, Woodley connected with a right hand that floored the once seemingly unbreakable champion before closing the show with rapid ground and pound.
One year later and for a variety of reasons, Lawler hasn't fought once. However, he finally returns this Saturday night as he takes on a man coming off of a similar disappointment in Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone. Though Woodley ended his night early last summer, it would be unfair to judge Lawler too much on that result and in many ways, it’s very unclear as to what he has left at the top level. At UFC 214 Lawler is fighting to distance himself from his journey’s end, almost physically pushing away an inevitable destination. For many of us though, the question is really whether or not Lawler has already reached that point?