When UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler was first starting out in the sport, fighting on network TV and landing huge apparel endorsement deals seemed like a pipe dream hardly worth chasing.
Now, within the span of the last 12 months, Lawler has fought on FOX in a main event and recently signed a multi-year extension to become one of the faces of Adidas, as the popular shoe and apparel company ventures into the mixed martial arts market.
Lawler remembers the days when finding a tee-shirt sponsor was hard enough much less getting a Fortune 500 company like Adidas to even show an interest in fighting.
"When I first started there weren’t very many sponsors, especially apparel companies, there were a handful if that," Lawler told FOX Sports. "It’s just awesome to have Adidas on board. A huge company like that supporting MMA is awesome."
I think it will be a new and improved fight. I think things will be different, but I want a finish
— Robbie Lawler on Rory MacDonald rematch
Lawler joined the Adidas brand last year but just recently re-upped with the company as they look to expand their reach in the MMA market. Adidas actually owns Reebok, who just recently signed a multi-year deal with the UFC to provide uniforms to all fighters competing in the Octagon.
Because the two companies still operate as separate entities, Lawler’s deal will fall under the standard UFC uniform policy, which means on fight night he will have to sport Reebok like every other fighter on the roster. It’s another reason why the new UFC champion was so excited to work with Adidas because their commitment stretches further than just having a label shown on TV during fight night.
"They’re not just buying into the UFC. They’re buying into the sport of MMA, which is awesome," Lawler said. "Adidas obviously owns Reebok, who just signed that huge deal with the UFC, but it’s huge for MMA. Adidas is here to stay and they are looking to get into combat sports."
The Adidas deal is just the latest in a series of accomplishments for Lawler, who returned to the UFC in 2013 after eight years away from the promotion. Lawler quickly rose up the ranks of the welterweight division before earning a shot at the title in early 2014.
While the veteran welterweight lost in his first bid, Lawler quickly picked up two more wins to earn another shot and this time he made the most of it by defeating Johny Hendricks by decision to win UFC gold for the first time in a career that spans more than 13 years in MMA.
Lawler represents a new age in the welterweight division following the exit of former champion Georges St-Pierre. His knockout-heavy style lends itself to exciting fights and thrilling finishes and Lawler is the first person to admit he feels the shift in anticipation as he gets ready to compete vs. past years when others were at the top of the division.
"I feel like people are just excited for change in the UFC," Lawler said. "When St-Pierre retired it brought a lot of enthusiasm to the weight class and things got shook up. I think people appreciate that I’ve been around so long and I never gave up on myself and just kept grinding and eventually I made it to the top."
Lawler was originally expected to face Hendricks for a third time later this year to settle the trilogy between the two fighters once and for all, but with the champion in dire need of some time off the promotion opted to move forward with different matchups instead.
So now Hendricks is facing Matt Brown at UFC 185 and as it was announced on Wednesday, Lawler is taking on Rory MacDonald in a rematch at UFC 189 on July 11. Lawler already beat MacDonald previously at UFC 167 in 2013, but the new king at 170-pounds knew he was going to run into the Canadian contender again at some point in his career.
Facing MacDonald for a second time is a different challenge for Lawler and he looks forward to topping his previous performance with an even better one later this summer.
"Rory’s one of the top guys and my coach said we’re going to have to fight him again sometime. I think it will be a new and improved fight. I think things will be different, but I want a finish," Lawler said.
"I’m looking to finish people. I don’t like going to decisions. I always try to finish people, knock them out, beat them up, and that’s always the game plan."