For Robbie Lawler, a long road to destiny

Hey Johny, allow me to introduce you to my left hand.

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Mixed martial arts has seen its share of memorable second acts. There was Randy Couture returning from retirement to smash Tim Sylvia, Matt Serra going from journeyman to champion, and Frank Mir overcoming a horrific motorcycle crash to return to a top five ranking. There is, however, nearly nothing on the books to match the breadth and scope of what Robbie Lawler is attempting to do.

In a career that spans two generations, the welterweight’s journey has spanned from hotshot to also-ran to career renaissance, and if he beats Johny Hendricks at Saturday’s UFC 171, will culminate with the role many foresaw for him when he first broke into fighting in 2001.

Lawler was destined to be a UFC champion, that’s what they would have told you back then, when the quiet, muscled California teenager separated opponents from their consciousness on the regular. The kid was a phenom, with power and a fight IQ to match.

See, here’s the thing about Lawler: he is so quiet, so unassuming, that many people simply assumed he was at best uninvested, at worst vacuous.

In fact, it was the exact opposite. This was a thinking man, who as a kid watched boxing matches with an analytical eye, recreating unique combinations on his heavy bag, figuring out how A led to B, and B led to KO. There was order in the chaos, you just had to look for it with a discerning eye.

After October 2004, Lawler went missing in that chaos when his path diverged from the UFC after losing for the third time in four fights. It’s often assumed that Lawler was cut from the promotion, but that’s not true. Lawler, in fact, always remained one of UFC president Dana White’s favorites, and he was offered a fight with Phil Baroni, which fell through due to a Lawler elbow injury.

Soon afterward, he began a world tour of organizations, fighting for Superbrawl, King of the Cage, Icon Sport, PRIDE and the IFL, among others. But even as he racked up wins — seven of eight at one point — he remained on MMA’s periphery, a talent somewhat ignored. It was a dynamic that eventually took its toll on him.

The thing is, I’ve always believed in myself. I’ve always believed that I was going to be the best in the world.

Robbie Lawler

"I feel like I was always working hard, but I don’€™t know if the excitement was there," he said when discussing a slump in which he lost five of eight. "Maybe it was whom I was fighting for or what not, but when I got the chance to fight for the UFC, the excitement was there. I was always working hard, but the excitement was there. I wanted to be here, I wanted to prove myself, I wanted to fight the best in the world, and the UFC gave me that opportunity."

As Lawler explains it, in the past, he simply wasn’t ready for the mantle. He didn’t want to deal with media demands, he had no need for the spotlight or the microscope that comes with stardom. In his own career context, he was still determining how B led to KO.

But the length of the journey eventually made him hungry. Not that EliteXC and Strikeforce — which both briefly had contract with CBS — were some wastelands, but they weren’t the UFC. Lawler always had an appreciation for the lineage of that title. His original mentor Pat Miletich had been the promotion’s first welterweight world champion, and his longtime training partner Matt Hughes had once held the record for most divisional title defenses. Lawler was always supposed to be the next link in the chain.

As he struggled, that possibility seemed to slip away just as he began to value it. As Lawler explained, as a young man, titles didn’t matter to him, but at some point, that changed. As he got older, he found that he needed more tangible goals.

"The thing is, I’€™ve always believed in myself," he said. "I’€™ve always believed that I was going to be the best in the world. I’m glad in the sport of MMA and the UFC, you can write your own stories. You don’t have to worry about what other people expect out of you. I expect greatness out of myself. So I push myself, and I just always believed in myself no matter what anyone said. I was willing to grind for the 14 years I’ve been doing this. And I’€™m not going to stop."

Johny Hendricks stands in the way of Lawler’s incredible road to the top.

There are many amazing things about Lawler. Eighteen of his 22 career victories are by knockout. He rarely spars because he says, he already knows how to strike. Most amazing of all? He’s somehow only 31 years old. By contrast, his opponent Hendricks, who seems like he showed up in the UFC about six days ago, is 30.

Both oddsmakers and fans see Lawler as an underdog here. The line opened up at +200 and is currently hovering around +370, which seems somewhat surprising given Lawler’s ability to end things in a blink. But if there’s anything that should offer more pause, keep in mind that when I asked Hendricks when Lawler came on to his radar, it wasn’t until Lawler’s last win over Rory MacDonald. He also felt that Josh Koscheck — he of 5 career KO’s in 25 pro fights — was Lawler’s power equal. Those two statements left me wondering if Hendricks knew what exactly he was getting himself into.

After all, plowing through adversity is an exercise in strength-building, making Lawler far tougher than he was as an 18-year-old wunderkind. Back then, he was just a ball of fast-twitch muscle ready to uncoil. Add 13 years of experience, sprinkle in those memories of struggle, and the adult version is a far superior product. From afar at least, it’s a time-tested formula for a second-act; a career one part brain, one part brawn, one part reclamation.

"I just judge it as I took some lumps, I fell down, I got back up, kept training, and that’€™s the only thing I could do is just keep pushing to get better," Lawler said. "Even when you lose, you get better. Sometimes when you lose, you win. Sometimes when you are winning, you don’€™t see your flaws; you don’€™t see what you are not good at. I feel like with all of the bumps and bruises I’ve had in this career and the ups and downs it has made me a stronger fighter today and that’€™s all that matters. March 15, I will be the strongest fighter that I’€™ve ever been."