Sometime shortly after Robbie Lawler started hitting Matt Brown unreasonably hard in San Jose, Calif. Saturday night, a low rumble shook my apartment. It felt and sounded strangely like—and turned out actually to be—fireworks. This was silly, entirely too literal, but given that the fight featured Lawler, a man far more renowned for explosiveness than for subtlety, it was perfectly appropriate.
Lawler has been fighting for a long time, but the 32-year-old veteran version of him is the best we've seen. He's maintained every bit of the power and toughness that fascinated fans and incapacitated opponents in his youth, but his game has matured, and the sharpness and patience he's displayed over the last year and a half have made him more dangerous and entertaining than ever. This iteration of him against relentless damage-sponge Matt Brown was almost too much to ask for.
It was a guaranteed action fight, the kind that creates an anxious anticipatory buzz, and it delivered exactly what we all hoped for. Even with Brown's ability to inexplicably absorb Lawler's power and continuously retaliate with a varied Muay Thai arsenal, though, Lawler, as the bookies and most pundits predicted, was too fast, too poised, and just too good, winning a decision to earn a shot at Johny Hendricks's welterweight title, probably some time early next year.
The fact that any of this happened at all is ridiculously unlikely. Matt Brown's dramatic story—jail time, a heroin overdose, a redemptive turn at professional fighting, early success, a 1-4 slide that would have seen a less-entertaining fighter cut, and an improbable seven-fight win streak— has been well documented during his recent run.
What may have been lost, given this, is that Robbie Lawler's road to this fight was if anything even more improbable.
Lawler arrived on the UFC scene in 2002 as a barely 20-year-old crushing machine, a can't-miss prospect out of Pat Miletich's Iowa camp, at the time one of the best in the world. An all-state wrestler and football player with a taekwondo background, Lawler became a delivery device for devastatingly hard strikes under Miletich's tutelage. There was nothing fancy about his game; he just hit like a truck. He easily won his two amateur fights and first four professional bouts by first round knockout, and found himself quickly thrust into the spotlight as a star with championship aspirations. In an era where televised fights were almost unheard of, his bout with Steve Berger became the first MMA match ever broadcast on basic cable.
A disastrous stretch through 2003 and 2004, though, changed everything. Rather than simple and straightforward, his style started to seem merely unsophisticated as he matched up with fighters who had gears that didn't involve walking forward while swinging. He lost three of four fights, all by stoppage, the most damaging a devastating knockout at the hands of a memorably trash-talking Nick Diaz.
In 2005, Lawler, by now fighting at middleweight, left the UFC and began a long journey through an exhaustive list of organizations—Superbrawl, King of the Cage, Icon Sport, Pride, International Fight League, EliteXC—before finding his way to Strikeforce in 2009. His tenure there, which lasted until 2012, was unimpressive. He racked up a 3-5 record, and while the losses were against quality opposition, the feeling was that Lawler was spent, a relic of a time before top fighters were expected to have mastered a range of complex techniques and strategies.
The UFC eventually absorbed Strikeforce, and last year pitted Lawler against Josh Koscheck in a return to welterweight, with the consensus being that the wrestler would ragdoll him. Lawler surprised everyone, showing tenacious defensive wrestling before flashing his old finishing instincts, swarming on a stunned Koscheck to earn a stoppage. He followed that by brutalizing an outmatched Bobby Voelker with a combination of restraint and overwhelming violence, a portent of great things to come. And then he shockingly unsettled the extremely dangerous Rory MacDonald, an avatar of the more refined approaches to the sport that had come to dominate the upper levels of the UFC in the years since Lawler left. His power and pressure forced MacDonald into doomed desperation wrestling in the final third of the fight, and he took a close decision, earning the chance to face Johny Hendricks for the welterweight title that Georges St-Pierre had vacated.
The Hendricks fight was a classic, a closely fought decision in which both men were hit extremely hard too many times. Lawler showed improvement and toughness beyond what we'd even imagined from his three previous appearances, not only trading power shots with Hendricks but also wrestling with him, and leaving everyone wanting more. In a rebound match, he methodically laid a beating on the perennially tough Jake Ellenberger, setting the table for a fantasy scenario. Lawler would face Matt Brown, and either Lawler would get a second chance to finally achieve the goal he first set out for a dozen years earlier, or Brown would have the opportunity to cap an unbelievable underdog story with a world title.
For as much as Brown has improved, though, and for everything he's done with what he's been given, the elder statesman version of Lawler is just much better. Brown might have been able to tempt the younger, more impulsive version of Lawler to play his game, as Nick Diaz, Renato Sobral, or Evan Tanner once did, but while Lawler is still every bit the midwestern jock he once was, he's now somehow a more technical, discerning midwestern jock, and his growth was immediately visible during the sensational first round.
It was, largely, about athleticism. For as long as he's been around, Lawler is still just 32, and with less tread on his tires than you might think, given that he went years without sparring at one point. His hand speed advantage was glaring, with Brown's approaches and attacks looking lethargic and telegraphed in comparison, and he stayed the fresher man.
It was also about efficiency and precision, though. Lawler crushed Brown with counters and was far more accurate both with power shots and the distance measuring punches that lull his opponents to sleep; it would be too much to say he didn't waste any motion, but he didn't waste much. Brown did what Brown does, eating punishment and refusing to go away—early on he responded by catching Lawler with a pair of shots, landing some of his specialty elbows, and using his underrated clinch trip to put Lawler on the floor and vaguely threaten with a d'arce choke—but Lawler's superior skills, pressure, and counters allowed him to score and control the momentum. Brown's achievement was in refusing to lay down. That was the pattern of the fight. Brown fought valiantly through an obvious hand injury, and may have taken the final period, but it wasn't enough to make up for the work that Lawler put in in the middle rounds. The two faced off as the buzzer sounded; Brown flashed a battered smile, and they embraced.
Lawler vs. Hendricks II will likely be another great fight at the top of a welterweight division that has somehow managed to thrive despite the hiatus/retirement of St-Pierre, one of the sport's greatest talents and by far its biggest star. And whatever happens, the possibilities going forward are fascinating. Nick Diaz is returning to the UFC; a constantly improving Rory MacDonald is waiting in the wings; and Carlos Condit and Hector Lombard are recovering from injury. Over the next year and a half, the welterweight scene will be as dynamic as it's been in a long time, and, Robbie Lawler will, incredibly, be right there in it.
This is something to see, for longtime fans. Lawler debuted as the perfect representative of a sport that's never been known for nuance; now he'll have another chance to preside over a sport that's grown along with him, that like him hasn't lost its old edge but has a bit more depth and sophistication than it gets credit for, and sometimes even shows it. It's a fitting thing.
Photo via Associated Press
Josh Tucker sometimes writes words. He mostly enjoys watching humans fight professionally, but is pretty conflicted about it. He's on Twitter @HugeMantis.