When Johny Hendricks emerged from a bruising, bloodying five-round bout with the UFC welterweight title in March, a significant portion of the mixed martial arts world thought Robbie Lawler got robbed.
Lawler wasn’t among those who disagreed with the decision, however. Even after his remarkable career resurgence left him agonizingly short of a title, Lawler refused to take solace in anyone else’s opinion.
To the well-traveled Lawler, the equation was simple.
“I couldn’t really go as far as to say I won it, because I don’t have the belt around my waist right now,” Lawler told The Associated Press this week. “If you don’t win, there’s no reason to be making excuses out in the public. It should all be done inside: ‘How can I be better? How can I have not let that happen?’ That’s what I concentrate on. I don’t concentrate on that judge not seeing something that I thought I was doing well. It has nothing to do with them.”
Lawler (24-10) gets a second chance at that belt Saturday night in his rematch with Hendricks (16-2) in UFC 181 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Their bout headlines a compelling pay-per-view card also featuring lightweight champion Anthony Pettis’ defense against Gilbert Melendez.
The 32-year-old Lawler has been through several transformations in his winding MMA career, beginning as a can’t-miss prospect who repeatedly missed. The former all-state wrestler from Iowa had his first UFC fight in May 2002, but was out of the promotion by 2005.
He bounced through several smaller promotions before landing in Strikeforce, where he lost five of his eight fights and fell asleep on the dais during a news conference. Invited back to the UFC for perhaps a final chance, he stunned Josh Koscheck and Rory MacDonald in 2013 to earn a title shot.
His first bout with Hendricks for Georges St. Pierre’s vacated belt was one of the best fights of this year, a back-and-forth brawl in which both fighters took serious punishment. Lawler has only watched it twice since then, but he remembers it fondly despite the unanimous decision against him.
“I was glad that I showcased who I was as a fighter, who I was as a person,” Lawler said. “I definitely gained a lot of fans, and I didn’t whine about anything. I just thought about, ‘OK, how do I get better? How do I put myself back in that situation?’ And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since then. Figuring out a way to get back to that scenario, and now it comes down to how I can finally finish the deal.”
While Hendricks spent several months recuperating from a torn biceps muscle, Lawler went back to work in his training camp in Florida, spending six of the first seven months of 2014 away from his family in Iowa.
The work paid off with impressive victories over Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown, leaving no doubt who Hendricks would face when he returned from injury for his first title defense.
Lawler had a key addition to his training camp for the rematch: His wife and son have moved to Florida. After growing up without a stable family unit, Lawler relishes the chance for a daily swim with his son.
But Lawler is still balancing his two jobs: He sleeps alone in another room of the house so his son’s early-morning demands don’t sabotage his rest.
“I have to get a little sleep,” he said. “But it’s been nice to give my son and my family a life that I’ve provided and a life that I didn’t have growing up.”