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Lawler takes Hendricks' title belt at UFC 181

Robbie Lawler catches Johny Hendricks with a kick

Robbie Lawler catches Johny Hendricks with a kick to the head during their fight at UFC 181 Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sam Morris) LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; LAS VEGAS SUN OUT Photo Credit: AP

LAS VEGAS - When Robbie Lawler got a second shot at the UFC welterweight title, he was determined to finish with a flourish.

Deep in the 25th minute against Johny Hendricks, Lawler unleashed wild flurries of strikes. He kept pursuing the champion even after the bell.

A few minutes later, Lawler celebrated his remarkable mid-career resurgence with a belt around his waist.

Lawler won the 170-pound title at UFC 181 on Saturday night, claiming a split decision over Hendricks in their rematch.

"I thought I needed to get in his face," Lawler said. "That's how we fight in the UFC. That's how we fight championship fights."

Anthony Pettis also stopped Gilbert Melendez with a guillotine choke 1:53 into the second round to defend his UFC lightweight title at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

The 32-year-old Lawler (25-10) earned his decision with a dogged five-round effort against Hendricks (16-3), who won the vacant belt by unanimous decision in their first bout in March. Lawler faded late in that fight, while Hendricks finished strong.

In the rematch, Lawler turned it around.

"My coaches just wanted me to go out there and finish strong and do what I do in the gym, and I was able to do that," Lawler said. "It means a lot to me because of all the people around me. That isn't just me out there. There was a lot of time and effort from the people around me to get where I am today, and this is their victory too."

While Hendricks and Lawler didn't match the theatrics and brutality of their spectacular first fight, in which Hendricks claimed Georges St. Pierre's vacated belt despite a torn biceps muscle, Lawler got off to an impressive start in the rematch.

He had Hendricks on the defensive for much of the first round, and he finished with a strong fifth, delivering those enormous shots in the final seconds to bring the crowd to its feet.

Hendricks controlled long stretches of the middle rounds with tactics and smart strikes while Lawler waned, but the champ appeared to coast to the finish of the final two rounds, perhaps swaying the judges in Lawler's favor.

"I just didn't fight," Hendricks said. "Look at the fourth and fifth round. I didn't come out and fight like I normally do. I didn't stay light on my feet like I should have."

Two judges scored the bout for Lawler, 49-46 and 48-47, while the third favored Hendricks, 48-47. The Associated Press scored it 48-47 for Lawler.

While Hendricks' injury sidelined him through the summer, Lawler stayed hard at work with impressive victories over Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown, earning his rematch.

Lawler was once best known for failing to reach the heights suggested by his talent, losing five of eight fights in the Strikeforce promotion before rejoining the UFC in early 2013. The former prodigy has realized his potential on MMA's biggest stage, becoming the first former Strikeforce fighter to win a UFC title with six wins in his last seven bouts.

The fighters seem headed to a third bout, but Canadian contender Rory MacDonald believes he'll get the next shot. Lawler and Hendricks both said they would accept whatever the UFC decided.

"I can't wait to get back home to my family," Lawler said. "It's been a long year. I've been on the grind, camp to camp, just striving to be champion, to get back to this moment."

Pettis (18-2) was impressive in his first title defense, finishing Melendez (22-4) for the first time in the veteran Strikeforce champion's career.

After Melendez largely controlled Pettis against the cage in the first round, Pettis surprised him with a damaging front kick early in the second. Pettis then defended Melendez's takedown attempt and locked in the choke, getting a quick submission to end his first fight in 16 months.

"I know how good I am, but a lot of people were questioning how good I am," Pettis said. "This fight went a little bit longer, so you got to see a little more."

Before the title bouts, heavyweight Todd Duffee celebrated his 29th birthday by stopping Anthony Hamilton just 33 seconds in with a crushing right hand. Heavyweight Travis Browne then stopped Brendan Schaub on punches with 10 seconds left in their opening round.

Josh Samman delivered the best finish of an entertaining undercard, knocking out Eddie Gordon with a spectacular head kick in the second round. Samman, who had been dominated on the ground beforehand, dedicated the win to his girlfriend, Hailey Bevis, who died in a car accident last year.

Also on the undercard, Urijah Faber choked out Francisco Rivera in the second round shortly after poking Rivera in the eye. Faber, who got booed after replays of the apparently inadvertent eye-poke, is 11-6 over the last six years, with every loss in a title fight.

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