The UFC can hang an “under new management” sign on the octagon.
The new era under the Hollywood entertainment conglomerate WME-IMG banner kicks off Saturday with UFC 201 at Philips Arena in Atlanta. UFC President Dana White and the new owners have suggested little will change immediately for the promotion.
Robbie Lawler can only hope that also means the status quo remains at the top of the welterweight division.
The UFC still has plenty of buzz coming off the landmark 200 pay-per-view, though the aftermath has been sullied in recent weeks by former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar’s failed drug tests, as well as Jon Jones’ earlier test failure.
Holly Holm has been exposed as the next Buster Douglas one-hit wonder more than a true rival for Ronda Rousey. And UFC 201 almost seems like a speed bump as the promotion gears up for UFC 202 and the anticipated rematch between Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor.
But looking to steal the spotlight is Lawler, making his third title defense in a remarkable career resurgence, this time against Tyron Woodley. Lawler not only defeated Rory MacDonald and Carlos Condit in his first two defenses, he earned fight of the night honors on both cards.
Lawler (26-10) is looking for more than earning that title for a third straight card.
“No one ever wants fight of the night,” he said. “Every fight, I’ve gone in I want knockout of the night. I want to be in and out quick. Sometimes these guys just have a lot of grit, they’re highly trained and I just can’t get them out of there so I get fight of the night. So it’s not necessarily I’m changing anything. It’s like, I’m just sick of fight of the night. I want to knock people out.”
Lawler and Condit established a lofty benchmark for the best fight of 2016 with their thrilling slugfest at UFC 195 in Las Vegas. Lawler was awarded a narrow decision and both fighters kept going into a brutal fifth round in which they struggled to lift their arms for punches or defense.
A rematch might have been the most intriguing option for both fighters. Lawler, who has finished 20 of 26 fighters by knockout, instead matched up against Woodley.
“This is who I’m fighting. My coaches and guys decided who they wanted me to fight next,” he said.
The former all-state wrestler from Iowa had his first UFC fight in May 2002, but was out of the promotion by 2005. Back for a second shot, Lawler now stands behind only flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson as the longest-reigning champion in the UFC.
“I’m not excited,” he said. “I’m just a mean fighter who’s looking to go out there and finish people and do what I do.”
Woodley (15-3) wrestled at Missouri and will try to use that as a counter to Lawler’s superior standup skills. Woodley is fighting for his first championship over seven fights in his UFC career and lost his only other pro title fight in 2012 when he competed in Strikeforce.
“The difference between me then and me now is that I’m putting everything together,” Woodley said. “You guys have seen the submission games, you’ve seen the wrestling games, you’ve seen the striking game. Over time, I just matured as a fighter and it’s my time to seize it. I’m putting everything together and I’m ready to take off.”
The UFC is ready to take off as well, with WME-IMG set to try and take the dominant mixed martial arts promotion in the world into yet another level. The UFC was sold for approximately $4 billion, with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta out and White still the boss and public face of the company.
Other fights of note on the main card are Rose Namajunas vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz; Matt Brown fights Jake Ellenberger in a welterweight bout; and Francisco Rivera fights Erik Perez.