Robbie Lawler withstood a flurry of stinging punches by Matt Brown in the fifth round and held on for a unanimous decision Saturday night, setting up a rematch with UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks.
Lawler (24-10) led comfortably throughout the fight and was never hit very hard until Brown landed four straight punches with just over two minutes remaining. Lawler, the top-ranked contender, smiled then landed a kick to Brown's stomach. Lawler later absorbed a hard right from the bloodied Brown (21-12) before holding on for his fifth win in the last six fights.
Two judges scored it 49-46 and the third had it 48-47.
That puts Lawler in line for another shot at the welterweight championship. The 32-year-old lost a unanimous decision to Hendricks on May 15 when the two fought for the vacant title.
Hendricks injured an arm and only recently returned, which means the fight will likely happen next year. UFC President Dana White said he already has an idea when the fight will be but declined to disclose the date.
That will give Lawler sufficient time to rest after a grueling past 12 months. His win over Brown came on the heels of wins over Jake Ellenberger, Rory MacDonald and Bobby Voelker, along with the close loss to Hendricks.
"I'm very excited," Lawler said. "(Hendricks) is nursing some injuries, but I'm going to be the one that's waiting for him."
Lawler definitely earned the right after holding off the relentless Brown, who suffered a possible hand injury and had to be taken to a hospital for examination.
That the fight went the distance shocked White.
"I said yesterday that if this fight went five rounds, I'd walk back to Las Vegas," White said. "I'll see everyone in Vegas on Thursday."
Lawler set the tone early, landing a quick combination to Brown's head in the opening seconds. The two fighters later exchanged hard right hooks, Brown suffering a small cut near his left eye.
Brown, who had won seven consecutive bouts going into the night, recovered in the second to land a stinging combination of his own but continued to fight mostly from the outside while trying to stay away from Lawler's inside attack.
Lawler stayed patient and methodical, stalking Brown and repeatedly scoring with his left hand.
Blood poured down Brown's nose in the fifth, and he was also bleeding from his left ear over the final two rounds but didn't go down. White said afterward that the fifth-ranked Brown will move up in the rankings despite the loss.
"He came toe-to-toe with me," Lawler said. "Not many people will do that. He just kept coming."
In the night's quickest bout, Anthony Johnson won by TKO over Rogerio Nogueira 44 seconds into the first round. Johnson (18-4) got Nogueira (21-6) backed up against the cage then floored the 38-year-old with a series of hard uppercuts that opened a deep cut and led to the stoppage.
Also on the undercard, Lindenhurst featherweight Dennis Bermudez (15-3) got veteran Clay Guida to tap out midway through the second round. Bermudez pressed the action and repeatedly scored with punches to Guida's right eye before catching Guida (31-12) in a rear neck choke for his seventh straight win.
Bobby Green (23-5) won his eighth consecutive fight, earning a split decision over third-ranked Josh Thompson (20-7) in a lightweight fight.