Robbie Lawler – The Thinking Brawler

UFC welterweight Robbie Lawler is ruthless in the scariest of ways.

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You know who Robbie Lawler is. He’s a heavy-handed brawler. Lawler fought in the UFC in the pre-TUF era when he was 20 years old. He’s explosive. He had the great fight with Aaron Riley, lost to Nick Diaz, went to Icon Sport, Pride, Elite XC, Strikeforce. He’s had some great wins, some shitty losses, but he’s an all-action brawler who brings it every time—that’s what he does. He swings for the fences. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Now, he’s back in the UFC with his “ruthless” style.

You know all about it.

What if I told you that Robbie Lawler has a brilliant tactical mind? That he’s highly strategic in his brawling? What if I told you his nickname should be “The Thinking Brawler?”

The first and only Pride FC event in the United States was in Las Vegas on October 21, 2006. Lawler opened the show against Joey Villaseñor. In the first few seconds, Robbie exploded and grazed Villaseñor with a leaping head kick, following it seconds later with a flying knee. It was over in 22 seconds. So what, you say, I know Robbie’s explosive. Yes, but consider this—that knee looked exactly the same to Villaseñor as the kick, although it came straight up the middle, while the kick came around the side. Lawler had set and executed a bold trap, in seconds. He created the same paradigm as the superman punch: you establish a pattern, you show something, and then break it with something that looks the same but arrives differently.

C’mon man, you say, Robbie just exploded and got lucky, he caught Villaseñor.

Okay, let’s talk about Strikeforce: Miami on January 30, 2010.

It’s every fighter’s nightmare: what do you do when you’re facing a guy who is possibly better than you at your thing? You’re a submission specialist, and the promoter tells you that you’re fighting Marcelo Garcia. You’re a wrestler and pull Ben Askren. You’re a striker, and you get the news you’re fighting a K1 Champion. What did Robbie Lawler think when Strikeforce told him he was fighting Melvin Manhoef?

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Melvin “No Mercy” Manhoef is a muay Thai tornado, a live-action Tasmanian devil. He’s the kind of guy you dream about when bringing a striker into MMA—explosive, athletic, absolutely shredded. He was very hard to takedown, and he was built like a fireplug. Melvin’s a Surinamese Dutchman, from the famous Chakuriki Gym (elite kickboxing—they’re savages). Fighting Melvin was like fighting a wood-chipper.

The Melvin Manhoef hype train was a juggernaut at this time. He’d knocked out Mark Hunt in 18 seconds—Mark Hunt the heavyweight, Mark Hunt who’d been head kicked by Cro Cop and shrugged it off. Melvin was to be feared.

The real issue for Lawler was that Melvin was probably a more technical striker than himself. Robbie was known as a heavy-handed KO artist, but more of a brawler—certainly not a crisp, clean, technical muay Thai wizard. At the time, Robbie was training with friend Matt Hughes at HIT Squad, and the accepted wisdom was that Lawler was going to have to put Melvin on his back to have a chance, and that was not something Robbie did. He used his wrestling (he’d been an All-State wrestler in high school in Iowa) to keep it standing and look for the knockout. He wasn’t a relentless takedown machine. Robbie has always been a bit limited in what he wants to do, a little obvious.

Essentially, on paper, Lawler had no way to beat Manhoef.

There’s a danger to watching a fight on tape too many times. Removed from the immediacy of the moment, from the speed of the present, maybe you start to see things that aren’t there. You fall into over-analysis. Think of all the writers who’ve gone crazy watching Liston-Ali II. Still, some fights need to be watched over and over to understand what really happened, to appreciate the artistry. Lawler-Manhoef is one of those.

Manhoef, fighting for the first time in Strikeforce, aware of the size of the moment and wary of Robbie’s wrestling, fought very smart—he came out and methodically and walked Lawler down. Melvin stalked him. He was stronger, faster, and a far more technical striker with thudding, crushing leg kicks.

Robbie was ready for the rush, ready to shoot when the onslaught came or counter. Melvin usually blitzkrieged opponents, but he wasn’t doing that now. Robbie later admitted that the strategy he’d wanted to use had depended on Melvin doing what he usually did. Start with a flurry of quick hands and finish his combinations with kicks—that’s classic muay Thai, a quick series of punches to get the other guy’s hands up, and then using the momentum to carry into a hard leg kick. Aggressive, almost dashing forward, and all that momentum makes you vulnerable to the quick level-change and shot. Robbie had planned on taking Melvin down, roughing him up, wearing him out, and looking for the KO when Melvin was tired and had to respect the takedown threat.

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But Melvin wasn’t cooperating. He was stalking, cutting off the ring as Robbie looked to counter. He was hyper-aware with his hips, staying well out of Robbie’s takedown range. Melvin led with thudding inside leg kicks that popped Robbie’s leg off the ground, and finished with short, savage punches. Early on, at 2:51 in round one, Melvin landed a right and Robbie acted wobbly, but overacted…was he hamming it up? What was that? Even the announcers noticed it and thought it was out of character for Robbie.

Lawler started covering up and rolling inside, taking savage leg kicks, as Melvin put on a striking clinic—not rushing, being patient. Robbie stumbled on his ankle (he sprained it), but even then he was trying to stay close when Melvin flurried, and not get caught.

We all know what we’re seeing so far—Robbie was getting his ass kicked. Manhoef was teeing off, and his confidence growing. BLAM! Robbie’s front leg sailed into the air from a Manhoef kick. But Robbie, even when he was shelling up, was trying to stick in range.

Robbie was in full retreat…was he really that tired and beat up? His face showed anguish, and perhaps, perhaps, he let his leg sail out a little more than absolutely necessary when Melvin kicked it.

Finally, Melvin couldn’t wait anymore, overtaken by his own gifts, his own explosiveness. He was putting on the dream fight against this guy who’s basically a punching bag. Robbie isn’t fighting back, he’s in survival mode. Robbie was wincing, shelling up, and twisting and weaving on the inside, inching closer.

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Until Robbie got what he was looking for, Melvin stood in front of him a half-second too long—and out of nowhere, perfectly disguised by his style of rolling cover-up, BOOM—the overhand right grazed Melvin’s chin and put him out.

This was the second punch Robbie had thrown in the entire three-and-half minutes. Melvin went down, and Robbie followed with a cracking left and another right for good measure, like an ax falling.
Call it lucky if it makes you feel better.

*****

Randy Couture once said that “No lies get told inside the Octagon,” but really what he was talking about were forms of self-deception. You can’t lie to yourself. Are you in shape? Are you really a better wrestler?

Higher level striking is all about deception. You lie like crazy, and he lies like crazy. Tiny deceptions of range, speed, and footwork are in constant play. Counterstriking, in particular, is about deception. Create patterns to exploit them. I want you to do X, so I can do X to you. When you try and come back with X, I have my counter perfectly in place. The superman punch exists off of leg kicks. It looks like a leg kick is coming, that’s the whole point (and in that vein, submissions, sweeps, and takedowns often depend on deception).

A lot of lies get told inside the Octagon.

High-level striking is elusive in MMA. We all know that a legit black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu represents a certain competence, be it five or eight years of fairly intense study. We know what being a Division I wrestler entails. We can look at their achievements and get a sense of their wrestling pedigree.

High-level striking is different. It’s harder to quantify. Does somebody who knocks out a K1 Champion have “K1-level striking?” Or will the range issues in MMA, the transitions from up to down, from wrestling and clinching back to kickboxing confuse the K1 Champion’s brain so that he makes stupid mistakes, and leaves his hands down? How many times have we seen “elite” strikers cold-cocked in MMA by wrestlers with a big overhand right, simply because the range and set-up is so different and confusing. It’s a punch that deeply mystifies boxing enthusiasts.

Professional boxers start young, and peak 10 to 15 years later after fighting and sparring builds up their vision, their boxing sense, their in-tuneness with the other fighter so that they can land four- or five-punch combinations and can counterpunch. Not many MMA fighters have that kind of background, partially because the sport itself hasn’t really been around that long. We’re just starting to see it now.

Counterpunching in MMA is deadly. It’s a game-changer. It’s where the one-punch walk-away KO comes from. And counterpunching is one of the last things a striker develops (that and defense). You need to be very, very good—fast as well as experienced—and you need a lot of seasoning to become a successful counter-striker. It garners the biggest payoff—an easy, devastating win, but it’s tough do. You need to intuitively know what’s coming, to feel it in your bones as your brain fits the picture of the opponent into schemes that you’ve seen a thousand times in sparring. It’s where Chuck Liddell and Anderson Silva took their careers, because the reward is so big.

“Once you’ve done a lot, seen a lot, even though you knew it before, things suddenly start clicking,” says Lawler. “Things fall into place with a lot of experience.”

And herein lies the problem. By the time you’re experienced enough, sometimes you’re too beat up, too punished, and now the reflexes and speed aren’t there. It’s easy to lose a fight looking to land that one shot.

image descWhich brings us back to Robbie Lawler.

Back at the Miletich Fighting Systems gym in Bettendorf, Iowa, back in the glory days when the UFC Heavyweight, Welterweight, and Lightweight Belts resided there, Robbie somewhat famously “retired” from sparring.

Robbie was renowned for his athleticism and punching power, and he was starching dudes in the Octagon. Pat Miletich had discovered the local prodigy when he was a sophomore in high school, an All-State wrestler and linebacker.

Robbie had always been one of Pat’s favorites, saying he thought Robbie had the best “fight mind” in the camp, the best at tactically breaking down other fighters. But that wasn’t what people saw at first.

“People have no clue how hard he hits, and he’s slick and delivers punches that people don’t see coming,” says Miletich. “I would put Robbie in with the heavyweights because he hit too hard to spar with 170-pounders.”

Robbie had the timing to stay in the pocket with the MFS heavyweights, easily the best in the country at the time, and play rock ‘em sock ‘em robots. Very few fighters have that kind of timing. It’s extremely difficult to do. There’s definitely a genetic component—the vision, reflexes, and athleticism are involved.

Around 2004, Robbie quit sparring. He would ride his bike, come to the gym to shadowbox and hit mitts, and then hit the bag and watch the Monday and infamous Wednesday Night sparring sessions at MFS where guys were getting knocked out regularly.

“I always thought that one reason Robbie quit sparring was he didn’t want to knock his teammates out,” says Miletich.

“I didn’t spar for four or five years,” says Lawler. “I was still knocking a lot of people out. I felt like I already knew how to fucking fight, and now I had to get in shape. I didn’t want to do too much hard sparring.” He’ll admit he had offense, but no defense.

The one other thing Robbie did was watch fights, particularly boxing fights. Then, in the deepest part of his retirement, he would watch Evander Holyfield fight tapes, all of them, all the time.

That was Robbie’s training regimen: ride his bike, hit some mitts, watch Evander Holyfield for hours. And he was fighting at a high level at 185 pounds, and knocking out guys like Falaniko Vitale, Frank Trigg, and Ninja Rua. He mystified his teammates, but there was an aura there, too. Robbie’s incredibly laconic—he sounds a little bored, all the time, even in the dressing room before the walkout. Watching him, you get the feeling Robbie’s pulse never gets much over 50 bpm. He walks into the Octagon like he’s walking to the corner store—until the fight starts, and then he explodes.

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“I watched a lot of boxing,” says Robbie, speaking about those days. “Watching Tyson got me started, but then I started watching old Evander Holyfield fights, and I’d see what he was doing. His footwork was awesome. He really hopped in and out with his counters, counter right hands or jabs with his own right. He could lead too, he did so much.”

Robbie had found a style he could reproduce, a boxing style that could translate to MMA. Certainly, one of the most important things about learning to box is to go to the gym and watch the pro fighters move and try to do what they do. Watch old Evander Holyfield fights and then watch Lawler fight, and you can see that Robbie is heavily influenced—he sometimes looks like he’s doing a Holyfield impersonation.

“When you’re striking, you put yourself where you’re dangerous but not getting hit, with movement angles, staying on an angle,” says Lawler. “In my recent fights, my footwork has been really on point, my feints—I’ve just been steps ahead.”

We say somebody has “good hands” when they can punch, but what we really mean is “good feet.” People think that since boxers don’t kick, they don’t use their feet, but the opposite is true. They constantly are using their feet to move, to get in range, to get tiny angles of advantage, to create situations where they can hit and not get hit.

This is where high-level MMA often fails, because the ground component is so huge. At the lower-level MMA shows, the Division-I wrestler has far more success than the professional boxer. It makes more sense to take a guy with all that wrestling and teach him boxing, and in three years he can murder the mitts and look good out there—but he just doesn’t have the experience to counterpunch.

When Rashad Evans knocked out Chuck Liddell, everyone thought Rashad had arrived because his striking was there. But then he ran into Lyoto Machida, a guy who’s spent his whole life doing karate striking. There are great wrestlers in the UFC who are seek-and-destroy strikers—athletic, smart guys who have really picked up boxing, but they just don’t have the seasoning (yet) to put it all together. They counterpunch by luck. In MMA, they sometimes call it the 50-50 game, brawling and hoping for the best, hoping your chin can sustain you.

“I’m not watching too much boxing now,” Lawler says. “I’ve fallen in love with the sport of MMA again. I’m just a fan. Not of any fighter, but of the matchups, what people are trying to accomplish. The battle within the battle, and really what I watch for is: Can guys make adjustments? Are they capable of changing things up in a fight? Most often I see guys that can’t make the adjustment, like in the recent Condit-Kampmann rematch. Kampmann couldn’t stop going for the takedown. It was set in his head, ‘This is the way the fight should go.’ And he wore himself out looking for it.”

Norman Mailer once wrote about fighters that you never know what they’re thinking, because if you knew what they were thinking, you could hit them.

When I pressed Robbie on the Manhoef fight, he steadfastly refused to say he had ever played possum. Instead, he talked about how Melvin was kicking the shit out of his legs, how Melvin was doing the same thing over and over, and he did it too many times. But I seem to remember seeing a post-fight interview, where Robbie, full of adrenalin, forgot himself, and said something like, “I knew when Melvin came in to finish he would get sloppy and leave his hands down.” I did find tape of Matt Hughes laughing and talking about how Robbie “plays possum” in practice. When you watch the fight, at 2:55 remaining, Robbie is absolutely, 100 percent, play-acting hurt, he’s a B-movie actor, he’s Lebron James taking a dive…and he was refusing to admit it. Robbie found a way to win what was essentially an un-winnable fight for him.

Fighters are liars. They hide in plain sight, because if you know what they’re thinking, you can hit them.

*****

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Robbie’s career is in a welcome renaissance. Everything is clicking. The cut to 170 pounds is under control. The camps at American Top Team are working to perfection. Robbie’s mindset has changed. Pat Miletich had said that in the past Robbie didn’t like being told what to do, his resistance to constant hard sparring was just the most extreme example of that.

“Tim Sylvia would yell at Robbie to keep his hands up, and so Robbie would drop his hands to his waist and look over at Tim with disdain. That was Rob,” says Miletich.

Now, Robbie says he loves going to ATT and fitting into the massive machine that’s smoothly running down there.

“American Top Team has been huge for me, I’m not the boss,” says Lawler. “For a while, I was running my own camps with my own coaches. I dictated when and how. There, I’m far from the boss. They develop my game, put me in situations I need to be in, with a lot of guys there who are pushing themselves, young guys who are really hungry.”

That mindset is of a very different Robbie Lawler. He’s a father, he knows what the stakes are. He’s fought through the post-TUF sea change in MMA and knows he’s at the height of his powers. This is his run.

Now, thanks to two spectacular wins, Robbie finds himself on the edge of greatness again, on the verge of a title shot. Consistency has always been Robbie’s hobgoblin. Can he stay healthy? Can he find consistent results in camp? Robbie’s had his share of bad fights, even stinkers, and sometimes it’s because he’ll fight hurt, injured, or sick. He’s struggled with lung and breathing issues. But he won’t talk about it, because he knows that some of the guys he shellacked probably were having bad nights and fighting hurt.

Where is he in his career? Is this a true renaissance or merely an Indian summer? Inconsistency at the top level is natural. It’s normal. It’s what makes Champion George St-Pierre so annoying, so frustrating to some fans—he’s maddeningly consistent. Lawler doesn’t do that, he lives on the edge, on the danger of inconsistency, exploding and looking for the kill, burning out all the fast twitch fibers without getting the finish, and then gassing.

Thanks to his two big KO-wins over Josh Koscheck and Bobby Voelker, Robbie’s next fight will be against the GSP’s heir apparent and protégé Rory McDonald. In some ways, it’s the classic wily veteran versus the unstoppable challenger. In some ways, Rory MacDonald is like the young Robbie Lawler, fighting in the UFC at 24 years old, tremendously gifted, the next generation champion in waiting.

MacDonald is an extremely talented fighter, with certainly one of the best camps in the world at TriStar Gym in Montreal, Quebec. There’s the danger of fighting a big puncher, if you make one little mistake in 15 minutes, he can end your night. But you can also jab an opponent to death. MacDonald just did that, successfully disarming the bomb that is Jake Ellenberger. A lot of people criticized his performance against Ellenberger, but it was excellent experience for MacDonald, championship-caliber rounds for a somewhat inexperienced guy. MacDonald showed poise and patience, that he was willing to make a fight boring to win it. Robbie Lawler might not be willing to make that deal. He’s smart enough to, but his temperament won’t allow for it. He’s content to knock you out, or lose the fight.

“I would say my style is more ferocious than his,” says Lawler. “He’s real technical and analytical, I’m the same way, but I want it to be a fight, I want to feel the fight, I want to get after it. The more I can force a guy to fight, I can knock him out. If I can get him to throw, I can counter. The best time to knock someone out is when they’re throwing.”

Robbie is a thinking brawler. He wants to brawl and mix it up, but also, that’s what gives him the best chance to win. He knows, strategically and stylistically, a firefight favors him.

“Rory does a lot of things like GSP in a lot of ways,” says Lawler. “For GSP, the jab is his punch, he keeps space, doesn’t commit, and so he’s not worried about getting hit. When you throw a right hand, you commit your hips. A lot of people don’t like to get on the front foot, to get heavy there.”

Robbie carries with him some of that “kill-or-die” attitude from the earlier era of MMA, before fights became too important to lose. Robbie’s not afraid to lose a fight, and that is part of what makes him so dangerous. But maybe there’s still a lesson for Lawler to learn from Evander Holyfield, who was willing to do anything to win. His “will to win” made him a better heavyweight than he had any right to be.

One of Rory MacDonald’s strongest assets is his invincible confidence. MacDonald believes, deep in his being, that he’s going to win the fight. But invincible, overwhelming confidence is not enough. Just because you believe it, more than anything, don’t always make it so. A hard, precise shot on the chin turns your brain off, no matter who you are. Young Robbie Lawler learned that at the hands of an unknown Cesar Gracie product by the name of Nick Diaz when he was 22 years old in 2004 at UFC 47.

No one is immune, and that’s something that the Robbie Lawler of today knows.

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