It took more than eight years for Robbie Lawler to lace up his gloves and return to the UFC Octagon. It took him less than four minutes to earn a knockout over Josh Koscheck and remind everyone why he’s dubbed “Ruthless.”
It was 2010, and I was nervous as hell. I was backstage staring at a tall, black curtain. On the other side was a scale, a commissioner, and a crowd. On my side sat six hungry men and members of their entourage. We represented half the fight card as we waited to weigh-in for Strikeforce: LA. It was my first Strikeforce fight. I was starving and dehydrated from the weight cut, but all I could feel was this empty pit in my stomach.
Behind the other curtain sat our opponents, who, I’m assuming, were just as hungry as we were, and, I hoped, just as nervous. This feeling, as excruciating as it was, is totally normal—at least that’s what everyone kept telling me. A six-week training camp was about to come to an end. All the hard work, all the sauna sessions, and all of the passed up slices of pizza led to the next 24 hours where all I had to do was weigh-in and fight. When the hard work ends, the nerves begin.
Then Robbie Lawler strolled in, ready to make weight for his fight against Renato “Babalu” Sobral.
I was equal parts envious and pissed. He was one-half of the main event on a card run by the second largest promotion in the world. On Showtime the following night, he was going to try and knock off a Brazilian’s head while trying to avoid the same fate. And yet, as he sat there joking with cornerman and friend Matt Hughes, it seemed like the furthest thing from his mind. Why was he all smiles?
My first thought? “What an asshole.” My second thought—and the one that lingered until our conversation for this article—was, “How the hell was he so calm?”
UFC 157 will forever go down in history as the card that delivered the first female fight to ever grace the UFC Octagon. Robbie Lawler’s return to the UFC on the same card makes for a nice sidebar. The 31-year-old addition was part of the exodus of fighters coming over from the defunct Strikeforce ranks. For the better part of the last decade, Lawler earned his keep in Pride, IFL, EliteXC, and Strikeforce, but most MMA fans were introduced to the powerful slugger during his first tenure in the UFC from 2002-2004. At UFC 157, he quickly reminded everyone who he was.
“I watched some fights with [Koscheck], and I noticed when guys back him up, he doesn’t fight that well,” says Lawler. “I just kind of stayed right in his face.”
A couple of punches to the head later, and Lawler’s return went from a footnote to Knockout of the Night.
“When I was out of the UFC, it was a good experience, but right now, coming back and winning that fight with Koscheck, it was the right time to come back in my career. I’m excited to be in the UFC again.”
The journey back to the hallowed grounds of the UFC was a long and winding one. The San Diego-born Lawler practiced ass kicking at an early age. He studied martial arts as a kid and would put together mini-training sessions at his house.
“I always watched boxing,” says Lawler. “I didn’t just watch boxing. I would listen to the analysts, see what they were doing, go downstairs and hit the heavy bag, do some pushups, go back up, and watch some more rounds.”
At 10-years-old, Lawler moved from sunny California to Iowa to live with his father—a move that turned out to be perfect for the would-be fighter, since Iowa was a hotbed for wrestling and the home of Miletich Fighting Systems. Pat Miletich’s team boasted a roster that included future UFC champions Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, and Jens Pulver. As soon as the then 18-year-old Lawler was handed his high school diploma, he made training with Miletich his full-time job.
At just 19-years-old and four fights under his belt, he made his UFC debut, defeating Aaron Riley by decision. His fight with Steve Berger at UFC 37.5 marked the first fight to air on cable television. His flying-knee KO of Joey Villasenor was the first PrideFC fight ever held outside of Japan. Icon Sport Middleweight Championship? He earned that. EliteXC Middleweight Championship? Mark that off as well. King of the Cage, the IFL, and Superbrawl all experienced the powerful southpaw before he settled on a semi-permanent home in Strikeforce.
Currently training out of Florida’s American Top Team, Lawler throws strikes like he’s holding a grudge. It’s almost as if anger fuels his fists. But it’s Robbie Lawler. To him it’s just fighting.
“I throw ferocious punches,” says Lawler. “I think that is how you’re supposed to throw punches. When you get someone hurt, you’re not trying to score points or get the ref to stop it—you’re trying to stop HIM. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
The next guy he’s going to try and stop is fellow Strikeforce alum Tarec Saffiedine at UFC on Fox 8 on July 27. The final-and-forever Strikeforce Welterweight Champion is coming off a career-making performance, putting together a nearly flawless striking display against Nate Marquardt that earned him a place on the UFC roster.
Stylistically, this stand-up battle provides plenty of intrigue. Saffiedine battered Marquardt with leg kicks throughout their 25-minute fight. When the final bell rang, Marquardt looked like he needed a wheelchair. Opponents have effectively used leg kicks to slow down Lawler before. But again, typical Lawler, his response to the former champion’s skills is simply, “He’s really good. He beat Marquardt in a five round title fight and he’s…really good. He’s a really good striker. Really clean.”
That’s Lawler in a nutshell. He speaks matter-of-factly. If a question doesn’t suit him, he doesn’t answer it. If he’s never thought about it, he’ll let you know. He’s like an 80-year-old man that doesn’t have time for your hip-hop music and diet sodas. I’m comfortable writing this way since the last person in the world to read an article on Robbie Lawler is Robbie Lawler. If it doesn’t make him a better fighter, he probably won’t find time for it.
He doesn’t think about his legacy, because how would that help him become a fighter now? He’s only Tweeted 87 times since January 2011. It’s not like social media is going to increase his cardio or help his leg-kick defense. He uses the word “fun” to describe the time he bludgeoned Murillo “Ninja” Rua. He scrambles opponent’s brain cells with the same demeanor you and I order a pizza. It’s just how he’s wired.
The Iowan isn’t solely about ferociousness. His usual monotone inflection kicks up a notch when his mind wonders over old memories. “Over the years, you can have all these wins, you can have all these good camps, but I think it’s the memories with all your buddies that matter,” says Lawler. “Having a good time—not necessarily in the cage, but outside the cage the week or the month before—and being with your buddies is what matters.”
In a way, he’s exactly like every other 31-year-old. Kicking it with friends and family, he doesn’t sweat the small stuff.
Of course, there are the obvious ways that he’s anything but ordinary. The man is built to fight, plain and simple. He doesn’t know what he would be doing if not for fighting. Maybe a chiropractor. But it doesn’t really matter. He plans on fighting until training and the quest to become better gets old, and he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.
He’s staying at 170 pounds, and feels he’s entering his prime. That’s the strange thing about a fighter’s physical prime. You never know when you’re in it or when it’s over. But, just like Iowa weather, that’s not something he can control, so he doesn’t sweat it. He just keeps hitting the bag.
That’s the appeal Lawler finds in MMA. It’s not the destination, but the journey. “That’s why I love it. I didn’t get into this game to be cool. This is who I am. I’m a fighter, and I love it. I was in it before it was cool.”
That’s what he brings to the UFC cage he left so many years ago. Fighting culture is breeding all types of characters. Some dye their hair wild colors. Some are on the constant hunt for more Twitter followers. Some saw Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar throw down at the first TUF Finale and wanted to get on TV. But Lawler, now a 30-fight veteran, literally just wants to bang, bro.
“I enjoy what I’m doing,” says Lawler. “When you enjoy what you’re doing, you want to be there and things don’t bother you. I know what I’m capable of. When I go out there and do the things I’m capable of, I’m gonna be able to beat people and beat them pretty handedly. When you have those abilities and you believe in yourself that much, you’re just not worried.”
That’s why he could stroll into a Strikeforce weigh-in in 2010 looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. Robbie Lawler? No worries.
If you thought Robbie Lawler’s KO of Josh Koscheck at UFC 157 was brutal, you don’t know what Robbie Lawler is capable of.
5) Niko Vitale
Lawler knocked out Vitale seven months prior for the Superbrawl Middleweight Championship, so he was happy to provide an encore. This time, Lawler hit Vitale so hard he sent his unconscious body flying into the oncoming referee.
4) Tiki Ghosn
One of the most hilarious post-fight speeches came from Ghosn when he declared the fight was stopped from a cut…just seconds before the replay showed Ghosn’s unconscious body lying on his back taking piston-like ground-and-pound from the 20-year-old Lawler.
3) Matt Lindland
Lawler knocked Lindland down with a counter uppercut-right-hook combo and knocked him out cold with a follow-up strike from top. He even had the courtesy to gently lay Lindland’s stiff legs down on the canvas.
2) Melvin Manhoef
Lawler was visibly limping from the pulverizing leg kicks of Manhoef over the course of the first round. One overhand right from Lawler and a follow-up shot on the ground had the Dutch fighter snoozing on the canvas.
1) Frank Trigg
A Lawler left hook made Trigg go limp, and a follow-up right hand hit the wrestler square in the jaw. With Trigg sitting unconscious against the turnbuckle, Lawler managed to sneak in one last uppercut before the ref saved Trigg’s head from getting pelted into the fifth row.