Robbie Lawler can put his feet up this festive season content in the knowledge that his mixed martial arts renaissance is complete.
Lawler fought four times on Ultimate Fighting Championship shows this year which culminated in winning the welterweight belt two weeks ago at UFC 181.
No fight was easy, and he deserves now to ease back his schedule, although the UFC does not usually afford that luxury for its champs.
Two brutal clashes with Johny Hendricks (16-3 MMA, 11-3 UFC) were the highlights, and while the recent meeting brought him his biggest accolade to date, Lawler (25-10 MMA, 10-4 UFC) deserves a long layoff because the other two bouts were no picnics.
Nevertheless, Lawler is as enthusiastic as ever. “I feel like if I take a step back and relax a little bit and rest, I’ll be able to come back as a better fighter,” he said. “I feel like four fights a year would be pushing it at my age right now, especially the caliber of fighters that I’m going up against, but I feel like two to three a year isn’t bad, depending on how far apart they are.”
The 32-year-old Californian probably extended his career by avoiding sparring sessions for many years.
Still, he’s on the cusp of his 14th year as a pro MMA fighter, a period in which many of his contemporaries have come and gone. Nor will the competition get any easier as he long as he holds the belt. Georges St. Pierre is in semi-retirement and may come back next year and Lawler’s rivals are all pressing for a challenge for his 170-pound title.
While the UFC typically fights its champions less frequently on an annual basis, Lawler appears to have two challengers already lined up.
UFC president Dana White indicated after his split-call win that a trilogy fight with Hendricks is possible and standout Rory MacDonald is also a potential opponent for his first title defense.
Although Lawler would prefer a third fight with Hendricks over a rematch with MacDonald, whom he beat in November 2013, he said he’ll wait and see what the UFC decides.
Although he appeared occasionally listless against Hendricks, Lawler flourished in the first and fifth rounds as he hammered the champ with punches, kicks and knees.
No blow brought a finish, but combined they left an impression with judges and fans, who cheered him on as he backed the champ to the fence in the closing moments.
“I was kind of just giving it my all,” Lawler said. “I was looking to take him out and cement who I was as a fighter. I just wanted to keep pressing forward and do as much damage as possible.”
The UFC title marked the peak of a long journey for Lawler, who was released from the promotion in 2004 after back-to-back losses.
A tour of major promotions netted him three titles, but he stumbled in several non-title bouts and was at one point cast as a tough journeyman who might win as much as he lost against top competition.
A decision loss to Lorenz Larkin two years ago under the now-defunct Strikeforce banner was a low point.
Despite those multiple setbacks, Lawler said he never lost faith in his abilities, seeing them merely as setbacks.
Still as enthusiastic as a novice, he has already returned to his training camp in Florida. Initially, he showed up to the gym’s office to pay his respects and planned to watch a practice. But when he walked on to the floor, everyone stopped and applauded.
“Every time I passed somebody who got me ready for a fight, I remembered it,” Lawler said. “It was about them, too. This wasn’t about Robbie did it all himself. I had really good coaches, and I had really good training partners, so it was awesome.”
Lawler will rest up and see what his promoters decide is the most intriguing and marketable challenge they can throw him. In the meantime, he’ll hold on to the belt.
“It still feels great, but I’m just relaxing,” he said. “I’m still the same person, I just happen to have a title now. It’s been a long time coming. It was a lot of hard work and dedication and it feels great.”
Entering the UFC as its youngest fighter, age 20, was not easy. Getting bounced from the promotion after losing three out of four, and then spending the next eight years hopping around the world, taking on all comers in multiple weight classes, was a true test of his character.
In fighting Hendricks twice, Matt Brown and Jake Ellenberger this year, Lawler has confirmed his credentials as a true warrior.
The bouts with Brown and Hendricks were nasty wars, with Lawler absorbing a lot of punches. Despite that, he insists that if he needed to he could fight again immediately, there is still a boyish passion for the sport.
“My body feels really good, and fresh,” he insisted. “I feel great. I’m out here, the sun is shining, I’m bouncing around. If I needed to fight today, I could. I feel good, it’s crazy. My body is responding, my mind is ready to go, and I’m just loving being a mixed martial artist.”
Something that Lawler wouldn’t love is having to take on one of his American Top Team welterweight teammates. He is the division’s champ, now, and both Tyron Woodley and Hector Lombard are currently in the top five.