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American Top Team co-founder Dan Lambert finally got the belt he wanted most

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It was broadcast as a quirk that no American Top Team fighter had won a UFC title until Robbie Lawler turned the trick on Saturday at UFC 181. There have been a lot of swing-and-misses, though. Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva had his chance against Cain Velasquez, but came up drastically short, lasting just 81 seconds. Glover Teixeira came roaring into his title shot at UFC 172, but lost to Jon Jones. Thiago Alves, who was advertised as Georges St-Pierre’s toughest test to date at UFC 100 on the strength of a seven-fight win streak, had nothing for the champ.

So when Lawler, not only a holdover from the old Miletich Fighting Systems but a sort of unaffiliated loner, decided to come out to Florida in early 2013, at first it just felt like he needed a change of scenery. That coincided with his return to the UFC, right before his fight with Josh Koscheck. He had lost three out of four as a middleweight in Strikeforce. He was almost 31 years old at the time, and because he was known as a bomb’s away brawler, people regarded him as older than that.

Lawler was widely believed to be on the downturn, and ATT co-founder Dan Lambert had no idea that less than two years after welcoming Lawler in that he’d become the first to bring back UFC gold to Coconut Creek.

"I guess I’d like to sit here and lie to you and say, yes, that I saw it all coming," he says. "But I mean, he wasn’t on the greatest of runs at the time. He wasn’t a 22-year-old where you think he could drastically change. But when he got down here the coaches were like, ‘this guy? -- This guy’s really got it.’ Going into that Koscheck fight, it wasn’t an easy match-up. But the coaches were like just wait…just wait and see what he’s going to do. He’s going to get better. And they don’t think he’s reached his potential even right now."

Lawler defeated Johny Hendricks via split decision to win the welterweight title at UFC 181. He also avenged the only loss in the ATT era of his career, which came against Hendricks at UFC 171. Beyond that, since joining the team he has gone 6-0, with wins over Koscheck, Bobby Voelker Rory MacDonald, Jake Ellenberger, the surging Matt Brown and Hendricks. He is the greatest resurrection story in MMA right now. Nobody could have possibly seen Lawler coming after he lost to Lorenz Larkin back in late-2012.

Yet when St-Pierre stepped away and Lawler more than held his own against Hendricks in the first fight for the vacant title -- widely believed to be the fight of the year so far -- it felt inevitable that he’d get to try again.

During the second one, with Hendricks spending portions of each round pursuing takedowns and neutralizing Lawler’s striking, Lambert didn’t know what to expect when the judge’s scorecards were read aloud.

"I thought Robbie won round 1, that he lost 2 and 3, but I thought he won 4 and 5," he says. "But I was really nervous. When I heard the judge’s final scorecard at 49-46, I just dropped down to my knees and thought, damn. Even though I thought Robbie won three rounds, if a judge saw four rounds to one I figured he had to give it to Johny. Because you know, round 4 was close, round 1 was close. I could see them giving both those to Johny, but I can’t see them giving both those to Robbie plus 2 and 3. When I heard that 49-46, I thought he lost."

He hadn’t. He won. They’d won. Lawler was given the decision. And in the locker room at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, where ATT coaches and founders and other pieces of Lawler’s faction where living and dying with every number on the scorecards, a celebration broke out. When Lawler got his arm raised, it became an ecstatic haze of hugs and tears that carried on for a long while.

There was Lambert, who nearly purchased the UFC before Zuffa did, in a pose of genuflection. There was ATT co-founder and head instructor Ricardo Liborio going nuts. There was the UFC’s president, Dana White, sharing an emotional moment with Lambert.

What were they saying to each other?

"I got to tell you," Lambert says, "I was in the locker room watching the fights. I dropped down to my knees and closed my eyes when I heard 49-46. I tried to stand up and open my eyes when I heard...‘AAAND NEW’...and all I had was Conan Silveira’s 50-pound head bashing me in the face trying to celebrate. And then Liborio clubbing me like a baby seal in his celebration…and I don’t remember a whole lot after that. All I remember is Dana coming up and sticking his hand out, and me saying, ‘f*ck you!’ and giving him a hug, because nobody is shaking hands tonight, it’s all hugs."

After years of building contenders at ATT, of building and bettering fight careers without anybody breaking through to the top, the gym finally got its day.

"It’s not easy," Lambert says. "It’s a long road. For some people lightning strikes in a bottle and they get it quick. And for others it’s a long road. But to get there, it’s great. It’s great for the team, it’s great for Robbie, it’s great for everybody."

And it’s great for Lambert, too. Not only because of the novelty of having a belt in Coconut Creek, but because he’s long been a belt enthusiast. Lambert’s hobby is to collect old pro wrestling belts. He’s been doing it for nearly 20 years, long before he flirted with the idea of purchasing the UFC. He calls himself a "wrestling mark," because he’s long been into the lore of the competitors and organizations.

"I just started collecting the old ring-used belts when I started up," he says. "I saw one on eBay that one of the old wrestlers was selling, and then I met a bunch of guys that are actually like belt hunters…it’s like their passion to find these old belts. And they’ve got the networks and all the old guys and promoters, and every now and then one becomes available. I just started. Got one here, got one there, and last time I counted I’ve got about 90."

Of those he says his favorite was the original WWWF belt, when they first started and brought in Buddy Rogers to fight Bruno Sanmartino to create the championship.

"That was probably my best belt, but when WWE decided to do their brick-and-mortar Hall of Fame they wanted the belt so bad for their HOF," he says. "And the guy that got it for me, he makes their belts. So they were like, hey, we really need this belt. So I gave it to them and they gave me a couple of other belts in return.

"That was probably my best belt, but dude, I’ve got the Georgia heavyweight title, which was the same belt they used for 15 years. I’ve got the World Class Wrestling, the Von Erich’s belt, I’ve got the old cowhide Southwest Wrestling Championship title, I’ve got the first belt Ric Flair ever had, the Mid-Atlantic belt. I’ve got belts from Florida, from the southwest, the Portland territory…from every territory, Memphis, every one you can imagine. I just love the old belts. I keep them sitting in my closet in my office, and every now and again I bring them out and play with them."

Now he’s got at least a vicarious share of a new one: Robbie Lawler’s. And the gym he helped bring into existence, American Top Team, can finally celebrate the fact.

"It’s crazy," he says. "I don’t have words to describe it. People don’t realize how high of a mountain it is to get the guy in your camp to achieve that goal."

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