Is the praise being heaped on Robbie Lawler's 2014 campaign the result of the fun of literary narratives overselling what he's actually done? No, his story as MMA's Prodigal Son certainly makes what happened all the sweeter.
Robbie Lawler is the Fighter of the Year in 2014, and he is so without much debate. There are other fighters with excellent resumes from this past calendar year (we'll get to them in a moment), but none as accomplished as Ruthless'.
Lawler began the year building off the momentum he created in 2013. The former Miletich product returned to the UFC after nine years away; nine years filled with some strong performances, but was mostly a run of relative mediocrity for a fighter of his ability and expected greatness (he entered the UFC after losing his final Strikeforce bout against now unranked Lorenz Larkin). His second UFC push, however, would not suffer from the same self-generated indignities as the first.
Those victories and the absence of Georges St-Pierre earned Lawler a shot at the vacant belt opposite in Johny Hendricks. At UFC 171 in March, the elite welterweights tore at each other for 25 minutes. It is arguably the best fight of the year and one in which both demanded and earned a pound of flesh from their competitor. The result would be in Hendricks' favor, but only on the slightest of margins.
Undeterred, Lawler was avowedly committed to not letting that fight be his last opportunity at UFC gold. Just two months later, Lawler stopped top contender Jake Ellenberger at UFC 173. In another two-month turnaround - itself a borderline incomparable feat in elite, modern mixed martial arts - Lawler battled the surging Matt Brown in a five-round contest that pushed both to the sort of boundaries fight fans longingly day dream about when imagining the heights of greatness to which a fight can ascend.
These wins earned Lawler one more crack at welterweight gold. It was also another bout with Hendricks, who had been out with injury since their first encounter. That Lawler stayed active in all the time Hendricks was away such that it was Lawler who would face him upon his return underscores the kind of year the American Top Team member was having. That Lawler was the only choice because his resume was the best of available welterweight contenders is all one really needs to know.
At UFC 181 in December, Lawler and Hendricks battled again for 25 minutes. Initially, one wondered if Lawler would suffer the same type of fate that typically comes his way. He was competitive early, but through three rounds, it appeared as if Hendricks had settled into a rhythm. The Oklahoma State University wrestling kingpin was offensively more active. He landed jabs, hand combinations and an array of perfectly-placed kicks, to the point where Lawler seemed only to pose in front of Hendricks rather than counter attack.
Whatever flow Hendricks had early, however, would fade late. He had extreme difficulty either taking or keeping Lawler down. He seemed visibly fatigued. Hendricks was unequivocally stalling in positions against the cage. The more he did this, the stronger Lawler became. As Hendricks looked to ride out what he likely saw as inevitability, Lawler forced a change in fate's directions.
With a second wind, he began to batter Hendricks, especially in moments where the then-champion looked listless and uninterested in competing to win. By the fifth round, Lawler was a man ablaze, hurting Hendricks in control positions and throwing his heaviest power shots on the feet. As the final bell sounded, a seemingly feral Lawler stared and walked down an exhausted Hendricks in a scene that reminded us all why regulating prize fighting in a sport where Robbie Lawlers exist is essential for everyone's safety.
The result was another split decision, this time in favor of Lawler. He had not only earned UFC gold, but did so against the man who took it from him the first time they met less than a year earlier. For Lawler, the moment represented a career high as well as personal vindication. This is where the narrative about Lawler finally living up to potential comes in, and all of it is true. It also makes his success that much more incredible. It's worth noting and appreciating.
Yet, it doesn't buoy a false or underwhelming resume. Lawler fought four times in a calendar year, twice for a UFC title, and arguably won all four. When he didn't capture gold in his first outing, he simply redoubled his efforts against the best contenders a) available or b) he hadn't already beaten. He did so in the tightest of competition windows. Lawler earned a second opportunity in a calendar year for a title (which is an insane accomplishment itself) in one of MMA's toughest divisions and ensured he didn't let greatness slip through his fingers twice.
Yes, this is the Lawler many had speculated had always been there. Yes, this is the Lawler who finally applied himself. But whatever the stories of his personal growth, the fact is no one in professional mixed martial arts had the year Lawler did. Simply stated, his accomplishments - the fighters, the stakes, the consistency, the pressure - are better than everyone else's. The narrative of it all is just an added bonus.
Donald Cerrone: The UFC lightweight was the most active in terms of successful campaigns, competing four times inside the Octagon. He earned three stoppages in the process, which also netted three post-fight performance bonuses. While Cerrone did not fight for or earn a title in 2014, he handily defeated Eddie Alvarez, who exited Bellator as their lightweight champion. In terms of consistency and lethality in a calendar year, they don't come much better than Cerrone's.
T.J. Dillashaw: He finished 2013 with a split decision loss to Raphael Assuncao, but made it a point to showcase whatever one thought of that bout, his evolution and growth were still in motion. He kicked off this year by bludgeoning Mike Easton, the first real indication of the corner-turning development in his striking. He then scored the win of his career, stopping then-champion Renan Barao, only to follow it up with a mostly commanding performance against late replacement Joe Soto.
Rafael dos Anjos: Like Lawler, RDA began the year on a tough note. He was thoroughly controlled by Khabib Nurmagomedov in a three-round route. Yet, the Brazilian was entirely unfazed. He was as active as Cerrone, and turned in three wins after his initial hiccup. He did so against the very credible Jason High, former lightweight champion Benson Henderson (who he stopped with strikes) and Nate Diaz. All of this was accomplished with a skill set as well-rounded as one can find in modern mixed martial arts. For a fighter who began his UFC campaign as an overlooked black belt with limited upside, his turnaround is worth honoring.
Rory MacDonald: Like Dillashaw, MacDonald ended 2013 on a sour note, but never let that stop his career and technical progress. In 2014, he beat three top welterweight contenders, finishing the last of them with strikes (Demian Maia, Tyron Woodley and Tarec Saffiedine). He was promised a title shot, which was subsequently withdrawn, but that's irrelevant in terms of his in-cage achievements. In a weight class as daunting and thick as welterweight, MacDonald's accomplishments deserve an added rub of polish.
Carla Esparza: I'm surprised Esparza isn't getting more acclaim for this distinction among my media peers. Her bouts on The Ultimate Fighter 20 were technically exhibitions, but they were incontestably dominant against much of the best her burgeoning weight class has to offer. She easily stopped Angela Hill, controlled Tecia Torres and battered Jessica Penne. She capped off the show by submitting Rose Namajunas in a contest where the result was never in question once it began. In so doing, she became the fist UFC women's strawweight champion. If that isn't a run worthy of year-end acclaim, nothing is.