UFC 181 is just days away, which means the rematch between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler is almost here. It's a fight fans have been anticipating, but so have Hendrcicks' coaches, too. As Marc Laimon explained to Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour, they're ready for Saturday. They also believe Hendricks is fighting the right guy in his return to the Octagon.
"You can't really deny Robbie, you know," Laimon says. "He iced [Jake] Ellenberger and dominated Matt Brown. I think he deserves that spot. I don't think there's anyone more deserving than him right now. It's always nice to fight somebody new, but I kinda look at this as a whole new fight since the last one. Johny had some injuries going into that fight. He was able to get the 'W', but right now it's a whole different Johny getting ready to fight Robbie Lawler.
"Robbie Lawler's an incredibly dangerous opponent who has some of the most explosive strikes and diverse striking arsenal in the UFC today," he explains. "You gotta be on point with him otherwise you can be looking up at the lights wondering what happened."
That's saying something. To hear most coaches, media and fans tell it, the UFC's welterweight division is a shark tank. The top 10 fighters could all give the champion problems. The top 30 are all hugely talented. That, Laimon believes, is why Lawler's accomplishments in the time since their last fight since March of this year are so important to keep in mind.
"Right now, you're looking at a welterweight division that is stacked with killers. It's never ever been this deep," Laimon argues.
"There are guys who can put your lights out, who can submit you. It's a very awesome time to be a fan of the welterweight division and Robbie Lawler is incredibly dangerous. He has such a fight library to study. Seeing someone of his knockouts - the Joey Villasenor, the Adlan Amagov - just crazy dynamic striking where he just ices people, the [Melvin] Manhoef fight. That's always scary when you see Robbie getting pummeled for a round and then right before the round ends he can barely walk on his leg, but he puts Melvin's lights out."
Perhaps most importantly, Laimon isn't just impressed with Lawler overcoming bad spots with his trademark power, but how the American Top Team (ATT) welterweight has turned his liabilities into strengths.
"To go from a guy who fought Jacare and pretty much got dominated on the ground and then when he went against [Josh] Koscheck you got to see his butterfly guard, his ability to get back up to his feet and take something that people would say was a weakness of Robbie Lawler and he's made it a strength. He's adapted grappling to make use of some of his power, some of the things that he excels at as a fighter."
The issue, then, is whether there's a benefit to fighting the same guy back-to-back. Does this change the preparation? Is the feeling in camp different? Laimon says, more or less, everything is the same. In other words, they're counting on the worst case scenario, hoping for the best case scenario.
"It still feels incredibly dangerous," Laimon says of the feeling among the coaches in the camp. "Johny being the champ, I always thought we had the best 170-pounder in the world. Now we just have a strap of gold to kinda prove that, but each fight, you're fighting for that belt. I don't feel Johny's relaxed on that. I feel he's more hungry than ever and he knows what's at stake in this fight. To do all the cool things that we get to do and be a part of that he has to do to continue to be champ, and that's his goal. Retain that title. It's a very tough task again with Robbie Lawler."
Laimon's long been a successful coach for MMA fighters as well as grapplers who train at his Cobra Kai academy in Las Vegas, Nevada. Still, Hendricks winning the title is one of his proudest achievements. And after failing to take the title when Hendricks faced Georges St-Pierre in November of 2013, the first win against Lawler was a moment of relief, too.
"Just, 'finally'," Laimon says of the feeling once Hendricks was named champion. "To get robbed in Vegas on the [20th] anniversary, I thought we had GSP beat. That robbery was just motivation to get there. Once we did it, it was...a lot of emotions came out. It was a long journey to get there, so it was pretty awesome. Pretty awesome."
The win, among other achievements, has compelled more fighters to seek out Laimon's services at Team Takedown, but the famed coach says he isn't out for validation. "I really feel we're poised to do some special things here in the near future. That's really the only people I care about proving anything to." he notes.
For all of the things that have gone right, he's also intensely focused on what's ahead. In other words, Lawler. Laimon says they've brought in Mike Dolce to help Hendricks make weight and that, as of Monday, he is ahead of schedule (Hendricks almost failed to make weight for the first Lawler fight). Even the coaches are losing weight as part of the process to keep Hendricks motivated and on target.
"I expect this to be the smoothest weight cut we've had yet," he claims.
As for what he expects when Hendricks and Lawler step into the cage this time, Laimon's not sure. For all of the tape he's watched and fights he's coached through, he's certain about only one thing. "Every fight's different. The slate's wiped clean. We know what happened," he says.
"Johny's had to wrestle the same guys over and over again in his college career. I think that kinda might benefit Johny a little bit because Johny's fight IQ is incredibly high and his ability to adapt and adjust on the fly and figure out what his opponent is doing and how to beat them is really second to none. He's very, very skilled at understanding his body an what his body has to do to beat his opponents."
In the end, though, Laimon acknowledges he doesn't "know what's going to happen." They've worked out some plans for different contingencies. They believe in Hendricks' abilities. Yet, it's all anyone's guess, but if the second is anything like the first, the night could be quite memorable.
"We've got a few different game plans prepared for a few different scenarios. Hopefully Johny can beat his Jon Fitch knockout record, but we're not counting on it," he says. "I do expect a very exciting a fight."