LAS VEGAS - More than a decade after big things were predicted for him, "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler is finally a UFC champion.
In a plodding, razor-thin fight on Saturday night, the American Top Team fighter rallied over the final two rounds to claim the UFC welterweight championship from Johny Hendricks at UFC 181. The scores were 48-47, 47-48, and an odd 49-46 in a split decision at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
With the victory, Lawler avenged a unanimous decision loss to Hendricks at UFC 171, in which Hendricks claimed the vacant title.
"I'm just having an amazing feeling," said Lawler (25-10, 1 NC). "I have a lot of guys behind me to thank, and the fans."
Lawler came out firing in round one, landing early and often with a mix of strikes which kept Hendricks (16-3) backpedaling.
But it was the sort of pace that seemed hard to maintain. Hendricks roared back to claim rounds two and three. Lawler slowed noticeably as Hendricks used crisp inside leg kicks to set up brutal flurries of punches. In round three, Lawler appeared to be completely spent, rarely throwing strikes.
By the fourth round, though, Hendricks became less effective. He primarily used single legs to push Lawler back toward the fence and simply pinned him there. Several times over the final 10 minutes, referee Herb Dean restarted the action.
This curious slowdown by Hendricks enabled Lawler to steal both of the final two rounds. In the fourth, Hendricks scored a takedown, but Lawler escaped, Hendricks turtled, and Lawler rained down body shots right until the horn. In the fifth, Lawler did real damage, and had a bloodied Hendricks on the run as fight ended.
With the victory, Lawler capped a storybook tale. Lawler washed out of the UFC in his early career stint, then returned last year after a nine-year absence. He's 6-1 since his return, with just the decision loss to Hendricks at UFC 171 marring his record.
"I thought i needed to get in his face, force him to fight the fight and do what I wanted to do," Lawler said of the closing rounds. "That's how we fight in the UFC, that's how we wanted to fight. I wanted to keep fighting as long as it could. I wanted to win this title."
Hendricks and his team stormed out of the Octagon after the decision was read and were unavailable for immediate comment.