LAS VEGAS - Stories don't usually play out this way in MMA.
This is a fast-moving, brutal buzzsaw of a sport. There's little time for nostalgia and even less for sentiment.
For every tale of Randy Couture coming out of retirement, slaying the giant, and winning the heavyweight title, there seem to be a hundred Gray Maynards, guys who were steps away from the mountaintop who found themselves tossed on the scrap heap before they knew what hit them.
And that's what makes "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler's journey from prospect to washout to champion all the more remarkable.
A fighter who was pegged for stardom at an early age, went through a long period as a wandering ronin, then finally fulfilled his potential a decade later? That simply doesn't happen in this sport.
But Lawler's UFC welterweight title victory over Johny Hendricks on Saturday night at Mandalay Bay was a rare sort of payoff for the longtime fan who's stuck through this sport through thick and thin. Lawler's one of the last remaining throwbacks to the time everyone just tuned in because they were stoked to watch the fights, without bickering over Reebok deals or even knowing the phrase "testosterone replacement therapy."
And few were happier with the outcome than American Top Team founder Dan Lambert. Lambert's South Florida gym has long been one of the sport's top training spots, but he never had a UFC champion under his roof full-time. At least not until Lawler showed up and decided it was now-or-never on fulfilling his vast potential.
"I feel so, so good for Robbie," said Lambert, who didn't seem to want to take any of the credit for his protege's victory. "He's worked so hard for this. Even when he didn't get the decision the first time [against Hendricks], it didn't faze him. He just showed right back up in the gym and got back to work."
Was the decision controversial? Sure. There were so many odd permutations to last night's fight that figuring out how to score it seems like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube. Sitting cageside, I scored the fight for Lawler, giving him rounds 1, 4, and 5.
Even among many of those who felt Hendricks won, however, there seemed to be a sense that, hey, even if my guy didn't win, at least the decision went the way of someone who deserves a little luck, someone who's put in the hard time in this sport. And when was the last time that happened?
We'll leave the final word on this one to Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, who rode high as UFC welterweight champion back when Lawler was a young prodigy at Miletich Fighting Systems. Hughes and Miletich were both in the cage to celebrate the victory after the decision was announced in Lawler's favor.
"That's my brother in there," Hughes told MMAFighting.com. "Those of us who have been with him on this journey the whole way, to see him go through his ups and downs, to see him never quit, to see him finally get the brass ring, I couldn't be prouder. I think anyone who has followed Robbie since he broke in should feel the same way."
UFC 181 quotes
"The best revenge is massive success. That's what I'm looking forward to." - Anthony Pettis, after winning his first fight in 15 months.
"I watched the replay and I did get him in the eye. ... I don't remember thinking ‘I got him in the eye,' I remember thinking ‘I'm going to get the finish, now.'" - Urijah Faber, on his controversial win over Francisco Rivera.
"I just looked in his eyes and he wanted to quit. He was grabbing my shorts and grabbing the cage. He just wanted out of there." - Tony Ferguson, on rallying past Abel Trujillo for his fourth straight win.
Up: Anthony Pettis. Gilbert Melendez had a smart, effective game plan against Pettis last night. He showed no fear of Pettis' flashy strikes, he closed the distance with big flurries to the head and body, and he followed with takedown attempts. And still, Pettis turned the fight in the blink of an eye. You can't sleep on Pettis for a split second. You could get head kicked, Showtime kicked, armbarred, or choke. He's just that slick, and just that good. He's finished Donald Cerrone, Benson Henderson, and Melendez in consecutive fights. That's crazy. Pettis came out of UFC 181 unharmed. If he can follow this up with two or three similar performances in the next 12 months, 2015 could be the year Pettis' popularity finally catches up to his otherworldly skill set.
Slightly down: Johny Hendricks. But not too down, mind you. Look at Hendricks' last four fights, all against opponents who have held UFC, interim UFC, or WEC gold at some point. Against Carlos Condit, Hendricks started strong, won the first two rounds, and faded fast in the third. General consensus is Condit probably would have got the nod if they went five. Against Georges St-Pierre, Hendricks went, by his own estimation, "70 percent," and allowed GSP to steal a disputed decision. In the first fight with Lawler, he turned up the heat in round five and pulled out a decision. Last night, Hendricks seemed to think he had a bigger lead than he actually did, took his foot off the gas, and enabled Lawler to take both rounds four and five with late offensive bursts. Hendricks is plainly square in the championship mix, but his decision-making process when the heat is highest seems hit-or-miss. A bit of tinkering in that regard - and a rethinking of his huge weight cuts, which leave him haggard on fight weeks - might be all it needs to regain the gold and keep it awhile.
Hold: Gilbert Melendez. Yeah, maybe I should call this "down," but I'm not going to get down on one of the sport's classiest guys. The longtime Strikeforce champ deserves to go down as one of the sport's all-time great lightweights. I'll always maintain he was jobbed against Henderson last year. At UFC 181, he simply got caught against an ascendant fighter who looks destined to become a mainstay near the top of the pound-for-pound rankings. While "En Nino" said Pettis made him feel old, there's still plenty of mileage left on those tires.
Up: Sergio Pettis The lightweight champ's younger brother appears to be following in big bro's footsteps. There were two things about last night which particularly impressed me about Pettis' Fight of the Night win over Matt Hobar. One is the way he fought a smart third round and got the job done. That tells me he learned from his mistakes made in his only career loss, when he gave away a fight to Alex Caceres in the final seconds. The other was after the bout, when he said he's thinking of going down to 125. Not only would that give flyweight more name value, but he won't be consistently fighting guys bigger than him. For 21, that's some mature decision making.
Up: Josh Samman. Does Samman's spectacular head-kick knockout of Eddie Gordon mean a ton in the grand scheme of things? Not really, other than earning him a spot in the UFC's pre-PPV highlight reel in the arenas. But Samman's victory was on a night he specifically requested to fight because it was on the birthday weekend of his late girlfriend. His win, and his $50,000 bonus, was a feel-good moment. And we need as many of those as we can get in this sport.
It's about 11 AM Pacific time on Sunday as I'm writing this segment. My phone, my email, my Facebook messages blew up this morning with people asking me about CM Punk. Almost all of these are either people who were diehard MMA fans who have become more casual over the past couple years, or former casual fans who lapsed completely. All of them are interested in Punk. None of them are hitting me with "he's a fake wrestler, this will kill the UFC's credibility" type of hand-wringing that is presently infecting The MMA Bubble. It's not like the UFC is throwing him into a title fight with Chris Weidman. Worst-case scenario, Punk draws one huge buy rate and helps give the rub to someone like Weidman or Pettis, up-and-coming stars who aren't quite at the Anderson Silva/GSP level yet, as they're exposed to new fans. Or maybe Punk has legs as a fighter and turns into a regular attraction. Either way, if you're upset about this, allow me to suggest you channel your rage into something out there actually worth getting upset over.
Fight I'd like to see next: Lawler-Hendricks 3
Yeah, I know, a good deal of you want to move on to Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald. Truth be told, if they go in that direction, I'm not going to complain too hard. This is win-win no matter which fight we get.
But Hendricks does not deserve to be shoved aside this fast. He and Lawler have gone 10 grueling rounds. On my scorecards, they're deadlocked at five rounds apiece. But no matter what your combined score over two fights looks like, I think most reasonable observers will conclude that these are two evenly matched fighters.
It's true Lawler jumped right back into action and won a pair of fights. But Hendricks, for all intents and purposes, had to returned to a rematch with a person he had just defeated, and he did so without complaint. After losing the title in such a razor-thin fashion, a trilogy fight is simply the fairest possible outcome.
Oh and hey ... maybe now, with Melendez getting the door shut to title shots for the foreseeable future, we can finally see that Melendez vs. Eddie Alvarez grudge match?