Heading into the UFC 181 welterweight title fight between Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks, the stakes seemed clear enough. The winner would face challenger Rory MacDonald, most likely in MacDonald's native Canada, sometime in early-2015.
Yet when Lawler and Hendricks fought to yet another razor close decision on Saturday night, this time with the judges seeing it for Lawler, the idea of a trilogy fight started to pick up some steam. Suddenly MacDonald-Lawler II felt a little less important than Hendricks-Lawler III.
Though it’s still believed that MacDonald (who was cageside for the fight in Las Vegas) is still next in line to challenge for the belt, Lawler’s longtime friend/training partner Matt Hughes would rather see the trilogy with Hendricks play out first.
"How long ago was the MacDonald fight?" he asked Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. "Thirteen months ago? That’s not an old fight. Robbie won that pretty decisively, right?"
That fight, which occurred at UFC 167 in November 2013, was a split decision as well, going in favor of Lawler. However, it was a split decision that was definitive enough to avoid outcries of injustice and judging incompetence. And Hughes said with that being the case, if given his druthers he’d opt for another fight with Hendricks, where people are split on the scorecards.
"You’ve got a guy that Robbie’s already beat pretty decisively, and now you’ve got a great rematch where the first fight was close, the second fight was maybe even closer, and now the makings for a third fight," he said. "If I were Hendricks, I would want a direct rematch. And I would say that they’re going for that, and I don’t blame them.
"Now you’ve got a storyline for a really big third fight, where with MacDonald you’ve got a guy that Robbie beat a year ago. What do you do? I think you’ve really got to go with the Hendricks fight, but it doesn’t matter to me."
First things first, though, is Lawler spending the holidays with his family in Florida – something he said he wanted to do in the post-fight press conference. Lawler fought four times in 2014, with a February loss to Hendricks in what many consider the Fight of the Year, and then victories over Jake Ellenberger, Matt Brown and then Hendricks again.
Hughes believes that Lawler should take more than the "couple of weeks" off.
"To me, Robbie is, after this win, he is fighter of the year in my eyes," he said. "He did have a loss, but he’s come back and fought two other tough guys and here he is wearing the welterweight belt at the end of the year. I would like to see the guy have a couple of months where he can let his kid know who his dad is, and spend some time with his family. And between all these fights he’s moved from Iowa to Florida, he’s moved into a new house, and the guy just needs some time at home."
Even though he wants that for the 32-year-old Lawler, he’s been around the "Ruthless" one long enough to know that he has a hard time saying no to fights when they’re presented.
"Everyone can say that this champion needs some time off, but [the UFC’s] also got a champion who’s willing to fight anybody out there at the drop of a dime," Hughes said. "So, I mean, hey, I think everybody’s happy that there’s a welterweight champion that is not going to back down from a fight, who’s going to fight anybody, and he’s going to go out there and try to win the fight with every punch thrown."