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No regrets for Robbie Lawler as he turns page on loss to Johny Hendricks

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Esther Lin

LOS ANGELES -- Many words have been written over the past year about the sort of changes Robbie Lawler has undergone. They praise the maturity and poise he's shown as the fighter who didn't quite make it early in his career returned to the UFC and finally maximized his potential.

One important facet of the fighter dubbed "Ruthless" hasn't changed, however. The 31-year-old Iowa native remains as no-nonsense and unsentimental as ever.

And that's enabled Lawler to move on from his biggest career defeat in rapid fashion. Only a few weeks removed from his razor-thin loss to Johny Hendricks in the bout to fill the vacant welterweight title, Lawler's already well past the point of self-pity.

"It's already over and done with," Lawler said about his unanimous decision loss to Hendricks at UFC 171. "I don't need to go back and watch it every day. I need to concentrate on doing better and moving forward."

And that he is. A mere 10 weeks after being part of the early clubhouse leader for Fight of the Year, a thrilling 25-minute standup war with Hendricks which went down to the final round, Lawler will return to the cage and meet another ranked contender in Jake Ellenberger in a feature bout at UFC 173.

Lawler's redemption tale has been much-celebrated in an MMA world which seems badly in need of a feel-good story. But if you thought simply getting to a UFC title fight was the end of the story, well, Lawler only sees the end of one chapter and the start of another.

Thus Lawler accepted a turnaround time that many fighters would balk at under any circumstance, never mind after being on the receiving end of Hendricks' heavy hammers.

"My body felt good," Lawler said. "I was ready to be able to get back in there and get after it and be able to push myself and build on that loss. There's a lot of things I want to work on and that just puts me in the gym right away."

Most reasonable analysts felt Hendricks took the first two rounds against Lawler, Lawler rebounded in rounds three and four, and then, with the title hanging in the balance, Hendricks claimed the final round to seal the win.

At the post-fight press conference that evening in Dallas, Lawler refused to complain about the decision. He's since watched the fight once -- he says it will be his only viewing of the fight any time soon -- and his opinion hasn't changed.

"I didn't do enough," Lawler said. "Plain and simple. My job was to either stop him or do enough to make those judges think I won the fight. I didn't do either of those so I mean, I'm not going to cry about it."

With a few weeks to digest things, however, Lawler has developed an appreciate for the moment, if not the result.

"That Dallas crowd was awesome, they were rocking in there," Lawler said. "The whole experience, just the path I've taken over the past 14 years, my career, it was awesome to be part of a UFC title fight, so, just keep doing it and hopefully I get a chance."

UFC president Dana White has been following the Lawler saga from the get-go. He's the one who was blown away with Lawler's punching power as a 20-year-old and insisted on signing him then, back when matchmaker Joe Silva thought he wasn't yet polished enough for the big show.

"I saw him fighting in Hawaii and he came out like he fought back then," White said. "F------ explosive and trying to take you head off and he had the killer instinct and heavy hands and I wanted to sign him, but Joe Silva said he's not ready yet."

Lawler's story is well-documented by now: How he washed out of the UFC after a string of losses; how he fought at middleweight when by all accounts he could have dropped back down to welterweight without much difficulty; how he returned to the UFC in 2013 and won three straight fights. Count White among those impressed by his transformation.

"I think obviously Robbie Lawler is a completely different person now than he was then. He's a completely different person now than he was three years ago. The whole time he was gone from the UFC i always had a good relationship with Robbie. He would call every now and then and say I'm thinking about Robbie back in the day loved money and he was like I want to make as much money as I can, and there were all these organizations out there that were, to get a kid like Robbie Lawler were paying a lot more."

If you're expecting Lawler to look back on that period with regret, though, you haven't been paying much attention.

"I had a good time fighting in other organizations," Lawler said. "I fought for like five years in Hawaii, nothing better than that. It was awesome. Every fight I went on vacation and I wasn't cutting any weight so I could just eat whatever I wanted. I enjoyed it.

‘When I came back to the UFC, I was just excited," he continued. "Going to that organization and coming to the UFC, it's just, my whole career just got reinvigorated. I moved down to 170 and everything started clicking at the right time."

And so Lawler moves on. Lawler vs. Ellenberger is one of two big upcoming welterweight bouts -- the other being Rory MacDonald vs. Tyron Woodley at UFC 174 -- which will help determine who will next challenge Hendricks for the title when the champ returns from his bicep injury.

However it pans out, Lawler will continue to go from chapter to chapter the way he's done until now: With no regrets and no looking back.

"I'm going to fight until my body says otherwise," Lawler said. "If I don't have the drive and determination to wake up every day and train with young hungry fighters, if I don't want to do that then I need to get out of the game, but as long as my body says I'm alright and my hunger stays the same I'm going to keep going."