It feels redundant, if not a bit awkward, to credit a professional fighter for their courage. It's part of the job description, after all. If you stick around the game long enough to become successful, odds dictate that humanity's inherent fear of getting smacked upside the face was never really an issue for you in the first place.
But every now and then another of history's occasional outliers comes along, the sort who curls a contemptuous lip at his own self-preservation to such a degree where it's hard not to be reverential. That's usually when those old tired descriptors are drug out from the woodshed and propped up in their Sunday best. Toughness. Grit. Heart. Really, they're all just different ways of saying the same thing: that dude, the dude you see right there lapping the blood off his four-ounce gloves, yeah, he's certifiably, batsh*t insane... but in a good way. A fun way.
It's a weird notion to describe, especially to an outsider unfamiliar with it. But sporadically, on the rare fight week where one of these Crazymen is next on deck, this little seven-day ritual of ours feels just a bit different. The air is thicker, the anticipation is sweeter. Those little hairs at the ends of our knuckles dial up their two-step from electric shuffle to full-on homicidal waltz. And by the time Saturday rolls around, if Crazyman One is given a Crazyman Two as a willing dance partner, that's when our little ritual ceases being a fight and becomes something more.
"You've got to have two guys who, it's just in their DNA," says Brian Stann, the UFC on FOX analyst who doubled as an all-offense middleweight in his past life. "Where you get in there and you absolutely know you have other tools at your disposal, the problem is that you just enjoy fighting in a phone booth too much. You have such a competitive nature, that when someone punches you right in the mouth, your immediate reaction is to smile and say: ‘my turn.'"
It's here that we come to this weekend. A millennium ago, when life was dark and the world's aggressors stood tall, men like Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown could have been kings. Lawler, the semi truck of man with shotgun limbs, whose frosty indifference is betrayed only by the slightest hint of an occasional freckled sneer; and Brown, the hirsute phoenix who rose from the ashes to storm Hell's unsuspecting gates, hurtling blood and bone, knees and elbows through an ongoing army of disbelievers.
Warlords across the old world are happy to have not had these two fearless lunatics forever plodding towards them on the fields of battle.
It's delicious fate that Lawler and Brown, two of the division's most no-nonsense fighters, now meet in the most unexpected of title eliminators at UFC on FOX 12. Fight fans have been burned by promises of brawls or firefights in the past -- there's no sinking feeling quite like realizing all those empty threats were exactly that -- but if ever there was a pairing to deliver on its word, it's this one. For both Lawler and Brown, the philosophy of forward is the truth. My man Jack Slack dubbed Lawler a welterweight "offensive counterpuncher," and the label fits. Ruthless' relentless pace and offsetting head movement can make even the largest of phone booths feel terrifyingly claustrophobic, while Brown is the master of suffocation.
No distance is safe between these two, simply because no distance is allowed.
It's an aggressor's dream match-up, so to help understand what these two will be going through on Saturday night, I've enlisted Stann, a veteran with a career's worth of brawls, to shine some light on how exactly it feels to be caught in a classic. (Portions of this interview have been edited for concision.)
Al-Shatti: More likely than not, the time is going to come on Saturday night when Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown are standing inches away from each other, eating the other's best shots and trading heavy leather until one man either collapses or breaks off for a moment to regain his bearings. As a fighter, what is the single most important factor that comes into play during these pocket exchanges?
Stann: Awareness. The fighters who don't get lost in the moment and environment are always the best ones -- those who walk into the Octagon and very quickly, from the first bell, feel just like they feel in the gym when they're sparring. There are other guys who, that feeling takes two to three minutes, or a whole round, until they can really zero in on the fight. The longer it takes you, the more energy you expend because of the adrenaline and nerves.
Al-Shatti: The hotter the pocket gets, I would imagine, the more difficult is it to not to give in to those old brawling instincts, especially if you're predisposed to it like both Robbie and Matt are.
Stann: It's so hard. And that's why, if you want an example of a guy to watch, it's Cub Swanson. I feel like he's at the top of the mountain at being in the pocket, eyes wide open, and somehow not getting hit with solid punches. He can get in there and he moves so well. Most guys squint their eyes, flinch a little bit, put their head down. It's triply hard for guys like me and Pat Healy, who've got noggins the size of cars out there. I mean, I can move this thing -- it doesn't mean it's getting out of the way of punches. When me and Chris Leben fought, I really think 100-percent of all punches thrown in that fight landed.
And when you throw head movement out the window, when you say ‘okay, I can move my head and they're still going to hit me,' it simplifies everything, but now I'm just going to put my head down, go forward, throw really hard shots, and one of us is going to wake up on the canvas. I'm flipping the coin and hopefully it's not me. The negative to that, (other than losing), is a very short-lived career.
Al-Shatti: I'm curious, I often hear guys talk about how everything slows down when they're in the midst of such a furious, all-out type of exchange like that. Is that true?
Stann: You'd be surprised at how calm you are during those (exchanges). It's all going on so fast, your mind may be working a little bit slower. You're more focused on feeling your hands engage his head and what your target is, hoping ‘okay, that one didn't land that solid, I hope this hook lands flush on his chin... oh no, it hit the cheek bone.' You're anticipating that moment where all of a sudden the guy's legs go limp and he just falls, and you can finally say, whew, got him, and all these crazy things go through your mind.
I remember the first time it looked like I slipped in the (Wanderlei Silva) fight. It was actually a punch that I took right behind the ear. It felt like the light switch went out for a second, and I remember as soon as I got back to my feet and started trading with him, I said ‘oooh, I may get knocked out in this fight.' First thing that went through my head, then we just kind of went back at it.
Then there's other times where it just happens, and out of nowhere, at the end of it, you hear the crowd roar, and you stare across at your opponent, you both kind of catch each other's eye, and you know... right now you're in one of those fights that you've watched so many of, that you always wanted to be a part of. The fans are behind you, everybody is on their feet. No matter how tired you are, you get this flood of emotion and energy from that, and it ignites you. It makes you want to have more of those exchanges. When you don't expect it and they just materialize, that's the most fun time for it to happen because that's when you can feed off the crowd and it creates this experience that we fighters will always remember and look back on fondly in our career.
Al-Shatti: Matt Brown, in particular, has shown a susceptibility to body shots in the past. Do you feel like the body shot is an overlooked art of pocket fighting?
Stann: It takes more skill, more footwork, move head movement to get in and hit someone in the body, especially if you're a guy like me and you're built like a T-Rex. If you don't have really long arms, you've got to get into their chest just to get to their body. Body kicks, especially, are tremendous weapons, but it's easier to catch your kick and take you down, so there's some risk associated with it. At the same time, punching to the body is, most of the time, going to leave your head susceptible to either elbows or a counterpunch, because it creates more of a distance between your hand and your face, so there's an opening there.
I like to call body shots soul strikes, because you can get hit to the head and you can take it. But when you get hit to the body, when you take a good body shot, your mind and your heart is telling you ‘hey, fight back,' but your body is telling you, ‘no.' You can't. You're just incapacitated. You're paralyzed, and you're forced to sit there and watch the onslaught of your opponent coming and you just can't move. It's absolutely vicious. Like that card last week (UFC Fight Night 45). It's hard. I tried so much in my commentary to make people understand what it's like when you get hit with a tough body shot, when you can't move, you can't pick up your arms, you can't get any air in your lungs. You're just paralyzed watching this guy beat the hell out of you. It is a tough, tough thing to do, but it takes a tremendous amount of skill to land those shots.
Al-Shatti: Looking back, you've been in a similar situation to these two guys, main eventing a slot where it's obvious what the fans and your bosses are expecting. From the outside I wonder, are the expectations of a brawl somewhat of a mental burden, knowing that anything less would likely be a disappointment?
Stann: It wasn't a burden to me, but if I could go back and reevaluate it, I would. ... Sometimes when you get a fight like that, like the Wanderlei fight, you know it's going to be one of those fights. I certainly know, like a guy like Cowboy Cerrone who's got a penchant for fights like that, I mean, look, he's got a blatant disregard for his own well-being. There's not doubt about it, he doesn't care.
I think it comes from having to deal with certain things in your life that have been adverse and have given you perspective, to where you can look at a fight and say, okay, if I lose this fight, this is the kind of way I could lose this fight and not be willing to accept it -- the kind of fight where you go out there, you hold back, you don't do your best... when you fight not to lose, instead of fighting to win. You can live with getting knocked out, because you know if I lose and I get knocked out, hey, I was out there putting on an amazing performance that these fans paid to watch. They're going to want to watch me again. When I lost, well I was trying to knock him out, and I can accept that. What I can't stand is when I lose a fight where I know I had more in the tank; where I fought a little too careful here or I held back there or I didn't go for this here.
It's the same kind of personality that has to win at a video game, that has to win the race here, that everything is a competition all the time. And we definitely have all the makings of that in this fight between these guys.
Al-Shatti: Well then, I have to ask, do you think this one plays out like many of us expect?
Stann: I think it's hard for it not to. For Matt Brown to win, he has to have it develop that way. If he plays a distance game, I think Robbie Lawler is a little bit better of an athlete and that's going to be a disadvantage for Matt Brown. Matt Brown's got to play the suffocation game. He's got to get in Robbie Lawler's face for every round, non-stop, pushing backwards. Robbie has less power backing up than he does when he's going forward initiating contact.
Matt has put together so many of those fights, and coming off his last fight with Erick Silva, I think there's a lot of pressure. But I also feel that the guy who shows their versatility is going to be the guy who ends up being successful in the fight. So if one of them lands a well-timed takedown, one a round, what that's going to do is it's going to open up the rest of their own arsenal in the striking game. If all of a sudden Matt Brown is on his back with 1:30 left in round one, he knows he's going to lose the round. He's going to be thinking, ‘I don't want to get taken down again.' When you're thinking that, it eats away at your offense, your own striking arsenal. It limits the weapons you have. So I think both of these guys need to think, ‘hey, yeah it's going to be a brawl, it's going to be that exciting fight, but to open up and make my striking more effective, I need to do these other things well. I need to wrestle effectively as well to catch my opponent off guard.'
Al-Shatti: Alright, well we can't let you get out of here without a prediction. Lawler vs. Brown, who you got?
Stann: It's tough, because every time you pick against this guy (Brown), he finds a way to win. But I just think that with Robbie's athleticism, he's slightly more powerful, he's slightly more versatile, I think he has enough to get it done. And I just don't see this fight going the distance with these two guys. I think both of them would rather go out on their shield than leave the Octagon without it, so there's going to be some fireworks and I think it's going to be Robbie Lawler in the end.