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Robbie Lawler, that great dropper of jaws, is a hard one to figure out

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For whatever reason we’ve come to accept the fact with minimal understanding, but Robbie Lawler has emerged as the most remarkable son of a bitch in the game. He does everything we don’t expect him to.

We peg him a mediaphobe, he begins to shine (in his own weird way) under the duress of the digital recorder. We think he’s a bit inward, he shows up at every UFC event like the very face of the franchise. We think he wants to brawl and put on Fight of the Nights, he says no sir, he wants to win fast and get home. We think he’s washed up at 30, and he morphs into your prototypical shark-eyed killer at 34. We think he’s Iowa, and he becomes full-time Florida. We believe he’s mercenary enough to understand how a bout with Conor McGregor would line his pockets, he says that’s a laughably bad idea, because he would literally pull the Irishman’s soul out through his neck cavity after ripping his head off, bend it like a aural slingshot, and shoot McGregor’s carcass through the roof.

I’m embellishing a little on that last part, but only a little. 

He’s gotten tanner, too. One might say he’s gotten preternaturally tan, like the sun is inside of him shining out. And you know what else? "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler would look pretty natural holding a shiv. Don’t tell me that thought hasn’t crossed your mind.

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No, Lawler is immensely interesting, both in and out of the cage. Yet as he gets set to defend his title for the welterweight third time against Tyron Woodley at UFC 201 on Saturday night, the casual interest in him remains lukewarm. This has become the marvel within the marvel. No, he’s not a wordsmith. But his hands are fistsmiths.

Lawler opened 2016 by putting on a Fight of the Year candidate against Carlos Condit, which felt like it was a gift to fans with a nose for a sophisticated brawl. Before that, in mid-2015, he and Rory MacDonald left each other at death’s door after 21 minutes of meat-on-bone butchery, the kind of bout that can turn fight voyeurism introspective. It only ended when Lawler caved MacDonald’s nose in with a left hand.

Sweet mercy, what a fight.

At UFC 171, the last time Lawler lost, he and Johny Hendricks engaged in the Fight of the Year (2014). In other words, for three years running he’s been involved in the best fight of the year. Yet somehow it’s easy to underplay him as an upcoming feature. And that’s the case again as he heads into this fight with Woodley, his distant American Top Team gymmate. Why is that?

My guess is that there’s a sense that he’s somehow overachieving, like he’s holding the belt on borrowed time or something. Maybe it’s because Georges St-Pierre never actually lost the belt in his weight class. Or that Lawler’s fights are generally pretty close.

Then again, it could be that we witnessed with our own eyes Lawler losing five out of eight fights between 2009-2012, including his last fight in Strikeforce against Lorenz Larkin. We should see him as a piece of phenomena in that case, though. Why? Because he lost five out of eight fights between 2009-2012, including his last fight in Strikeforce against Lorenz Larkin. Who comes back from that?

Career turnarounds on this scale are nearly impossible. We don’t wad up old hamburger wrappers, toss them over our shoulder and have them reappear at our doorsteps as freshly wrapped double-cheeseburger deluxes. Yet that’s Lawler. He’s done it — "it" being winning eight of his last nine fights — while A) getting better and B) some getting even more exciting. He says he owes some of his success by sparring less. As in, no longer sparring at all. His training has changed.

But those Those fights.

Everyone knows Lawler can wrestle, yet he has always been given to the leather trade -- you get the feeling he’d accommodate a flame-thrower in a firefight. Still, there are subtle tweaks to be detected. His game plans since coming over from Strikeforce are to fight smarter -- as in, stand in his opponent’s wheelhouse 70 percent of the time, rather than 80 percent, and to regroup for periods after prolonged exchanges. There are moments where he conserves energy so that he can come to life late. There is way more forethought there. We’ve seen that in his title defenses.

Yet his trust in his own chin remains the same. That’s the constant. Only Nick Diaz at UFC 47 has been able to knock him out. That was back in 2004.
For a dozen years Lawler has stood in the cage against the best middleweights and welterweights in the world, and nobody has put him away with strikes. That’s remarkable. So is the fact that he’s a champion at 34 when he was thought to be compost at 30. So is the fact that he’s emerged as the most guaranteed bang for your buck in the game. Some people love fighting, but Robbie Lawler loves fighting. You’re not going to outlove him in the physical dictation of wills. It’s hard to tell where his sense of competition ends and his streak of sadism begins. He’s always smiling and spitting blood. It’s unnerving. Yet that’s Robbie Lawler.

What’s not to appreciate?

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