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After ‘slow and tedious’ rehab, rejuvenated Robbie Lawler is ready to be ‘Ruthless’ again

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Robbie Lawler doesn’t have to do any of this anymore. He’s 36 years old now, nearly two decades into a career of professional fighting. He started training at the age of 16 and, over the last 18 years, has been in some of the bloodiest, most grueling battles in the history of the sport.

In December 2017, when he came up lame in a main-event fight with Rafael dos Anjos and ended up with a completely torn ACL and torn meniscus, Lawler could have easily hung up the gloves. Who could have blamed him? He’s already been the UFC welterweight champion. He’s already been in the Fight of the Year multiple times. His legacy as one of the most exciting, violent athletes in the history of MMA is set.

Yet there he was a little more than two years ago, in a hospital bed. Almost smiling to himself. Almost salivating at the thought of all the hard work it’ll take to get back into the Octagon.

“This is what I enjoy,” Lawler said of fighting in a cage for a living. “I didn’t know why [the injury] happened or how it happened. I just knew that it was gonna be a blessing. As soon as it happened, I was laid up in my room with my leg elevated, thinking ‘I’m gonna make the best out of this injury.’ That’s what I did. I got back to the grind, started working, didn’t rush anything. Got to spend more time with my family, which was huge. Got to work on other aspects other than just fighting.

“And I got to start from the ground up. Basically, I could barely walk. Then it was just like start building, start from scratch. How can I get better?”

While some would have fallen into a dark place, with a UFC comeback months, if not years, in the distant future, Lawler took on the challenge of every day. He had surgery to repair his knee Jan. 10, 2018. The following day, he couldn’t walk under his own power.

Now, fewer than 14 months after surgery, Lawler is ready to get back into the Octagon. He’ll be facing undefeated former Olympic wrestler Ben Askren at UFC 235 on March 2 in Las Vegas. Lawler is healthy now, he said, and feels strong than he ever has. But the process was a drawn out one and not easy.

Lawler said he went step by step — not wanting to rush — first learning how to walk on crutches. This is not an unusual injury for athletes. But for Lawler it was brand new. For all the wild fights he has been in, this was one of the worst injuries of his career, if not the worst. And the first time he has blown out his knee.

“The rehab process was slow and tedious, but I just remembered to get back at it and working on straightening my leg, then working on bending it, then getting to the weight-bearing,” Lawler said.

In the early going, when he couldn’t walk at all, Lawler said he relied on a device called Power Plate, a platform that vibrates 25 to 50 times per second. Lawler said he’s been using it during workouts for almost a decade and it’s currently being used by most NFL teams and Division I athletic programs. Lawler said he did isolated work outs on it, in between physical therapy sessions, and stretching.

“You’re getting a lot more work in than you realize, because the vibration kind of forces your muscles to work a lot harder,” Lawler said. “Just made it easy. I wasn’t very mobile, but I was doing a lot of iso stuff and just doing holds. And that really helped kind of get the ball rolling to get my strength back early on.”

Lawler said he had physical therapy three times a week, but in some cases that wasn’t enough for him. He’d have sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, go home and do the same workout again. Then do it again midday the following day.

“I made sure I stayed busy,” he said. “When you’re not very mobile, you kind of keep plugging away and do what you can.”

In May 2018, Lawler started working with Mike Barwis and that’s when he says he took things to the next level. Barwis is a longtime strength and conditioning coach, who currently hosts the show “American Muscle” on Discovery Channel and holds a senior advisor position with the New York Mets.

Lawler said he’s been able to look at his body’s strengths and weaknesses, including even what might have caused him to tear up his knee. He’s been focusing on stability and making those weaknesses better. Lawler believes he has accomplished that.

“My body is stronger than it’s ever been before,” he said. … “I would say I’m a better version of myself. I’ve had room to grow. I’ve just had time to reflect and I’m building. I’m trying to get better in all aspects, not just fighting. I’m trying to learn and trying to develop different parts of my life. That’s what I’ve been doing the past year and that’s what I’ll continue to do it. It’s just evolution and trying to get better in every way.”

What is motivating him heading into a big welterweight fight with Askren? Nothing specific other than this is what Lawler does and what he wants to do. Lawler held the UFC 170-pound title from 2014 to 2016, but doesn’t get up for the possibility of getting back to that spot. It’s simpler than that.

“Obviously, fighting is very fun,” Lawler said. “I love competing and I love pushing myself every day. Goals? I want to enjoy myself and have fun and beat some people up while I’m doing it. I actually really love training with fighters and helping them get to the next level, too. Me being in the room getting myself ready is kind of showing them maybe they should do a little bit of the stuff I’m doing. Then I look at them and I’m like, ‘Oh, I like what they’re doing.’ So, it’s just like a give and take. I love being in the gym and just the camaraderie and getting better with all my friends and training partners.”

Lawler has been working this camp down in Lantana, Fla., at Hard Knocks 365 under coaches like Henri Hooft, Kami Barzini, Greg Jones and others. Logan Storley, a Bellator prospect and four-time former Division I wrestling All-American, is one of his main training partners. So is Kamaru Usman, who is challenging Tyron Woodley, the man who knocked off Lawler, for the UFC welterweight belt.

It’s a good group and Lawler gives them, as well as those who have helped him with rehab, a ton of credit for this comeback. Lawler is no stranger to having a top-notch team around him. He basically grew up with the famed Miletich Fighting Systems team and then reinvented himself at American Top Team en route to the UFC title.

Now, Lawler is trying to write another chapter in his fighting life, 18 years after it all started. Many of his contemporaries back then are long gone. But “Ruthless” is still here. Working.

When asked if he could ever imagine he’d still be doing this when he started about two decades ago, Lawler laughed and said the question was “hilarious.”

“I was pay check to pay check, workout to workout,” he said. “And that’s pretty much still how I try to live my life. If you’re thinking too far ahead, you’re gonna miss what’s going on right in front of you. I was just grinding, getting better and just keeping my eye on the prize. I wasn’t thinking 20 years from now. I just wasn’t.”

Those nearly 20 years have come now. They are here. So is Lawler. “Ruthless” as ever.

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