The former UFC welterweight champion and soon-to-be UFC Hall of Famer announced plans to retire from MMA following his upcoming bout against Niko Price, in what will be his 47th fight in a career that dates back over 22 years. Addressing the decision to hang up his gloves, Lawler admits there was no grand epiphany that led to this moment, but rather just the understanding that he was ready to walk away.
“It’s just a feeling I got over time,” Lawler said during UFC 290 media day. “I’ve been doing this a long time, accomplished a lot, just felt it was time.”
Considering he was wrestling with UFC legends like Matt Hughes when he was still in high school, Lawler hasn’t known anything but MMA since he was barely old enough to drive a car. In fact, from the date he made his professional debut in 2001, Lawler competed in every calendar year outside of 2018, which is a remarkable accomplishment considering the physical toll combat sports can take on a person’s body.
Make no mistake, Lawler still loves fighting, which only made it that much harder to contemplate a future where he would no longer be preparing for his next opponent.
“I would say there was fear,” Lawler said of his decision to retire. “Because it’s freaking unknown. I’ve been training and competing my whole life, even when I was supposed to be in high school or middle school. I’m concentrating on how to get better at wrestling or football or whatever, fighting, when I should be doing my homework. That’s where I’ve always been.”
He may be calling it a career on Saturday, but Lawler won’t be going far from his current daily routine, which usually consists of dedicating a lot of time in the gym. That part won’t change, although curiously Lawler is excited at the chance to beat up his body a little bit more without another fight on the horizon.
“One thing that I feel I’m going to get out of this is I’m going to actually just be able to train for fun again, which is huge,” Lawler explained. “My body feels better when I’m training for fun. When I’m training for a fight, it just doesn’t feel as good as it used to and I don’t have to recover now.
“I can actually torture myself, which seems weird, but that’s my goal: To torture myself, to beat myself down, and that’s how I gain strength. Now, since I’m older, I can’t recover as fast. So now I’m going to be able to torture myself a little bit more and give myself more rest.”
Even if the fight at UFC 290 is his last, Lawler promises that he’s not going very far because he still intends on being a fixture in MMA; he’ll just be doing most of his work outside the cage.
Lawler has always been a coach and mentor to younger fighters growing up under him, and he has no plans to change that just because he won’t be competing any longer.
“I’m definitely going to be around the sport,” Lawler said. “This sport has given so much to me. The reason that I am where I am today and been able to last this long is because of all the people helping me.
“So I’m going to give back, all these little tidbits I’ve learned over time and we have a really good gym at Kill Cliff FC, and just being able to help guys get stronger so that they can make money and compete at a higher level, and that’s what I feel martial arts is about. Giving back and showing techniques.”
Because he announced plans to retire before his fight, Lawler has been one of the main centers of attention leading into UFC 290, with a slew of athletes offering him congratulations on an incredible career and often naming their favorite moments from his career.
Lawler has never been one to embrace compliments, but he’s trying to be more gracious, especially because deep down he really does appreciate the kind words.
“I actually try not to focus on it,” Lawler said. “It’s one of those things where I created this gap between other people giving me accolades and praise because you can’t go through life trying to seek praise from other people. I’m trying to seek praise from myself, really. Being able to accept that [from] people, and me being like, ‘Oh, thank you, I appreciate that,’ it’s definitely something I’ve never really allowed myself to get involved with.
“I didn’t get into this sport for praise and hype and those types of things. I’m just trying to be the best I can be. So maybe I need to figure out a way to let people appreciate me.”
Stoic by nature, Lawler has rarely let his emotions show before, during, or even after his fights — unless he’s letting out a guttural scream like the one he unleashed after finishing Rory MacDonald in his UFC Hall of Fame fight in 2015 — but it’s possible that could change very soon.
Lawler will do his best to fight back those feelings, but it might be impossible given the reception he’s likely to receive on Saturday.
“I think it could [get emotional], and it has come up, but I try not to because it’s a lot,” Lawler said. “I’ve been freaking doing this a long time.”