“Ruthless” Robbie Lawler was given every opportunity to dispute the result of his UFC 171 main-event loss to Johny Hendricks on Saturday night.
This is mixed martial arts, after all, where a segment of the fan base is inclined to scream “robbery” every time a fight goes the distance.
Instead, the ever-stoic Iowa native resisted repeated attempts to get him to say he deserved to win his bout with Hendricks, a classic of a UFC welterweight title fight which Hendricks took on across-the-board 48-47 scores.
“The thing is, when you leave it up to the judges, these things happen,” Lawler said at the postfight news conference at Dallas’ American Airlines Arena. “I just didn’t do enough tonight.”
Sometimes in the fight business, you gain nearly as much in defeat as you would in victory. This was the case for Lawler on Saturday night. Accepting a narrow-but-firm defeat with grace was the capper on the evening, justifying all the hype bestowed on him when he first broke into the sport.
For years, the 31-year-old Lawler (22-10) was MMA’s can’t-miss prospect who somehow did. Lawler, whom UFC president Dana White has called “The Ultimate Fighter before there was an Ultimate Fighter,” burst onto the scene at UFC 37 as a 20-year-old and was largely expected to be a future welterweight champion. He raised expectations even further by winning four of his first five UFC fights.
Instead, he flamed out of the UFC by 2004. He spent years bouncing from company to company collecting big paychecks because of his name, but looking hit or miss in his fights. He fought at middleweight for several years simply because it was easier than cutting down to his natural weight class. Along the way, he developed a reputation for shunning fans and media alike, which kept a fighter with his natural abilities from connecting with the crowd.
Sometime in recent years, though, something clicked in Lawler’s brain. He hooked up with one of the country’s top MMA gyms, Florida’s American Top Team. He got back into the UFC and won three straight fights, and when Georges St-Pierre vacated the title in December, leaving Hendricks in need of a dance partner, Lawler got the title shot.
When given the opportunity, Lawler put on the type of fireworks display long expected of him under such a bright spotlight.
Hendricks was the clear-cut winner of the first two rounds Saturday: While Lawler was able to stop his takedowns, Hendricks mixed pinpoint leg kicks with solid punches and kept Lawler from finding his range.
But Lawler was showing signs of confidence by the latter stages of round two, as he fearlessly waded through the hard-hitting Hendricks’ shots, looking to land a big bomb.
"I wasn't too worried about his takedowns and I wasn't too worried about his punching," Lawler said. "I just was trying to time him and see what was out there and take advantage of it.”
Then Lawler turned it on in rounds three and four, turning the bout into a standup epic the likes of which we rarely see. If there’s a “what if” out of this fight, it’s Lawler refraining from turning it up yet another notch when Hendricks appeared to be out on his feet.
"I saw his legs buckle a little bit but he recovered pretty fast and was throwing back,” Lawler said. “He's a dangerous opponent, and once again maybe I should've pressed a little bit more and brought the fight to him a little bit earlier."
And make no mistake, the man who left the arena with both the gold belt and lots of welts Saturday night knew he was in a battle.
"Realistically, I thought we were both going to knock each other out in the first or the second round," Hendricks said. "I didn't think we were going to go five. Definitely, as hard as he hit me in the third and fourth round, almost anybody else would've been out. For some reason, I have a thick skull. He hit me with some hard shots and I knew I had to come back in the fifth round.”
Ultimately, Hendricks had the last word in the final round and sealed the fight. Lawler’s body language told the story, first in the exasperated look on his face after Hendricks scored a takedown in the fight’s closing minute; then when he nodded in agreement after the decision was read in Hendricks’ favor.
“I should have done more in the fight, thrown more punches, thrown more kicks, and took him out,” he said. “I didn’t do it tonight and he fought a helluva fight. I wanted to stop him. I was looking to finish and I didn’t.”
As for what’s next, well, Nick Diaz wants to return from his self-imposed retirement, and Lawler has a score to settle, a face-plant knockout loss to Diaz at UFC 47 in 2004.
But that’s for a bit down the road. By giving it all and coming up just a bit short, then facing his defeat with grace, Saturday night was Robbie Lawler’s greatest career disappointment and his biggest triumph all at once.
"I'm just disappointed," Lawler said. “So close. It was a hell of a fight. It's been a long road, a long journey, and I just didn't see it going down this way."
Never again call Lawler the can’t-miss prospect who somehow did.
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoyleMMA.