At 20-years-old, Robbie Lawler made his UFC debut in the first preliminary bout on the UFC 37 fight card against Aaron Riley at the CenturyTel Center in Bossier City, La., on May 10, 2002. He was a young and exciting fighter training out of former champion Pat Miletich’s gym in Bettendorf, Iowa.
He defeated Riley that night by unanimous decision and put together back-to-back knockout wins over Steve Berger and Tiki Ghosn in his next two outings. He suffered his first professional loss to Pete Spratt at UFC 42. Spratt literally leg kicked Lawler into submission. He rebounded from the loss by defeating Chris Lytle by unanimous decision at UFC 45.
Lawler was then matched up against another up-and-coming brawler in the welterweight division, Nick Diaz, on the main card of UFC 47. Diaz knocked out Lawler in the second round and the legacy of Nick Diaz began. Lawler, however, left the UFC following his next fight. He moved up to the middleweight division and lost to the late Evan Tanner by first-round submission.
Looking back, Lawler admits that he didn’t have goals at that time in his career other than fighting for the fun of it.
“I didn’t really worry about titles for the longest time. Matt Hughes was a UFC champion at the time. I just enjoyed fighting. I enjoyed pushing myself to the limit. As I got older I started to realize I need those goals. I need to push myself to be more than just exciting, I need goals,” said Lawler during a recent media conference call. “I was out there to have fun, enjoy myself, and compete at a high level, and beat people up, and that’s what I did.”
After leaving the UFC, Lawler fought in nearly every fight promotion imaginable. He competed in SuperBrawl, King of the Cage, Icon Sport, Pride, the International Fight League, and EliteXC before finding a home in the Strikeforce organization. He won middleweight titles in SuperBrawl, Icon Sport, and EliteXC. In 2009, something was amiss and Lawler began losing fights. In the three-year span from 2009 to 2012, Lawler went 3-5.
“I just judge it as I took some lumps. I fell down, I got back up, kept training, and that’s the only thing I could do is just keep pushing to get better. Even when you lose, you get better. Sometimes when you lose, you win. Sometimes when you are winning, you don’t see your flaws; you don’t see what you are not good at,” explained Lawler. “I feel like with all of the bumps and bruises I’ve had in this career and the ups and downs it has made me a stronger fighter today and that’s all that matters.”
Something happened in late 2011 that would change Lawler’s fighting future. Strikeforce was purchased by UFC parent company Zuffa LLC. They began moving fighters over to the UFC from the Strikeforce brand and closed the doors on the organization in January of 2013.
“Coming to the UFC, it gave me excitement. I was excited to be in front of everyone. I was excited to fight the best in the world for the best organization in the world,” he said.
Lawler returned to the UFC and the welterweight division at UFC 157 on Feb. 23, 2013. He had lost three of his last four fights and was facing former title contender Josh Koscheck. Three minutes and fifty-seven seconds later, Lawler was victorious and one of the biggest turnarounds in MMA history began to unfold. He knocked out Bobby Voelker in his next outing and followed that up with a split decision win over Rory MacDonald in his last fight.
“I had a good time fighting at 185 and for the longest time outside of the UFC Matt Hughes and I was watching all of the 170 pounders. I knew I was going back down to 170. I just didn’t feel like I needed to outside of the UFC, so as soon as I got the chance to fight in the UFC, I wanted to head down and fight with the best in the world,” said the now 31-year-old.
“I don’t know if the excitement was there. Maybe it was whom I was fighting for or whatnot, but when I got the chance to fight for the UFC, the excitement was there. I was always working hard, but the excitement was there. I wanted to be here, I wanted to prove myself, I wanted to fight the best in the world, and the UFC gave me that opportunity,” he added.
Lawler faces Johny Hendricks for the vacant welterweight title in the UFC 171 main event from the American Airlines Center in Dallas on Saturday and hopes to cap off his amazing comeback story with a championship.
“This is an exciting time, but I don’t really show my excitement that much. I’m excited to fight. This is a big opportunity. March 15, I’m ready to go,” said Lawler. “March 15, I will be the strongest fighter that I’ve ever been.”
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