by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
Many people in sports believe that you are not fully a champion until you defend your title. It takes a lot to win one, but it’s even harder to hold onto it after you get it. Thus the situation “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler finds himself in this Saturday in Honolulu, Hawaii as he defends his Icon Sport Middleweight Championship against the man he defeated for it last year, Niko Vitale.

Considering what Lawler has had to go through to get to this point in his career, it’s nothing for him to have to climb yet another mountain to continue to show that he is the fighter that he had all the potential of becoming when he started fighting in 2003.

Few fighters have ever had the pressure to succeed right away as Robbie has. After starting off his career in spectacular fashion in his first four fights in 2001, winning all his fights either by KO or TKO, Lawler found himself on the fast track to the UFC. Just as quickly as he’d entered the sport he was seen as the next great fighter to come from the Miletich Fighting Systems, following in the footsteps of mentor/manager Pat Miletich and teammates Jens Pulver and Matt Hughes.

And in the early portion of his UFC career, Lawler lived up to all the expectations. Starting right off the bat his inclusion into the company at UFC 37 against tough American Top Team fighter Aaron Riley, Lawler was tested. Robbie and Aaron battled back and forth over the course of three tough rounds with Lawler coming out on top in the end via unanimous decision. It was the first and only one of two times Lawler would ever go to a decision.

Impressed with his grit, the UFC brought Robbie back just over one month later to take on Steve Berger at UFC 57.5 on the undercard of Chuck Liddell VS Vitor Belfort. In what was one of the wildest fights of the night, Lawler and Berger went at it for a furious round before Robbie finally put Steve down 27 seconds into the second round.

With his second UFC win Lawler started to become a feature player in the company’s marketing and perhaps it became too much too early for the fighter still in his very early 20’s. After a dominating performance over Tiki Ghosen on the undercard of the then biggest PPV in the company’s history, UFC 40, it appeared it may be only a matter of time before Lawler supplanted Hughes as the man at 170lbs. But that’s not what happened…

Riding high on his winning streak Lawler was booked to co-headline UFC 42 in Florida against veteran Muay Thai specialist Pete Spratt. The fight was supposed to be a good test for Robbie against a veteran but a test he should win. However once the fight started it became apparent what the difference was between a brawler with power and a clinically precise striker was.

To his credit, Lawler is a very skilled striker; often in practice he slips punches with ease and uses multiple angles in combination to attack with ferocious power. Ask anyone at the Miletich gym and they’ll tell you how he’s the last person in the world you’d want to spar with. But when he gets in the cage things change. His youth in combination with his adrenaline turn he smooth boxer into the street fighter, often exchanging at the wrong times with the wrong strikes and tactics.

Conversely Spratt, a seasoned professional of many years, remains the model of coolness under pressure and used that to his advantage against Robbie. Throughout the fight Pete stayed away from Lawler’s dangerous hands and implemented extremely hard leg kicks against Robbie and over time they took their toll and apparently dislocated Lawler’s hip part way through the second round, forcing Robbie to quit. It was a harsh lesson for the youngster to learn, his first loss, and suddenly an uncertainty surrounded him.

Lawler would return seven months later against tough veteran Chris Lytle at UFC 45 and win a wild back and forth affair that saw both get dropped in the fight. Luckily Lytle got caught in the moment and didn’t use his veteran skills as Spratt had before him which allowed Robbie to take the third round of their fight and win 29-28 across the board on all three judges’ scorecards. Everyone was cautiously optimistic that Lawler had returned over his first obstacle.

Then the wheels seemingly came off in Lawler’s next two bouts at UFC 47 and 50. Against Nick Diaz at 47, Robbie was baited into chasing Nick around the octagon and got caught with a counter punch after he flailed off-balance possibly in an effort to shut Diaz up whom had been talking smack the whole night. Then at 50 after starting off strong against Evan Tanner in Robbie’s 185lb debut, Lawler’s aggressiveness got the better of him. After a slam placed the veteran Tanner on his back Evan calmly worked his way into locking a triangle choke on Lawler and forced him to tap half way through the first round.

Now with a record of 8-3, having lost three of his last four bouts and dealing with numerous injuries, the future didn’t seem so bright for the “next big thing” of the UFC. But sometimes, taking a step back and getting away from spotlight can do someone good, and that’s exactly what happened to Lawler.

After spending nearly a year off rehabbing injuries, Robbie returned to MMA action, this time in the Superbrawl/Icon Sport organization in July of 2005. Now firmly set at 185lbs and no longer having to cut upwards of 30lbs of weight and finally healthy, Lawler showed what he could do against veteran Hawaiian favorite Niko Vitale for his recently won Middleweight Championship.

Shortly before the end of the second round, Lawler’s maturity proved to finally becoming a part of his fighting style as after staying in control the entire fight, he let loose at the right time, catching Niko in a bad spot, exploiting the opening and finishing the fight. Robbie had returned and he now had a belt to call his own.

Two months later Lawler defeated an overmatched Jeremy Brown in King of the Cage and in the process captured his first win via submission. And now he returns for his first fight of the new year, and must defend his title for the first time against the man he beat for it, Niko Vitale. If all goes well and Lawler wins, this could be that next important step to becoming one of the true contenders in the 185lb division.

Whether or not he can take that step is up to him. But he is a different fighter now than he was before. A couple years older, wiser, and all the better to apply what can be a relentless and decimating assault when executed properly. Believe in him or not, it doesn’t matter, Robbie Lawler is who he is now, and that’s a Champion, whether or not he can remain so after this weekend, only time and his skills will tell.