Back when UFC welterweight Robbie Lawler first began competing in professional mixed martial arts in 2001, the biggest shows took place on Fridays, and fighters possessed anonymity. The sport of MMA, and its athletes, flew well below the radar of mainstream media, still considered a form of barbaric backyard brawling.
But that's all changed in the last 13 years. Mixed martial arts and the UFC have evolved into a slick and sophisticated sports promotion, hosting events nearly every Saturday of 2014. And as for Lawler, well, he's become synonymous with hard-hitting tussles, and is set to compete for the championship belt for the second time this year, taking on current titleholder Johny Hendricks in the main event of UFC 181.
"When I first came into the UFC I was supposed to be the next best thing and that just never panned out. I never lived up to my potential," explains Lawler. "But I never gave up on myself, I always believed I was gonna be amazing. I always believed I was capable of great things."
Now 32, Lawler grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, where he trained at the Miletich Fighting Systems camp. Surrounded by many of MMA's early champions like Pat Miletich, Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, and Jens Pulver, Lawler cut his teeth at regional shows before receiving the call to join the UFC in 2002. Touted as a future star, Lawler went on win his first three contests inside the Octagon, but less than two years later, he was cut from the promotion, released after back-to-back losses.
On the outside, looking in, Lawler would spend much of the next ten years fighting his way back into the UFC, competing for the ill-fated IFL and Elite XC promotions, eventually finding stability with Strikeforce, where he fought top-level opponents at middleweight. But when Zuffa, LLC, the UFC's parent company, purchased Strikeforce in 2011 and later dissolved the brand in 2013, Lawler found his way back into the Octagon.
"When I got back to the UFC all of a sudden people knew I was fighting ... even though I had been fighting for the 10 years in between my stints with the UFC," offers Lawler. "No one really knew I even existed."
And upon his return, Lawler did more than merely exist. He rattled off a trio of wins in 2013, knocking out UFC veteran Josh Koscheck and Strikeforce import Bobby Voelker, later taking a split decision over contender Rory MacDonald at UFC 167.
The win over MacDonald eventually earned Lawler his first crack at the belt, matched against Hendricks in the main event of UFC 171 after longtime welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre relinquished his title. But Lawler's Cinderella story ended there, as Hendricks won the back-and-forth contest - easily one of the year's best - on the strength of a late takedown.
"You're never really gonna get one back cause you're still gonna have that 'L' on your record," adds Lawler regarding his first encounter with Hendricks. "It's really all about getting better from that fight. It's not about losing; it's not about getting knocked down. It's about how you get up and how you continue to get better ... every time I've lost I've gotten better from it. Plain and simple."
And just 10 weeks after his loss to Hendricks, Lawler was right back to work, squaring off against Jake Ellenberger at UFC 173. While most fighters would have taken a few weeks, even a month or two, following a bout, Lawler wasted no time. And after his third round knockout of Ellenberger, Lawler cemented his place as the welterweight division's number-one contender with a dominant win over Matt Brown in July, setting the stage for his rematch with Hendricks.
"I learned where I need to get better, things I need to work on ... it's more or less how I could be a better fighter, not necessarily what I could do against Johny," offers Lawler. "Sometimes you just do things in fights and you don't realize why you did it, and that's why you go back and watch tape and you see things."
On Saturday, December 6, Lawler will attempt to complete a mission some 13 years in the making. He's intensely focused on Hendricks, winning the belt, and joining his old Miletich teammates as UFC champions. He's also determined to become the first member of his current camp - American Top Team - to hoist a UFC belt. But regardless of the outcome, Lawler has already proven himself to be one of the sport's most exciting and popular fighters, and a legitimate draw at the gate and on Pay Per View.
Lawler has also proven himself to be somewhat of a commodity to MMA sponsors and sports apparel marketers, signing a deal with Adidas. And while the UFC inked an exclusive apparel contract with Reebok just a few days ago, Lawler's relationship with Adidas may very well remain safe, as the German brand is the parent company of Reebok.
"The sport's huge now. Sponsors are jumping on board, fans are excited, and there's just lots of fights," comments Lawler. "I do have a deal with Adidas and it's awesome. It's awesome to have a big sponsorship ... [but] back then, it was just rough guys who loved competing, guys who loved to fight just going in there and battling everyday ... the money wasn't big then, which was okay with me cause I wasn't doing it for that."
From a fiery teen, bent on finishing opponents with his heavy fists, to a calm, calculated, and mature man, Robbie Lawler has seen it all in MMA. He's a warrior and a veteran, delivering some of the sport's most memorable knockouts.
Now it just remains to be seen if he can add a championship belt to his lengthy list of career accolades.