LAS VEGAS - For the second time in nine months, welterweights Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks squared off in a heated 25-minute battle. But unlike their first encounter, Lawler exited the victor, winning his first UFC title after debuting with the promotion twelve years ago.
Storming out of the gate, Lawler went right at Hendricks, attacking the former champion with vicious knees and crisp punches. He finished the contest with a heavier, bloodier barrage, taking a split decision, 48-47, 47-48, 49-46.
"I'm really happy for everyone around me," offered an elated Lawler. "It wasn't a one person show, I'm really happy for all the guys who have been there for me and supported me all along."
Midway through the first round, Lawler was dominating, battering Hendricks with a variety of strikes. But Hendricks quickly reverted to his wrestling base, taking Lawler down repeatedly, slowing down the pace and controlling the Octagon.
Hendricks then gained steam in the third frame, stringing together punch and kick combinations before landing a series of takedowns. However, Hendricks faded in the fourth and fifth, repeatedly attempting to stall, tying up action near the fence.
Unfortunately for Hendricks, the tactic failed, and Referee Herb Dean stepped in on two occasions to separate the fighters, after which Lawler continued to push forward with punches and knees from the clinch. Lawler also threw some spectacular kicks, one front kick landing flush on Hendricks' jaw.
The implementation of a more diversified kicking assault was just one of several adjustments Lawler made to his gameplan following the previous loss to Hendricks. And despite being taken down five times during the contest, Lawler exhibited improved defense when it mattered most.
With Hendricks unable to secure a single-leg takedown late in the fifth frame, Lawler capitalized connecting on big, cutting elbows, and one last onslaught just before the final bell.
The split decision marks Lawler's third consecutive win. It also marks the second occasion in roughly a year in which Hendricks has dropped a contentious split verdict in Las Vegas, after failing in a title bid against UFC hall of famer Georges St-Pierre last November at UFC 167.
With Lawler now the champion, the UFC welterweight division title picture is as crowded as ever, with number one challenger Rory MacDonald waiting in the wings, although a trilogy fight with Hendricks still an option.
"I thought it was a great fight, I scored it Robbie three rounds to two," commented MacDonald. "I'm very excited to fight him next, I'll be very focused and I'll be ready."
In the evening's co-main event, lightweight champion Anthony Pettis made quick work of challenger Gilbert Melendez, defending his title for the first time with a mounted guillotine choke submission in the second round, earning a 'Performance of the Night' bonus in the process.
Returning to the Octagon for the first time since August 2013, Pettis started slow, as Melendez pressured forward to close the distance and neutralize Pettis' arsenal of Taekwondo kicks. Forcing the contest to the cage wall, Melendez relentlessly fought for the takedown, finally bringing Pettis to the mat.
Melendez took the first frame, but Pettis found his stride in the second, landing a front kick to Melendez's face and a spinning back kick. The two lightweights exchanged punches near the cage wall. But when Melendez shot in for a single-leg, Pettis sunk in the choke, rolling into mount before eliciting the tapout.
"I feel amazing. It was a long 15-months off, I'm back," exclaimed Pettis. "I know how good I am, but a lot of people were questioning how good I am."
Earlier in the evening, heavyweight Travis Browne needed less than a round to finish opponent Brendan Schaub.
After the two exchanged heated words at Friday's weigh-ins, Browne demonstrated the improved boxing he spent his training camp honing with Glendale Fighting Club coach Edmond Tarverdyan.
At 6-foot-7, Browne was able to use his length to keep Schaub at a distance. And while Schaub was able to successfully land a pair of takedowns and bring the contest to the mat, Browne landed a heavy uppercut that sent Schaub to the ground.
From there, Browne was able to mount Schaub and land some heavy ground and pound. Browne eventually took Schaub's back, continuing the ground strikes. Referee Mario Yamasaki stepped and waived off the fight at 4:50 of the first.
Delivering a picturesque knockout punch to the temple of Anthony Hamilton, heavyweight Todd Duffee made his successful return to the Octagon after a nearly two year absence.
Sidelined due to Parsonage-Turner Syndrome, Duffee came out from the opening bell, charging at Hamilton with his fists blazing. And while Duffee was unable to connect on his first attempt, he quickly found pay dirt, snapping off a left jab to create the perfect distance for the knockout blow, which came 33 seconds into the first round.
"I thought it was going to be a knockdown drag out fight," said Duffee. "I didn't expect to finish him that quick, but it feels great."
Kicking off the evening's main card, lightweight Tony Ferguson earned his third win of 2014 and fourth consecutive overall, finishing Abel Trujillo with a second round rear-naked choke.
Withstanding an early barrage from Trujillo, Ferguson, who was knocked down early in the fight, came on strong in the second round, after finding his range toward the end of the first.
Ferguson used his height and reach to keep Trujillo on the perimeter, throwing unorthodox combinations to complement his slick ground game. Leaving some leg and body kicks out for Trujillo to catch and force the takedown, Ferguson swallowed punch after punch to gain position, threatening with triangle, armbar, and leg lock submission attempts. And with Trujillo completely gassed out, Ferguson sunk in the choke, eliciting the tap out at 4:19 of round two.
"In the second round I went out and loosened my punches instead of holding so tight," commented Ferguson. "I think I was a little too loose going out there, a lot of times it takes me a round to get going."
Capping off the undercard, perennial bantamweight contender Urijah Faber stopped Francisco Rivera with a second round rear-naked choke, although the finish did have its fair share of controversy.
Following a first round that saw the pair of bantamweights exchanging shots and feeling each other out, Faber stormed out in the second frame, pressuring forward, landing shots.
But in an attempt to create some distance, Faber inadvertently poked Rivera in the eye before the finishing sequence, in which he landed punches before taking the back and sealing the choke.
"I didn't know I poked him, but looking at the replay it's unfortunate for Francisco. He had a great attitude afterward, my hat is off to him," stated Faber. "No one ever wants to make an excuse, but if you have to make one an eye poke is the best one you can have."
UFC 181 Results
Robbie Lawler def. Johny Hendricks via split decision (48-47, 47-48, 49-46)
Anthony Pettis def. Gilbert Melendez via tapout (guillotine choke) R2, 1:52
Travis Browne def. Brendan Schaub via TKO (punches) R1, 4:50
Todd Duffee def. Anthony Hamilton via KO (punch) R1, 0:33
Tony Ferguson def. Abel Trujillo via tapout (rear-naked choke) R2, 4:19
Urijah Faber def. Francisco Rivera via tapout (rear-naked choke) R2, 1:34
Josh Samman def. Eddie Gordon via KO (head kick) R2, 3:08
Corey Anderson def. Justin Jones via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-26)
Raquel Pennington def. Ashlee Evans-Smith via submission (bulldog choke) R1, 4:59
Sergio Pettis def. Matt Hobar via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
Clay Collard def. Alex White via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)