Their bout is a pivotal one. With MacDonald and Lawler both in the top 10, it holds vital rankings implications for the stacked UFC 170-pound division. Each fighter comes into UFC 167 with a ton of momentum.
Number three-ranked McDonald may have more by a slim margin. He was last seen outpointing Jake Ellenberger at UFC on FOX 8 back in July. The win, although not all that impressive, marked five straight victories for MacDonald. That's no small feat competing in what is arguably the most talented division in mixed martial arts (MMA). MacDonald has the chance to cement himself as the next Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweight title challenger should he finish Lawler in Las Vegas.
Over a decade ago, "Ruthless" burst onto the UFC scene by winning three straight fights in 2002. That streak earned him the title of UFC's best up-and-coming prospect. Unfortunately, he fizzled out after a knockout loss to Diaz at UFC 50, after which he went on to compete in a multitude of other MMA promotions.
Lawler made his return to UFC last February after a lengthy absence of almost nine years, experiencing a career resurgence at 170 pounds. MacDonald may be his toughest opponent yet, so he'll have to show up with a refined gameplan if he wants to record the upset.
This is a huge fight that will help define the future of the UFC welterweight division. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Rory MacDonald vs. Robbie Lawler:
Record: 15-1 overall, 6-1 UFC
Key Losses: Carlos Condit (UFC 115)
Keys to Victory: MacDonald is a relentless finisher who has six knockouts and six submissions on his record.
In the cutthroat world of MMA, however, you're only as good as your last fight. Dana White deemed MacDonald's effort against Ellenberger lackluster, so if "Ares" wants to justify his lofty ranking, he'll need to not only beat Lawler but also do it impressively.
He has all the tools to do so. The TriStar Gym-trained product is an excellent wrestler thanks to many hours spent training alongside UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre. He's also a proficient striker, evident by his picking apart of noted power punchers Ellenberger and Penn.
MacDonald also possesses a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He has a varied array of dangerous armbars and chokes that he can use to end almost any fight in an instant.
If he wants to finish Lawler, a submission is the best way to accomplish that goal.
"Ruthless" has tapped out five times in nine total losses. Submission defense isn't exactly his strong suit. MacDonald should look to avoid Lawler's thunderous knockout power by taking this fight to the mat as early as he can. Lawler won't have much to threaten "Ares" once this fight hits the ground, so it's up to MacDonald to make sure that it gets there.
MacDonald definitely has a good striking game. There's just no need to risk being knocked out by testing Lawler where he is the strongest.
Record: 21-9 (1) overall, 6-3 UFC
Keys to Victory: Lawler has made a huge impact upon his return to UFC.
He found a mixed degree of success outside the Octagon, winning the EliteXC middleweight title and challenging "Jacare" Souza for the Strikeforce middleweight belt. But he lost to most of the top-level fighters he faced, proving that inconsistency is indeed Lawler's biggest foe.
There's no question that Lawler has the power to knock out any opponent he squares off with. He holds an impressive 18 knockout victories on his record, and has only been knocked out once himself. Lawler's strikes appear to be even more dangerous in his return to welterweight. His earth-shaking finishes over Koscheck and Voelker are a testament to this.
But MacDonald might not give him a chance to unleash that fury on Saturday night.
"Ares" is an elite opponent who doesn't have a glaring weakness in any one facet of MMA. To win, he'll need to have his takedown defense at another level. If it isn't, MacDonald will eventually slam him to the mat to look for a fight-ending submission. If his sprawl is effective he'll be on his way towards finding a precious opening to land a devastating power shot.
Lawler has a golden opportunity to storm into true contender status with a win over MacDonald. To do so, he'll have to fight the smartest fight of his life. That means not getting too overexcited or overconfident in his striking ability.
Does he have more than a puncher's chance? Time will tell.
Bottom Line from Las Vegas: The bottom line for this fight is that it is a proving ground for MacDonald to show whether or not he is the next rightful number one contender at welterweight. He's matched up against a solid, experienced opponent who has the ability to end any fighter's night with one punch.
MacDonald has only been finished once by Condit, one of the most ruthlessly efficient fighters MMA has ever seen. It was toward the end of a fight that many had MacDonald winning. To avoid the same fate in Las Vegas, MacDonald needs to stay on his toes and make Lawler fight according to his gameplan. That means looking for several takedowns from the outset. Even if they aren't successful, keeping "Ruthless" tied up and focused on staying on his feet will prevent him from throwing a fight-changing haymaker at MacDonald's chin.
Submissions are a big part of "Ares's" game. They have also been Lawler's kryptonite. It's time to exercise that advantage at UFC 167.
Lawler's best way to win is obviously with the huge knockout. There aren't too many scenarios that have "Ruthless" winning a decision here. His wrestling is good but it's highly doubtful that he'll look to take down MacDonald and hold him there. It's to his benefit if he doesn't; that way he won't get tied up in any nasty submission attempts.
If Lawler has one advantage, it's his power. He'll be looking to keep MacDonald at range and land a pinpoint blow to score a big win. It might be a long shot. But not many people gave Lawler a chance against Koscheck at UFC 157.
We saw what happened there.
However, MacDonald is light years ahead of Koscheck at this point in time. This may be the toughest bout of Lawler's storied career. He needs to show up with his mental acuity at an all-time high. If he can prove that the inconsistency of the past is behind him, he may just end up shocking the world.
The fans are in for a welterweight war this Saturday night. Will Rory MacDonald continue his ascent to the throne or can "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler add another big name to his long list of knockouts?