"Ruthless" knockout artist, Robbie Lawler, is set to take on Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweight champ, Johny Hendricks, this Saturday (Dec. 6, 2014) at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
After an incredible 2013, Lawler brawled with Hendricks for the vacant welterweight strap. Though he lost a close decision, Lawler has since earned a pair of high profile victories, which set up his rematch with Hendricks.
In the last two years, Lawler's evolution from brawler to savvy counter puncher has been completed. As the most efficient mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter he's ever been, does Lawler have what it takes to steal the belt from Hendricks?
Let's find out.
There's a legitimate case that Lawler is the best striker in the welterweight division. He's been among the most powerful fighters for years, but his technique is now equal to his God-given ability to separate men from their consciousness.
Lawler operates out of the Southpaw stance and possesses some glorious boxing skills. Against orthodox opponents, Lawler's lead hand is effective at both nullifying his opponent's lead hand with his right and landing shots.
The "Ruthless" one works the jab well against both orthodox opponents and fellow southpaws. In his fight with Hendricks, Lawler stabbed at "Bigg Rigg's" face frequently with his jab and landed without issue. However, he's forced to set it up a bit more when faced with an opposite stance fighter. To do that, he either feints before throwing, hand fights then throws, or switches up the speed of his jabs to throw off his opponent.
Though he utilizes the jab well, Lawler's primary lead hand strike is his right hook. After feinting with the jab -- which often leads his opponent to reach out and attempt a parry -- Lawler will step hard into a hook. Alternatively, Lawler will hook off his jab while circling his opponent.
The right hook is also Lawler's main counter punch. With his improved footwork, Lawler stays just out of range and then capitalizes when his opponent misses. Similarly, Lawler will punish his opponent for reaching with the jab by coming over the top with his right hook.
In addition, Lawler's quite dangerous with his left hand. He commonly follows his right hand with the left, either as a 1-2 or right hook-left hook combination. By stepping in behind his left, Lawler assures that he's throwing the punch with power. Additionally, Lawler will occasionally attempt to time his opponent's takedown attempts with a powerful left uppercut.
A great example of the effectiveness of Lawler's counter punching came in his last performance against Matt Brown. Immediately to start the first round, Brown attempted to rush Lawler and ate a couple hard combinations for his trouble. By countering hard early, Lawler stymied Brown's aggression -- a man famous for his penchant for violence -- and threw off his rhythm.
With power in both hands, Lawler often herds his opponent into power punches. Using the threat of his right hook, Lawler can manipulate his foe into moving or slipping towards Lawler's right hand. To capitalize, Lawler simply feints with his right and then fires off with his straight left. The opposite works as well, and Lawler can also use the threat of his power kicks to similar effect.
One of Lawler's most "Ruthless" combinations is the right uppercut-left straight-right hook.
After slipping his opponent's jab or straight right, Lawler will come inside with the uppercut. As his opponent is stood up by that punch, his left hand comes cracking into either the jaw or body. Finally, Lawler will attack with his beloved hook, either really planting his feet for power or circling as he throws to avoid a counter.
To see the full effect, check out Lawler's brutal victory over Matt Lindland.
Lawler excels at working his opponent over in close range boxing exchanges. At the distance in which he is able to reach and touch/feel/grab his opponent's arms and guard, Lawler thrives. While boxing in this manner, Lawler is able to read his opponent's movements and react with vicious combinations. Even though he's a bit closer to his opponent, Lawler can still land with brutal power.
It's worth noting that Lawler's defensive boxing is phenomenal at this range. His head movement, shoulder rolls, and ability to turn with punches is spectacular. In many exchanges with Hendricks, it appeared that both men were landing hard punches, but many of the champions strikes were actually sliding off Lawler without impacting him.
Since his drop to welterweight, it's become clear just how important Lawler's newly developed kicking game is to his offense. Against opponents in the orthodox stance, Lawler rips power kicks to the head and body. When he dismantled Jake Ellenberger, Lawler even began stepping into left knees from range.
In addition, Lawler's kicking game played a major factor in his win over Rory MacDonald. After shutting down "Red King's" jab with his right hand, Lawler began landing a high volume of outside low kicks, limiting the Canadian's movement and own kicking game. Eventually, this allowed Lawler to land the combination that rocked MacDonald and won him the fight.
Despite the improvements to his kicking game, Lawler still has a problem with opponents that repeatedly kick him, an issue that has plagued him throughout his career. From his first career loss to Pete Spratt in 2003 to his unanimous decision defeat to Johny Hendricks earlier this year, Lawler's game is simply taken down a notch after absorbing multiple low kicks.
For all intents and purposes, Lawler's offensive wrestling skills are basically meaningless, simply because he doesn't go for takedowns. This far into his career, that's not likely to change anytime soon.
As is the case with any dangerous striker, Lawler's takedown defense is routinely tested. Luckily, years of training at elite grappling camps like Miletich Fighting Systems, Power MMA, and American Top Team -- along with his own high school wrestling background -- have made Lawler a difficult man to wrestle. In particular, his sprawl is quite explosive, capitalizing on Lawler's athleticism.
Recently, Lawler has gotten more aggressive at countering his opponent's takedowns with strikes. When facing off with Josh Koscheck and his incredible blast double, Lawler knew that he needed to capitalize on any opportunities given to him and just did that.
After Koscheck failed on one of his takedown attempts, he took a moment to breathe and regain some energy. Lawler, who was sprawling on Koscheck, recognized this and stood up above Koscheck with a couple hard punches. These strikes stunned "Kos," allowing Lawler to circle to his back and land the finishing blows.
In a slightly more recent example, Lawler battered MacDonald as the Canadian held onto a single leg takedown, doing damage and forcing him to release the position.
If there's one issue with Lawler's counter wrestling, it's that he's often impatient. After sprawling out on a shot, Lawler sometimes attempts to spin off without clearing his opponent's grip on his legs first. This allows his opponent to transition into another takedown on an off-balanced Lawler, which will be much easier to finish.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Not unlike Lawler's offensive wrestling, Lawler simply is not interested in submitting his opponent. However, his defensive jiu-jitsu has greatly improved over the years, as has his ability to get back to his feet using jiu-jitsu.
Whenever a wrestler like Josh Koscheck completes a takedown and establishes position, it's basically assumed that he'll control top position until the end of the round. Even Johny Hendricks -- a fellow NCAA champion -- failed to make it back to his feet when Koscheck dragged him to the mat in their bout.
However, Lawler flipped the script by using his butterfly guard. After lifting Koscheck's right leg with his instep, he hooked it with his left arm. Underneath Koscheck's left leg was Lawler's other instep, putting the pair into what is essentially a deep half/X-guard hybrid. He again elevated Koscheck and stood up in base as he did. Though Koscheck would prevent a full stand up by grabbing a front headlock, Lawler eventually fought his way out of that and returned to his feet.
In his most recent bout with a wrestler, Lawler again showcased his solid get ups. After Jake Ellenberger secured a takedown, Lawler used a knee-across half guard to create space. He then stretched himself out and created space, which allowed him to put his foot on Ellenberger's chest and kick off.
Defensively, Lawler is not a bad grappler. He may have four submission losses, but each one comes to a very high level grappler -- such as "Jacare" Souza and Jake Shields -- at a higher weight class than the one he currently fights in. Plus, he defended a number of Souza's submissions before getting caught, which is an accomplishment in itself.
Best chance for success
For the most part, Lawler knows from his last fight exactly what he needs to do. He knows just how effective Hendricks' wrestling game and which combinations worked well against the champ. Since Hendricks has spent much of this layoff recovering from injuries, he likely hasn't had much time to focus on improving.
Therefore, Lawler just needs to correct what went wrong last time. Firstly, Lawler needs to do something about his opponent's low kicking. How he deals with that is up to him and his camp -- he could counter with punches, look to catch them and then counter, or focus on evasive footwork -- but it must be done.
Additionally, Lawler cannot afford to start slow or relax late. From start to finish, Lawler needs to be on point. If he simply gives away a round, there's little chance he'll be able to win the decision considering how tight this match up is.
Expect a great fight.
Will Lawler take home the strap, or can Hendricks defend his title for the first time?