Vicious knockout artist, Robbie Lawler, takes on recent Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title challenger, Johny Hendricks, in the UFC 171 pay-per-view (PPV) main event this Saturday night (March 15, 2014) at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
Lawler started his mixed martial arts (MMA) career off with a bang, as four quick knockouts led him directly into UFC back in 2002. At the time, the Miletich Fighting Systems (MFS) gym was Lawler's home, as well as the premier gym of the time period. It's no surprise that the young knockout artist was expected to earn a title quickly, considering his many championship level team mates.
Unfortunately, the "Ruthless" one fizzled out a bit and left the Octagon.
Over the next nine years, Lawler would fight in other top organizations like PRIDE FC, Strikeforce, and EliteXC. Although he had success, he appeared to never live up to the lofty expectations that came along with him into UFC.
Then, 2013 came along.
In Lawler's return to the Octagon and welterweight division, he first took out longtime contender Josh Koscheck with punches. A follow-up win over Bobby Voelker set him up for a match against Rory MacDonald. In a closely-contested fight, Lawler's punching power earned him a dominant third round and the decision. Now, he finally has a shot at gold over 10 years later.
But, does he have what it takes to defeat Johny Hendricks?
Let's find out.
Although he was primarily a brawler earlier in his career, Lawler has developed into a technically well-rounded striker. Luckily for the fans, Lawler has hung onto his aggressive nature throughout his career and will not shy away from a brawl.
As a southpaw, Lawler uses his lead hand quite well. In his last fight against MacDonald, Lawler's right hand repeatedly stuffed the Canadian's sharp jab. He would also reach out and grab MacDonald's jab hand, then kick or punch at him while he controlled it. This strategy won't work against a fellow southpaw like Hendricks, but it shows his veteran savvy and technique.
He doesn't throw it frequently, but Lawler's jab is pretty effective. Since he's not trying to keep the distance -- Lawler likes to power punch at close range -- he mainly uses his jab, as well as feints, to set up his right hook. Lawler's right hook is one of his favorite punches, and he varies how he throws it. Sometimes, he tries to sneak it in directly off the jab, which is not a particularly power strike, but scores points and sets up other strikes.
Or, he'll step into it hard with devastating effect.
Lawler's left hand is absolutely deadly. Since he has legitimate knockout power in both hands, he can use the threat of one to lead his opponent into the other. Additionally, Lawler often uses a left uppercut to try to clip foes in the midst of takedown attempts.
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.
The most violent example of this combination is his spectacular finish of Matt Lindland.
Lawler has had immense power since the beginning of his career and will have it until the end. The fact of the matter is that Lawler is dangerous even when completely exhausted, something he showed in an absolute battle with Frank Trigg. Over the course of the first three rounds, Trigg abused Lawler with his wrestling and ground striking, while Lawler also managed to land some vicious shots that dropped "Twinkle Toes."
But in the fourth round, Lawler, while horribly fatigued, still managed to put together a combo in the clinch that not only floored Trigg but fully put him out.
Speaking of Lawler's clinch, that's another area where he's long been dangerous but has technically improved recently. Like seen above, Lawler's ability to land big punches isn't lost at close range. Any opponent trying to clinch with Lawler must be aware that he can step back at any time and throw heavy shots.
Though Voelker should not have been in the cage with Lawler, that fight did showcase some of Lawler's improved non-boxing techniques, like his clinch knees. In the first round, Lawler clinched up with Voelker as he returned to his feet. While Voelker looked to circle out, Lawler controlled the underhook game, and delivered angled, powerful knees to the thigh, body and one to the dome.
Another improvement, one that greatly helps fill in a hole that has plagued Lawler's game for years, is his more active kicking game. In his last two bouts, Lawler used kicks more than in the rest of his career and in two very different ways.
Against Voelker, Lawler had a clear speed advantage. He was basically able to land strikes at will, as he repeatedly proved at the expense of Voelker's face. During the fight, Lawler absolutely ripped hard kicks into Voelker's body and head. Since the two were in opposite stances, it was easier for the more skilled kicker (Lawler) to kick around his opponent's guard.
Early in the second round, Lawler's high kick fully found its mark, putting the brick-chinned scrapper down for good.
In the fight that earned him his title shot, Lawler took away his opponent's best two weapons: the jab and kicks. The first part has already been covered, but Lawler used a switch kick to the outside of MacDonald's leg to begin slowing him down.
After, he began to throw kicks to the body as MacDonald did, which made both kicks ineffective.
Finally, one of Lawler's favorite attacks is the flying knee. He doesn't use any particular set up, he just relies on his natural athleticism to explode into it. Lawler recently skimmed Adlan Amagov's skull with a flying knee for a finish, as well as landing it on Voelker in the first round of their fight.
Back in 2006, Lawler also picked up his lone PRIDE FC victory over Joey Villasenor with a jumping knee.
For all of his success on the feet, Lawler has had one major issue throughout his career. In his eighth professional fight and first loss, Lawler got out-kicked by Pete Spratt and eventually succumbed to the damage of leg kicks. Despite his recent emphasis on kicks, Lawler has long had a problem with kickers who hold him at the edge of their range.
Two more examples of Lawler's difficulties with kickers can be found in his Strikeforce career. Though he managed to knockout Melvin Manhoef, the kickboxer was knocking Lawler's legs into the air with brutal low kicks. On the other hand, Lorenz Larkin managed to avoid the knockout punch and successfully kicked Lawler for a decision victory.
Lawler's victory over MacDonald and improved kicking skills are certainly good signs, but it's not definite that the problem is fully solved.
Frankly, Lawler doesn't care about getting takedowns. According to Fight Metric, Lawler has scored a single takedown in the last six years (he threw Bobby Voelker to the mat). Fight Metric's stats aren't perfect, but they are good enough to prove that Lawler basically has no interest in offensive wrestling.
A bit ironic, considering his high school wrestling background and time with MFS, an extremely wrestler-heavy gym.
On the other hand, Lawler has spent years working on his defensive wrestling. His sprawl and reaction to shots is lightning quick, and he's often able to scramble away from takedown attempts. Unlike many who rely on speed to avoid shots, Lawler is quite competent while pinned against the fence as well.
In his current UFC run, Lawler has demonstrated a fairly rare skill that's invaluable: the ability to damage opponents as they attempt takedowns. The first bout of his current UFC stretch was against Koscheck, who, in my opinion, is the second best wrestler to ever fight at welterweight and has one of the very best blast doubles in MMA history.
"Kos" hit a takedown early, but some smooth guard work by Lawler brought the fight back to the feet. After a couple more transitions, Koscheck ended up failing on a double leg, allowing Lawler to stay on top of him, sprawled out. At first, Lawler threw a couple soft punches, testing Koscheck's reactions. When Koscheck did absolutely nothing, Lawler did a very veteran move.
He stood up from his sprawl.
Now standing over his turtled opponent, Lawler was able to get plenty of force into his left hand. This stunned Koscheck, which gave Lawler his opportunity to move around towards the back. Rather than go for a position, Lawler decided to drop hard punches on Koscheck, who (stuck against the fence) didn't do much to defend himself, and Herb Dean called the fight.
Another example of Lawler's constant focus on damaging his foe while defending the takedown took place against Rory MacDonald. The Canadian tried to use a single leg to off-balance "Ruthless," who instead used this as an opportunity to bash MacDonald's head with punches. Though it happened twice, the flurry at the end of the first may have solidified Lawler's hold on the first round, and by extension, the fight.
Lawler has one main technical flaw in his wrestling, and it stems from impatience. After sprawling on his opponent, Lawler will often attempt to literally run away from the shot. Determined opponents, such as Tim Kennedy, have been able to hang onto Lawler and transition into a second takedown attempt that usually succeeds. If Lawler remains calm, he'd be able to slowly and safely stand up from the sprawl, rather than risk a follow-up shot.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
With a sole submission victory in 30 career fights, it's also clear that Lawler has no intention of submitting his opponent. However, he did show some crafty guard work in his last couple bouts, another area of his game that has long needed improvement.
When Josh Koscheck gets a takedown, it's almost assumed that he's going to spend the rest of the round riding top position. 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 in 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.
Despite his four submission losses, I would not say that Lawler has weak submission defense. His most recent (2011) submission loss is to "Jacare" Souza, who is one of the very best grapplers in the world. Getting submitted by him doesn't mean his grappling is weak, especially since Lawler escaped multiple bad positions and a couple submission attempts, which is more than most fighters accomplish.
Frankly, Souza's eventual rear naked choke was more due to Lawler's exhaustion than his otherworldly submission skill.
Before that, Jake Shields managed to secure a guillotine choke in 2009. Though Shields isn't the most aggressive submission fighter, he is one of the best and is fairly well known for his tight squeeze. Getting out-grappled by Jake Shields doesn't make you a poor grappler, just ask talented jiu-jitsu guys like Carlos Condit, Mike Pyle, and Jason Miller.
The other two men to submit Lawler were Jason Miller and Evan Tanner, two veteran submission fighters, and both losses were a very long time ago. Lawler is never going to be a submission specialist, but he also isn't going to get caught by anyone who isn't extremely crafty on the mat.
Best chance for success
The key to fighting Hendricks is pressuring him and controlling the distance. If a fighter does both of these things to Hendricks and can shut down his wrestling, he wins. The prime example of this is Rick Story, a non-top 10 fighter whose aggressive pressure and boxing completely limited Hendrick's own boxing ability, earning him a decision.
Controlling the distance is also important, as Hendricks requires a lot of space to literally run into his overhand. Instead of backing away when Hendricks throws, Lawler needs to push forward. For most fighters, this isn't ideal, as Hendricks is also dangerous in the clinch. Luckily, Lawler is far from a pushover in close quarter exchanges, so this won't be too much of a problem.
I'd really like to see Lawler work on counter punching. Hendricks, though very dangerous, leaves wide openings when he throws punches. Lawler has both the confidence and skill necessary to counter, so he should use it. Additionally, a quick head kick could certainly throw off "Bigg Rigg's" overhand.
Obviously, the other danger for Lawler is Hendricks' wrestling. Lawler's quick sprawl should be enough to stop most shots, but he needs to be careful about charging in with strikes. Hendricks was able to repeatedly double leg Condit as "The Natural Born Killer" tried to lunge in, so Lawler needs to be very cautious when doing so.
There you have it.
Does Lawler have what it takes to become the best in the world, or will Hendricks put his bout with GSP behind him and move onto gold?