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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on ESPN 5’s Robbie Lawler

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Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight kingpin, Robbie Lawler, looks to return to the win column opposite recent interim strap-hanger, Colby Covington, this Saturday (August 3, 2019) at UFC on ESPN 5 from inside Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.

At 37 years of age, Lawler should not be a high-level fighter anymore. He’s been a professional since 21, and even his title-winning run and resurgence from 2013-2016 was incredibly unlikely. When Lawler lost his title and two of three bouts overall, it seemed that time had finally caught up. Yet, Lawler’s opening two minutes against Ben Askren were among the most violent moments in his entire career. Against an Olympic wrestler, Lawler power-bombed his foe and briefly slept him with elbows, showcasing no wear from his repaired ACL. Somehow, Lawler is still in the mix, a dangerous foe for any Welterweight.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

Most young, powerful brawlers burn out. They reach a level of opponent who can navigate their wide shots, and there is no adjustment. It took the better part of a decade, but Lawler has developed far from his roots, showing the poise and composure of an expert counter puncher ... while still being very willing to brawl.

From the Southpaw stance, Lawler mostly boxes. He doesn’t throw a ton of lengthy combinations, but Lawler works his way into the pocket and reacts to his opponent’s movement and strikes, simultaneously slipping, smothering and rolling strikes while he weaves counter punches and his own combinations. Lawler thrives from the range in which he can extend his lead hand and feel/grab/control his opponent’s lead hand. At this distance, Lawler can rely on his striking experience and excellent defense, as he simply reacts to strikes as necessary and chews his opponent up with his own shots (GIF).

Working from inside the pocket/boxing range has been Lawler’s strategy for a while now. Though he’s taken steps to improve his distance offense -- adding in powerful roundhouse kicks, for example (GIF) -- it’s never been Lawler’s forte. In fact, a fair number of Lawler’s past losses came to men who kept him at the edge of their kicks and forced him to work from that range.

In his pair of bouts with Rory MacDonald, Lawler put forth the most technical striking performances of his entire career. At McDonald’s preferred range, Lawler was able to hold his own with kicks, and he actively looked to counter McDonald’s kicks at every turn. As the more explosive man, Lawler was also often able to bounce in with hard strikes (GIF). Usually, it was just a 1-2 or hook-cross, but Lawler’s short combinations were enough to do significant damage.

In a similar vein, Lawler used his speed and comfort in the pocket to ensure MacDonald never stifled his game. “Red King” looked for and landed hard counter punches as Lawler looked to close the distance -- punches hard enough that most fighters would’ve stopped trying to come in. Lawler was undeterred, however, and simply kept attacking despite the counters, forcing McDonald to either stand and trade or back off and accept that Lawler would not be kept to the outside.

Opposite Carlos Condit, Lawler struggled far more to enter the pocket. Part of that was Condit’s willingness to just kick constantly, always presenting Lawler with an obstacle even if the kick wasn’t particularly damaging. The kicks often looked inconsequential, causing Lawler to be less motivated to crash forward and close the distance when in fact his opponent was picking up points. It was an odd fight for Lawler, as he was noticeably less sharp than against McDonald, although Condit’s counter punching deserves some credit for that as well.

Lawler makes great use of the jab against both Orthodox opponents and fellow Southpaws alike. Against other lefties like Johny Hendricks, Lawler is able to shoot out and land quick jabs without much issue (GIF). However, talented Orthodox strikers make Lawler work a bit more, as he’s really forced to set up the strike with some hand-fighting or rely more heavily on his speed.

More often, Lawler makes great use of his right hook. It’s common for his opponent to attempt to parry his jab or simply be used to reaching out to hand fight with Lawler, which creates an opening for the hook. Alternatively, Lawler will hook directly off the jab. It’s also worth noting that the right hook is a common counter punch for Lawler, who will look to throw the hook over his opponent’s punches (GIF).

Anyone who’s ever seen him fight can attest that Lawler has a great left hand. He commonly lines up his left with either the jab or right hook, pairing together straight punches and hooks (GIF). Against McDonald, the accumulation of many straight lefts eventually destroyed his opponent’s nose and ended the fight.

One of Lawler’s favorite strategies is to slip a strike and fire back uppercut-hook-cross (GIF). Each power strike loads the next, allowing the combination to be ripped off quickly, often while his foe’s hand is still retracting to his face.

Defensively, a pressure brawler is going to be hit, even if he does well to slip and block. Additionally, Lawler’s reliance on head movement leaves him more vulnerable to kicks. Johny Hendricks was at his most effective when he forced Lawler to plant his feet and slip, only to instead rip into his lead leg with a kick. In addition, MacDonald’s biggest moment in the fight came in the form of a head kick. While Lawler actually blocked the strike, it stunned him anyway. Since Lawler is moving his head off the center line so often, he does put himself at greater risk of ducking into a high kick or not being in good position to absorb the blow.

Wrestling

Lawler has little interest in purposefully taking fights to the ground. Even when tired or stunned, Lawler plants his feet and throws, he doesn’t panic wrestle. Offensive takedowns are just not a priority for the “Ruthless” athlete.

On the other hand, takedown defense is a massively important skill for any knockout artist. Luckily, Lawler comes from a high school wrestling background and has spent many years at wrestler-heavy camps like Miletich Fighting Systems, Power MMA and American Top Team. On the whole, this experience has made Lawler a difficult man to take down.

It certainly helps that Lawler is such an explosive athlete with a dynamic sprawl. If he’s not forced into the fence quickly, he’s almost guaranteed to shoot his hips back and flatten his opponent down to the mat. Even when his opponent is in deep, Lawler has very strong hips and generally does an excellent job denying the double leg.

Lawler has also made it a priority do damage his opponents in the middle of takedown attempts. Thanks to his natural punching power and experience, Lawler doesn’t need much space or time to land significant blows and force his opponents to abandon the attempt.

Lawler has used this strategy in most of the fights in his current UFC run, but his initial return showed it in full force. After Josh 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 (GIF).

This style of active defense has been critical in Lawler’s title fights as well. For example, Lawler reacted to each of MacDonald’s takedown attempts by punishing him with knees and clubbing punches. It was even more important in Lawler’s title winning performance opposite Hendricks, who was content to simply pin Lawler along the fence and hang out. Instead, Lawler turned that into his own advantage, doing more damage from seated or kneeling positions than his opponent on top (GIF).

Over the years, one consistent issue with Lawler’s defensive wrestling is his habit of failing to completely break away from the takedown. After successfully sprawling, Lawler used to turn away too quickly, allowing his opponent to re-shoot from a better angle or giving up his back. Against Askren, Lawler was too patient, allowing his foe to hold him along the fence rather than focus on finishing the escape and breaking away fully.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

I’ll let this fascinating tweet stand as my analysis on Robbie Lawler’s offensive jiu-jitsu inside the cage unless Lawler makes it untrue in a future bout.

From his back, however, Lawler has been given less of a choice and has made use of jiu-jitsu. A prime example came in his return bout opposite Koscheck. Whenever a wrestler like “Kos” completes a takedown and establishes position, it’s basically assumed that he’ll control top position until the end of the round. Even Hendricks -- a fellow NCAA champion -- failed to make it back to his feet when Koscheck dragged him to the mat.

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.

Somewhat more recently, Lawler again used his jiu-jitsu to return to his feet. 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. A majority of his five submission losses came to expert grapplers — such as “Jacare” Souza and Jake Shields — and at 185 pounds. Askren is a master ground fighter as well, and it’s hard to really gain any insight from that controversial finish anyway.

Conclusion

Robbie Lawler is a beast, one of the greatest and longest lasting knockout artists of his era. In Covington, he faces another elite grinding wrestler, one of the two types of fighters who have historically given him trouble. If Lawler can pull it off, however, he’s unexpectedly back in the title mix once more.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.