“It’s been an incredible journey,” Robbie Lawler would say after UFC 181 tonight in Las Vegas.
He could have been describing the five round war he just endured against Johny Hendricks: a war that ended in triumph, and the underdog Lawler earning the UFC Welterweight Championship.
But more accurately, his journey was much more “incredible” when one considers that it’s been a total of twelve and a half years since Lawler made his UFC debut.
Lawler, who hails from Iowa but trains out of Florida, was one of the best young stars in the sport back in 2002. Lawler was a part of the then-dominant Militech Fighting Systems team, which included four UFC champions: Matt Hughes, Pat Militech, Tim Sylvia, and Jens Pulver.
After a skid which included losses to Nick Diaz and the later Evan Tanner, he bounced around other promotions — eventually winning gold for Superbrawl and Elite FC before making his promotional return last year.
Tonight, he was a sizable underdog against champion Johny Hendricks, but came out swinging, winning many early standup exchanges in a torrid first round. Hendricks, of Oklahoma, took the advantage in the middle rounds, landing hand cominations and leg kicks while Lawler seemed on his back foot — anticipating the champion’s vaunted wresting attack.
But Hendricks’ pace slowed in the fourth, which saw the two stuck against the cage accomplishing little for much of the round. By the time Lawler landed a series of punches to stun Hendricks to end the final stanza, it felt like anyone’s fight.
According to the judges, it was Lawler’s night.
Lawler becomes the first UFC champion from American Top Team. One might call him the last champion from Militech Fighting Systems as well.
Earlier in the night, Anthony Pettis retained his UFC Lightweight Championship with a guillotine choke victory over Gilbert Melendez. The two went back and forth with strikes, with Pettis taking advantage of his superior speed to catch his challenger.
For full play-by-play, please see our results and play by play thread.