I have a coworker who like me is also into MMA, and a few years back, he was telling me about a fighter named Johny Hendricks who was getting ready to compete in his first WEC event. My coworker, like Hendricks, was an Oklahoma State University graduate, and last night, he was in attendance along with a sea of proud orange and black Bigg Rigg-modified-t-shirt-wearing OSU alums. They and the majority of the crowd popped for each Bigg Rigg promo that played on the big screen in between fights. They cheered madly at the voice over of GSP saying he wanted to take time off. Then, during the main event intros, the hinges came off. The roar that Bigg Rigg received when he entered the area was louder than any Mavs game I’ve been to at the AAC. It was louder than any concert I’ve been to at the AAC. It was louder than any previous fight I’ve attended live at the AAC. In retrospect, it was the first indication that something special was going to happen.
Before that, however, Robbie Lawler had to be introduced to the decidedly pro-Hendricks crowd. It was a formality. It was an afterthought, much in that same way I jumped into talking about Hendricks before I started to discuss Ruthless Robbie Lawler as an opponent. I didn’t have a dog in the fight, but I imagined that the impression most had was that Robbie was a speed bump in the highway that led to Hendricks’ coronation as the 170 pound king. Despite being from Dallas and despite being very intrigued any time Johny Hendricks takes to the cage, I appreciate Robbie Lawler’s journey to this moment too much to root against him. I’m an old guy, and I remember Robbie Lawler’s first run in the UFC as well as the titans that came out of the Militech Fighting Systems (as documented in the brilliant piece by Chuck Mindenhall late last week).
Lawler wasn’t supposed to be in the main event for the UFC’s welterweight title. He was the guy who had a wealth of unrealized potential. He was the guy who had granite hands with wins that rarely went to decision. But he was also the guy who lost via KO to a young Nick Diaz, whose M.O. at the time was that of a submission artist. He was a guy who couldn’t avoid the Jake Shields takedown and was choked out. In fact, prior to his return to the UFC, Robbie Lawler was a guy who had only won 3 of his 8 fights with Strikeforce, and how does a resume like that even get considered for entry into the UFC? To answer that, you have to look deeper. Maybe look at the iconic comeback performance with Melvin Manhoef, which saw Lawler eat leg kick after leg kick until he was literally fighting on one leg before he viciously put Manhoef to sleep with a violent KO. If any fight spoke to Robbie Lawler’s character as a fighter, it was the Manhoef fight. But the main event at UFC 171 changed that.
In Dallas, early into the main event’s infancy in the first, Lawler got into an exchange that left him holding his right hand for the rest of the fight. Despite this, he continued to jab away and put Hendricks in trouble. At the end of the first, the crowd rained boos down on Lawler and cheers onto Hendricks as each was shown on the big screen. In the second, Hendricks showed why he was a contender to the throne and moved inside of Robbie’s range peppering the right side of Robbie’s face repeatedly and racking up points. Again, as they broke for their corners the jeers and cheers continued in decidedly hometown fashion. Robbie likely won rounds three and four, bloodying up Bigg Rigg’s right eye and leaving him in a shuffling haze in several instances. At the same time, between the rounds, a cheer began to swell in the upper plaza as a group of OSU alums began to sing the Oklahoma State University fight song in the hope of inspiring Hendricks. And then something unusual happened as the fans in attendance rose to their feet for the last round. When Robbie was shown on screen, there were no boos. They popped for Robbie just as loudly as they did for Johny. After four rounds, Robbie changed the POV of the audience. He had managed to change my opinion as well. This wasn’t the same Robbie Lawler I watched go to war with Chris Lytle in 2003. This wasn’t the same Robbie Lawler I saw get KOed by Nick Diaz ten years ago. This was the fighter Robbie Lawler was supposed to be in 2002. Most people can never get over a first impression or even second impression, even if given a lifetime. Robbie Lawler did it in 20 minutes.
I won’t go into the decision itself. It was obviously a very, very tight fight. I won’t call into question the fight Doug Crosby watched when he scored the second round 10-8 in Hendricks’ favor. My feeling coming out of the fifth was that Hendricks probably did enough to take it. However, Robbie did something few athletes outside of cheesy sports movies do. He won over the crowd, and in prizefighting more so than any other sport, that is something the fans tend to remember.
After the round I received a text from my coworker, the OSU grad and Johny Hendricks super fan that said, “I’m biased and had it 3-2 Lawler. Damn. Just damn.” I’ll let him have the last word because I can’t think of a better way to sum up what Robbie Lawler did in that main event at UFC 171. Damn. Just damn.