Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, March 14, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The enduring image of Robbie Lawler’s Strikeforce career came at a card outside of Chicago two and a half years ago.
Not at the actual fight, which Lawler lost to Tim Kennedy by a completely one-sided unanimous decision, but in the press conference before the event. Lawler was unable to answer questions because he was asleep on the podium.
The episode was a small example of how the career of a fighter who was once considered among the brightest young talents in the sport had flatlined with seemingly no chance of a revival.
“I wasn’t ready to be in the light,” Lawler said. “I’m just a quiet guy who loved to fight. I think as I matured, I was ready to take that step.”
The 31-year-old Lawler received the jolt no one expected a year ago when Strikeforce folded and he merged into the UFC. Lawler plugged himself back in and clocked three opponents in 2013 — Bobby Voelker, Josh Koscheck and Rory MacDonald despite being a major underdog against the last two — to put himself in position to become one of the most unlikely UFC champions in history.
Lawler (22-9 MMA, 7-3 UFC) faces Johny Hendricks (15-2 MMA, 10-2 UFC) for the vacant welterweight championship in the main event of UFC 171 on Saturday in Dallas. Much has been made of Lawler’s astonishing comeback, but probably not enough. It takes a remarkable turnaround for a fighter to go from posting a 3-5 record in Strikeforce to reaching the top in the world’s biggest mixed martial arts organization.
“I don’t know if the excitement was there,” Lawler looked back. “Maybe it was whom I was fighting for or whatnot, but when I got a chance to fight for the UFC, the excitement was there. I wanted to be here. I wanted to prove myself.”
Lawler’s streak in the UFC resembles when he was first with the organization in the middle of a different era. As a hotshot 20-year-old from Pat Miletich’s superstar fight team, Lawler reeled off three straight victories, including two knockouts, when the struggling UFC signed him in 2002.
He disappointed himself by losing two of his next three in the octagon, which led to his release and a nomadic venture fighting for six promotions in four years before landing in Strikeforce. Lawler did manage six knockouts in that time, which retained his power reputation for a new age of fighters entering the sport like Hendricks.
“Robbie, if you make a mistake, we’ve seen it time and time again that he can knock you out,” Hendricks said. “So you really have to make sure that you stay focused.”
Lawler won’t go as far as to say he was complacent in Strikeforce, but anyone who paid attention at that time saw signs of a lack of motivation. He signed one of the company’s biggest contracts but fought as high as 195 pounds — a 25-pound increase from when he broke into the UFC as a welterweight.
Lawler never gave any consideration to dropping below the 185-pound middleweight division until re-signing with the UFC. That’s also what prompted him to pay close attention to his diet for the first time in years and switch his training regimen by joining American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla.
“I started to realize I needed goals,” Lawler said. “I needed to push myself to be more than just exciting. As soon I was coming to the UFC, I put my sights on getting the title.”
Lawler couldn’t have anticipated the opportunity coming this quickly. Even after he beat MacDonald at UFC 167, the main event made it look like his wait would extend at least another six months with a rematch between Hendricks and Georges St. Pierre expected.
But St. Pierre’s retirement gave Lawler the chance no one other than himself ever would have considered possible. He’s talked about the whole experience repeatedly without ever drifting into a snooze.
“I’m embracing everything that has to do with the UFC,” Lawler said. “I’m ready to be out there in front of everyone and do what it takes to be a champion.”