Issue 140

April 2016

What keeps Robbie Lawler firing into the fifth round? Fear of the officials around the Octagon means he’ll fight until the final bell.

When you look into Robbie Lawler’s eyes – the call for the fifth and final round of a championship fight still ringing in your ears – one thing you don’t see is fear. In his opponents eyes, perhaps. And who could blame them? But the UFC welterweight champion appears to grow a couple of inches when the going gets tough. He revels in the moment. And yet, in an FO exclusive interview, he reveals it’s fear that drives him to fight for a finish and emerge victorious victor from a grueling war of attrition. 

Don’t leave it in their hands

It’s not the man standing across the cage that Lawler is afraid of in the final round. Even though he may be staring down the barrel of a points defeat against a world-class competitor – ears ringing, face running red and the lactic acid searing through his arms and legs. After all, the champion fears no man in 4oz gloves. 

It’s those officials, armed with pencils and perceptions all of their own, that deliver shivers down his spine. It’s these three figures that ignite the fear and a fire within him. It’s a fear of failure. Fear of allowing someone to take away from him what he’s worked tirelessly and often against seemingly insurmountable odds for the past 20 years to achieve. That’s what drives Lawler on when it matters most. 

“It’s just a fear of leaving it in the judges’ hands. That’s what pushes me to work and push for the finish in the final round,” explains arguably the most dangerous fifth-round fighter in MMA history. “It’s the last round, so I leave it all out there and go for the finish. 

“My team train me very well so I’m always fresh going into that last round and I feel I’ve got so much more than the other guy. I have great energy, and that comes down to my coaching from my strength and conditioning and fight coaches. Those guys get me ready to showcase my skills and I take so much confidence from that. I know I can go hard in the final round because I have the energy levels to do it.”

He hails the crew of coaches at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida that have helped the 33-year-old prepare for those tests and turn his career around from the dark depths of his 3-5 Strikeforce run. Among them is S&C coach Brian Harris, whose work the champ is quick to praise. He champions the fact his fitness guru was also shortlisted in this year’s World MMA Awards, for ‘Trainer of the Year’ – largely because of Lawler’s bottomless gas tank.

“It’s great and very deserved that Brian’s been recognized for the work he’s done with me and the rest of the team at ATT,” Lawler says. “He’s been working with me ever since I came back to the UFC. He’s done a great job of getting me ready for these fights, getting my body in shape. We are always improving; always doing different things. He’s really done a great job of pushing me and turning things up at the right time.

“I would say he’s added years to my career. He’s definitely upped my game. Working on my strength, speed and endurance – which has never been so good. I was a guy who’d never had a strength and conditioning coach before like him. He’s awesome.”

Honor roll

We first saw Lawler’s first fifth-round blitzkrieg in full effect a little over a year ago in his rematch with Johny Hendricks. He was determined to avoid a repeat of their first fight, when he had the title wrestled away from him in the final frame. That last-gasp salvo clinched him the title and the ‘Charles ‘Mask’ Lewis Fighter of the Year’ statue at the Seventh Annual Fighters Only World MMA Awards.

Looking back now, Lawler admits the ceremony remains a special career high point for him. He says: “It was a big award and a huge accomplishment that took years to receive. It was a really nice moment. I appreciated the support of the fans, as always, and it was a great reward for all the hard work that went into becoming champion.”

So how can a fighter possibly top that? Coming through two of the toughest and most dramatic title fights of all time with his belt intact is a pretty good start. The first of which – his summer blockbuster with Rory MacDonald – won ‘Fight of the Year’ at this year’s awards too.

Unfortunately for Lawler’s global fanbase that epic war with MacDonald was the only piece of ‘Ruthless’ action they enjoyed in 2015, thanks largely to a thumb injury and the toll it took on him. “I wasn’t too busy last year, but I never let it get to me too much. I just play it by ear and if I’m available then I’m available. And if not, then I’m not,” he says philosophically. 

“I don’t put pressure on myself to compete. I just train for one fight and when it happens I fight my own fight. Then I go away, regroup and then look to fight again as soon as possible. I don’t waste any energy thinking about things I can’t control. I can control my mindset and how hard I work every day, so that’s what I like to concentrate on.”

But he started this year in fine style with that Carlos Condit fight at UFC 195 where he was pushed to the absolute limit once again. After just two days of 2016 you could have argued Lawler should start clearing some more space on his mantle for yet another ‘Fight of the Year’ award, because it’s going to take something remarkable to top it.

Champion’s creed 

Two UFC title defenses, two absolute tear-ups so far. But Lawler admits he never imaged the going would be so tough when he won the belt from Johny Hendricks in December 2014. In fact, defending his belt is arguably the toughest job in sports. The gnarly southpaw says: “Everyone wants what I have and these guys are not only tough, they’re from some of the best camps in the world. They’re well prepared, well trained and that’s why these guys are coming in and really giving me good fights.

“Looking back now, I actually wasn’t sure how it was going to be (as UFC champion). I was so single-minded in just winning the belt in the first place I never gave myself much time to consider what it would be like to be world champion. But I always train for the worst and expect the best, and it’s always been incredibly hard with these guys. The UFC is incredibly tough.”

Most fans are divided about which of Lawler’s Las Vegas championship performances was most thrilling: last year’s bloody war with MacDonald or January’s grueling battle royale with Condit. And for the champion too, choosing between them is something he’s unable to do. For the fan-favorite veteran, simply putting on a show and retaining his belt is what mattered most. And somewhat perversely, he welcomes more punishing matches in the future. 

“I honestly can’t choose between them,” he says. “They were both good fights, both very different, and both really hard. Those guys pushed me to the max in those fights. They were on big stages and they were both tough, gritty, relentless and, for the fans, exciting.

“But those are the fights that I want as well. I’m here to prove I’m the very best 170lb fighter in the world, and that’s what I have been doing. If winning brutal wars like this is what it’s going to take to stay on top, then bring it on. I’m going nowhere.”

Hard work: Winning is no accident

When Lawler re-entered the UFC in 2013 it’s no secret that Zuffa top brass were underwhelmed by the one-time knockout prodigy’s dismal spell in Strikeforce. Yet, even in his darkest days, Lawler insists he never gave up on himself. With a contract to honor, UFC president Dana White and co. allowed him back into the fold – and he’s never looked back, running up a sensational 8-1 career-best spell that’s taken him to the summit of the welterweight division. 

“I’m not shocked or surprised by how my career has reignited because I know how hard I’ve worked, and all that hard work is paying off. I never stopped believing in myself, despite circumstances I may have suffered,” he tells FO. “But I would also say I was in the right place at the right time and that’s enabled me to take advantage of my opportunities over the past couple of years. But it’s that commitment to the continual grind that’s worked for me. I knew I hadn’t yet reached my full potential. And I knew the key to unlocking it was belief and hard work.”

Alive in round five!

Lawler’s championship reign is defined by throwing last-gasp leather

Johny Hendricks, UFC 181

Those damn judges (correctly) scored the first war for Hendricks after 25 turbulent minutes, so Lawler wasn’t going to let that happen again. But the rematch was still in the balance with 30 seconds left. Cue a barrage of vicious ground ‘n’ pound. Now it was ‘Bigg Rigg’ that looked scared as a barrage of unanswered strikes followed and sealed the fight for the challenger.

Rory MacDonald, UFC 189

Down by three rounds to one with his top lip split in half, Lawler spits a fountain of blood at ‘The Red King’s feet and stares him down as the klaxon sounds. His corner asks him how he’s feeling. He replies emphatically: “I feel f**king great!” He pumps his fists, incites the crowd into frenzy and smashes MacDonald’s nose. His corner shouts: “Robbie, you’re the f**king lion!”

Carlos Condit, UFC 195

Once again, the scores are even after four rounds and Lawler has five minutes to turn it on hold onto his belt. It’s anyone’s fight as the seconds tick away, so he senses there’s no other option but to activate beast mode. Two minutes and one relentless striking assault later, both fighters collapse against the cage before the champ’s hand is raised again.