Issue 203

March 2024

July 11, 2015

MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas

UFC 189

By Brad Wharton

When it comes to the now infamous Robbie Lawler vs Rory MacDonald rematch, the perpetually divided MMA fandom seems to have settled into a rare state of universal agreement. It’s among the greatest fights they’ve ever seen.


Many years ago, Robbie Lawler was considered the sport's sure-fire future. 

He broke in as part of the Miletich Fighting Systems crew when the team was at its absolute peak. They were a rough ‘n’ ready collective of tough-as-nails, elite athletes who didn’t suffer fools in the training room. 

Lawler was everything the early-Zuffa era UFC wanted in a fighter. He looked the part, came across as the everyman in interviews, and had a seemingly God-given gift for violence when the cage door locked. 

So much so, in fact, that when a last-minute opportunity to air the first ever Mixed Martial Arts bout on US basic cable as part of FOX Sports’ ‘Best Damn Sports Show Ever’ fell into the UFC’s lap, the promotion hastily threw together ‘UFC37.5’ (UFC 38 was already locked in) and chose Lawler’s second round shellacking of Steve Berger to feature. 

In the aftermath of his UFC 40 Pay-Per-View opener against Tiki Ghosn, Joe Rogan dubbed him the UFC’s Mike Tyson. 

Then, just as quickly as Lawler has risen, he fell. The UFC matched him in unsuccessful bouts with strikers Pete Spratt and a young Nick Diaz before a loss to future middleweight champion Evan Tanner saw him released into the wilderness. 

And there he remained for the best part of a decade. ‘Floundering’ probably isn’t the correct term for someone so relentlessly entertaining. Still, Lawler seemed to be dropping fights when it mattered, cumulating in a 3-5 run through Strikeforce that featured losses to Jacare Souza, Jake Shields, Tim Kennedy, and Lorenz Larkin.

With Lawler seemingly on a career downturn and Strikeforce being folded into the UFC, it seemed for all intents and purposes that his days at the topwere over as the world leader shifted its focus to a new generation of athletes.


One of the staples of capitalism is its inevitable attempts to replicate anything that makes a dollar. 

In that respect, Rory MacDonald was practically gift-wrapped for the UFC, who were by then well aware that the sun was setting on George St Pierre’s glory days. 

MacDonald felt like the heir apparent. A clean-cut, well-spoken, elite Canadian athlete, he was far removed from the Tank Abbott and Tito Ortiz-like bad boys of the promotion’s past. 

The UFC strapped a rocket to MacDonald, feeding him an absolute murderer’s row of opponents upon his entry to the world-famous Octagon, including a sophomore appearance against Carlos Condit in which he predictably fell short. 

Wins over Nate Diaz, Jake Ellenberger, and perhaps the last reasonable sacrifice of BJ Penn followed before the decision was made to match the Next Big Thing against a resurgent old face. 

What could possibly go wrong?


Robbie Lawler was almost certainly supposed to be the final leg of Rory McDonald’s first run at the UFC welterweight title, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men. 

After a nip-and-tuck first ten minutes, Lawler beat the breaks off McDonald in the third, and history took a different course. 

Lawler dropped a controversial decision in his subsequent March 2014 ‘Fight of the Night’ title bout with Johnny Hendricks before closing out the year with two more wins and a ‘Fight of the Year’ performance to finally capture 170lb gold in the rematch. 

In the meantime, McDonald had cemented himself as the next in line, whooping Damien Maia, Tyron Woodley, and Tarec Saffiedine. 

The rematch was on; it had taken a little longer than expected, but the planned 2013 passing of the torch was surely now in motion. 

Twenty-One Minutes of Mayhem

“You wanna touch gloves?” 

The words barely left John McCarthy’s lips as the pair gruffly smashed fists and marched back to their corners. 

The first frame was largely uneventful. Lawler sprawled on a shot and landed a nice knee while both men felt each other out on the feet. 

The crowd, oblivious of what was to come, booed. 

Things opened up in the second; Lawler started getting his licks in while MacDonald fired back with crisp combinations. The Canadian connected with a clean head kick, but there was no disguising that his eyes were reddening up from Lawler’s unrelenting offense. 

The pair traded a series of crisp 1-2’s in the later stages of the round, but as the buzzer sounded, it was MacDonald who was feeling the effects; the cartilage of his nose crushed at a gruesome angle against his face and his jaw hanging open.

MacDonald shot in for a takedown in the third, only for Lawler to sprawl and land a series of punches, marbling the canvas with his opponent’s blood.

Just as he was seeming to fade, the Canadian flipped the switch.

A right high kick landed, and Lawler finally staggered backward onto the fence. 

A crisp right. Another. A flying knee. Left. Right. Knee. Elbow. 

MacDonald placed his palm on Lawler’s head and looked for the kill shot, but the buzzer beat him. 

The fight wasn’t over.

MacDonald started the fourth as he finished the third, brutalizing Lawler with kicks, punches, knees, and elbows, to which Lawler wryly gave the referee a series of thumbs up.

The Red King clattered his man with a series of brutal elbows, head kicks, and stiff straight punches, a level of assault verging on the inhumane that Lawler somehow absorbed like a light-sparing session. 

Another head kick from MacDonald. A Superman punch.

Lawler let his fists go in return. By this point, the realization had sunk in for all involved. This bloody mess had long since abandoned any notion of the beauty of martial arts, devolving into something much nastier.

MacDonald’s nose was now parallel to his face, mouthfuls of blood sloshing from his slack jaw with every breath. Lawler’s upper lip had swelled inches from his face, split almost to his cheek on the left-hand side.   

The pair emptied their gas tanks, adrenaline reserves, and a little bit of their souls into each other to end the fourth round before leaving us with one of the most iconic images in the thirty-year history of the sport. 

*That stare-down* 

Neither man wanted to give an inch, but there’s always a loser in wars of attrition. 

A pair of thudding left hands from the southpaw Lawler finally put MacDonald down. 

It wasn’t a clean knockout, and it wasn’t even particularly dramatic relative to the rest of the bout, but MacDonald was done. Claret sprayed from his mouth with every wheezing breath, his face battered beyond recognition, the fight well and truly beaten out of him to the point that he had simply wilted. 

They say some bouts will change a fighter forever, and you could certainly argue that neither Rory MacDonald nor Robbie Lawler were the same after their July 2015 dance. 

MacDonald won just five more fights before retiring at 33. Lawler, too, suffered a string of defeats before calling it quits after a fairy-tale KO at UFC 290. 

In 2013, the pair were inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame for their twenty-one minutes of mayhem.