Robbie Lawler traveled a long road to UFC glory. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
It was as if the Ultimate Fighting Championship knew exactly what it was doing with its recent announcement promoting its forthcoming schedule with a catchphrase: “The Time is Now.” UFC 181 on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas -- the 300th show in the company’s history -- kicked off things with an “Event of the Year”-caliber offering.
There was literally something for everyone, including earth-shattering knockouts (Josh Samman on Eddie Gordon and Todd Duffee on Anthony Hamilton), gut-wrenching submissions (Raquel Pennington on Ashlee Evans-Smith, Urijah Faber on Francisco Rivera and Tony Ferguson on Abel Trujillo) and a main-event rematch pitting Johny Hendricks against Robbie Lawler that almost lived up to their “Fight of the Year” contender from UFC 171 some nine months ago.
Lawler is one of the few names left from the pre-“Ultimate Fighter” era still competing at the sport’s highest level. His split-decision victory over Hendricks for the welterweight title was the crowning moment in a long and twisting career. Tagged by some with the journeyman label just a few short years ago and viewed by others as someone who never fulfilled his promise, Lawler now sits atop the 170-pound weight class.
In March, the MMA world was treated to a fantastic first fight between Hendricks and Lawler that boiled down to the fifth and final round, with “Bigg Rigg” walking away as the new welterweight champion. The rematch had one important similarity: It was close going to the fifth round, the outcome perhaps resting on who would impose his will over the final five minutes.
Per FightMetric data, Hendricks out-landed the challenger 61-21 in the significant-strike department in the second and third rounds. Lawler, however, saved some for later, revving up his attack late in the fourth and into the fifth. You felt as if you were watching a man put his entire career, his entire reputation and every training session over the past two decades into each individual punch. Lawler put 42 significant strikes on the incumbent champion in round five.
Most expected to hear 48-47 marks across the board when Bruce Buffer entered the cage to announce the scores. For the first time in UFC history, the title changed hands on a split decision, as Lawler exited the stage as champion.
“I thought I needed to get in his face and force him to fight,” Lawler said. “That’s what my corner told me to do. That’s how we fight in UFC. It’s how you fight championship fights.”
From his early days at the Miletich Fighting Systems camp in Iowa to recent times at American Top Team in Florida, it has been quite a journey for Lawler, who became champion in his 14th UFC fight. In doing so, he broke the record held by former light heavyweight titleholder Chuck Liddell, who did not capture organizational gold until his 13th appearance inside the Octagon. In victory, Lawler improved to 6-1 since he re-entered the UFC in February 2013.
“It means a lot because of all the people around me [who helped get me to this point],” Lawler said. “It wasn’t just me out there. It took a lot of time and effort from a lot of people who are around me to help me get where I am today. It’s their victory, too.”
Anthony Pettis defended his lightweight title in the co-headliner and could be the guy to take the 155-pound division to the next level. For a follow-up act to his first-round defeat of then-titleholder Benson Henderson some 15 months ago, Pettis submitted former Strikeforce and World Extreme Cagefighting champion Gilbert Melendez in the second round of their title fight. In winning two major titles outside the UFC over his previous 25 MMA fights, Melendez had never before been stopped. Worse yet, he actually won the opening round against Pettis and seemed to be in control.
“I wanted to test his chin, and I really didn’t get a chance,” Melendez said. “I couldn’t get my combos going. Hats off to Pettis tonight. He’s extremely fast and a very tough opponent. He made me feel old with his speed ... I’d rather get knocked out than submitted, though.”
The 27-year-old Pettis used a guillotine choke to secure his fifth straight UFC win, tying him for the third-longest active streak in the lightweight division. He trails only the six in a row by Khabib Nurmagomedov and Myles Jury.
“Last year was a long year for me,” Pettis said, acknowledging the fact that he will always have doubters. “The best way [to silence the critics] is to prove them wrong. I was injured, so I couldn’t really prove myself or fight. I had to be quiet and just let them talk. Tonight, I was able to prove everybody wrong. I locked in on training, and I fell in love with the sport again. I believed in myself, and I performed again to the best of my ability. My coach says it the best: ‘The best revenge is massive success.’”
Nurmagomedov, undefeated in his career at 22-0, did not want to give the champion too long to enjoy his recent conquest, as the Dagestani grappler interrupted the post-fight press conference and added some ill-timed comments.
“If they want it next, give him a shot,” Pettis said. “I’m ready. I’m injury-free; I feel good. You guys saw what I did to Gilbert Melendez. Let’s do it.”
Perhaps that was not good enough for Nurmagomedov.
“I am No. 1 contender right now,” he said. “My doctor said I can fight in April or May. Let’s go. Anytime, anywhere in April, May or June.”
Pettis was quick with his retort.
“I just said ‘Yeah,’ man,” Pettis said. “Does he speak English? I just said, ‘Yeah.’ Oh, OK. Well, if you’re ready in May, I’m ready now.”
The loss to Lawler, controversial though it may have been, has Hendricks rethinking his approach. “The fight tonight made me learn a lot about myself, a lot about what I need to do and what I need to correct in my camp. A lot [of it] revolves [around] walking around at 215 [pounds]. I’m going to make that decision; I’m going work with Mike Dolce to stay around 195, do everything right because I had that belt and I want it back. I love food, too, don’t get me wrong. That’s going to be a tough decision, but I love that belt more than food,” Hendricks said … No. 1 contender in waiting Rory MacDonald scored the main event three rounds to two in favor of Lawler. “They worked really hard in the first round, and I think that affected the rest of the fight. Robby poured it on in the fifth. He showed a lot of heart. I was impressed,” MacDonald said. When asked how he had changed since he lost a split decision to Lawler at UFC 167 a little more than a year ago, MacDonald pointed to drive. “I’m more motivated,” MacDonald said. “That goes a long way.” The Tristar Gym standout said he believed he was next in line for a title shot and that UFC President Dana White told him the bout would take place in Canada. However, White in his post-fight comments to Fox Sports 1 hinted at a possible rubber match between Lawler and Hendricks. “The trilogy wouldn’t be a bad idea,” he said. When asked if MacDonald was next in line, White was non-committal: “I have no idea” ... “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 13 winner Tony Ferguson earned the 14th stoppage of his career -- and 17th win -- by choking Abel Trujillo into submission. He then pleaded his case to be ranked in the top 10 at 155 pounds and told Pettis to “keep that belt warm for me” ... Sergio Pettis, the 21-year-old younger brother of the lightweight champion, was featured in one of the two UFC Fight Pass undercard matches. Matt Hobar caught him with a few punches in the first round before “The Phenom” found his range in the second and ultimately claimed a decision. “It was a good performance, but I think I might go down to 125 after this. These guys are a lot bigger than me. I’ve been thinking about it for about a year, and I’m going to do a practice cut to see how it goes. I want everyone in that division. Whoever the UFC puts in front of me, I’m ready for,” Pettis said ... Zuffa teased the return of former middleweight champion Anderson Silva with a brilliant promo video that was shown in the arena. Set to a creepy version of the classic children’s song “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” it seems certain to create buzz for weeks to come. Silva will headline UFC 183 against onetime Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz on Jan. 31.
UFC 181 “Hendricks vs. Lawler 2” drew an announced attendance of 9,617 for a $2.488 million live gate.