After spending nearly 15 years trying to scratch and claw his way to the top of the sport, “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler was finally able to wrap some UFC gold around his waist following a razor-thin victory over defending champion Johny Hendricks last weekend. Over a grueling 25 minutes, Lawler stood his ground and fired off massive punches, working to keep Hendricks and his relentless takedown attack at bay. While Lawler certainly had his struggles in the middle rounds of the fight, his grit kept him upright in the moments of the fight that mattered most and his incredibly high-volume attack, which he used to open and close the bout, likely swayed the judges to score the fight in his favor. Now in the midst of a three-fight winning streak and having scored a huge win over the last man to defeat him, Lawler is suddenly the face of the UFC’s welterweight division and has a wide array of challengers chomping at the bit for a shot at his belt.
The most obvious next step for Lawler would be a trilogy fight against Hendricks, but it’s far from a forgone conclusion. The first time Hendricks and Lawler went toe-to-toe in March, they put on a “Fight of the Year” candidate and essentially caused the MMA community to burst into a fit of happiness due to the violent nature of their brawl. Last weekend’s fight was very different. It came more in the form of a chess match than a slugfest, with Lawler looking to shrug off “Bigg Rigg’s” takedown attempts and work his own offense.
The second fight was still plenty exciting, though. It was able to match the drama felt in their first meeting before the scorecards were announced. However, it may be difficult to get fight fans to pay for the rubber match if the UFC decides to put it in the main-event slot. While Hendricks and Lawler delivered a quality fight last week, it wasn’t the brawl many fans likely expected and paid for, and that could lead to those same casual fans being skeptical about buying the trilogy fight. Let’s be honest, Lawler and Hendricks aren’t exactly the most marketable guys on the UFC roster, and asking fans to pay for a third pay-per-view event headlined by the two in roughly a year is probably asking too much.
Adding to the uncertainty that Hendricks will get an immediate crack at a rematch is Canadian star Rory MacDonald, who has all but wrapped up the No. 1 contender’s spot. MacDonald is looking to get a little revenge of his own against Lawler following a loss to “Ruthless” in a title eliminator late last year. Lawler landed some huge shots on the young welterweight throughout their 15-minute bout, hurting the young Canadian on several occasions in order to score a decision victory. Still, MacDonald looked far from outmatched against Lawler, landing a nearly equal number of significant strikes and getting the fight to the mat on a handful of occasions. The problem is that Lawler’s significant strikes were far more devastating than MacDonald’s, and the extra damage done by those punches likely led to the Canadian’s downfall on the scorecards. MacDonald has bounced back by winning three straight fights against top-10 opposition.
It’s been quite a while since the UFC decided to hold a pay-per-view event in Canada, where MacDonald has become the country’s biggest star since Georges St-Pierre retired. Meanwhile, Hendricks has fought twice in the last year, and both match-ups were against Lawler. While you could easily argue that both decisions between Hendricks and Lawler were so close that a third fight needs to happen, the fact is that Lawler took the time and effort to work his way back to a rematch against Hendricks. Now, “Bigg Rigg” should probably be forced to do the same. MacDonald, meanwhile, has worked his way back into the mix, and the UFC usually likes to make a stop in Canada in the spring anyway, which is right around the time Lawler should be fighting next.
While it may seem harsh to push Hendricks back down the ladder following a fight he arguably should have won, the UFC can’t give a quick rematch away every time there’s a controversial decision. In this case, it makes far more sense for MacDonald to jump to the front of the line.
Of course, if Lawler and MacDonald end up fighting for the belt, the UFC has to find something to do with Hendricks. Outside of the top three in the division, there’s a pack of fighters looking to break into the mix, including Tyron Woodley, Hector Lombard, Carlos Condit and Matt Brown. Honestly, any of those guys make sense to throw in the cage opposite Hendricks with high stakes on the line. It won’t take Hendricks more than a win or two to get back into the title mix, but at least he’d be asked to earn his title shot. In the meantime, there would be a window for some new blood to seep into the title scene instead of holding the division hostage for another few months while the same two fighters continue to battle for the crown.
With Lawler, Hendricks and MacDonald sitting at the top of the heap in the division, the welterweight belt should be hotly contested for the next six months or so. However, if one of the remaining top-tier 170-pounders can’t break out and become a clear-cut title contender, the division may end up weaker than it’s been in years by the time 2015 rolls to an end. Lawler’s story is fantastic and I can’t say I’ve seen the hardcore MMA fan base more ecstatic for a newly crowned champion, but eventually the novelty is going to wear off. And when it does, the fact is Lawler doesn’t possess half of the star quality as a guy like St-Pierre, who dominated this weight class for the past decade.
Whether it’s a GSP comeback, a Ben Askren signing or an out-of-left-field CM Punk title run, something is going to need to come along to breathe some life into a suddenly clustered and stale welterweight division before one of the promotion’s most talented weight classes becomes an afterthought. Lawler, Hendricks, MacDonald and even the next guys in line (Woodley, Condit and Brown) are all fantastic fighters and have the potential to put on a great show for the fans by the time the fight rolls around. But none of them seem to have the raw charisma or marketability needed to become a true UFC star, which is what the division (and the company) desperately need right now.
Lawler winning the belt was a fantastic feel-good moment for fight fans and the UFC, but that feeling of goodwill is only going to last for so long before fight fans are looking for match-ups that excite them again. Barring a major return or signing in the next year, those match-ups are just about gone. The UFC is going to have to work quickly in order to create a few new ones.