The MMA landscape over the course of the last decade is comparable to that of a high school reunion. So many have come and gone, some just don’t last, and some bask in the glory that comes along with fame.
So, think about 10 years ago and what was going on in the MMA world. Randy Couture had recaptured the UFC heavyweight title in his “un-retirement.” Matt Serra created one of the biggest upsets in UFC history when he dethroned welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Fans saw the end of an era when Pride was purchased by the UFC. Strikeforce had just passed its one-year mark and was looking to become a viable competitor. Former UFC stars, like Robbie Lawler, were making their marks in other organizations.
At the time, Lawler’s last fight in the UFC had been in October 2004 when he lost by submission to the late Evan Tanner. Lawler went a meager 4-3 during his first UFC stint and bounced around various organizations, including Pride and EliteXC, before finding a new home with Strikeforce. His grand entrance into the spotlight was spoiled in his debut when he was submitted in the first round by Jake Shields.
Lawler rebounded from the loss by posting one of the most incredible knockout victories ever when he took out Melvin Manhoef after a brutal series of leg kicks that left Lawler limping. He went on to win two of his next six fights, including a failed bid for the Strikeforce middleweight title. It seemed like it was the end of the road for the “Ruthless” one.
Then, something interesting happened.
In 2013, Lawler left his longtime home gym and family at Miletich Fighting Systems and began training at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla. It was also this same year that the UFC re-signed Lawler. He began a tear that turned heads left and right.
Lawler made his presence known right away by knocking out Josh Koscheck at UFC 157 and Bobby Voelker at UFC on Fox 8. His split decision victory over Rory MacDonald halted his finishing ways, but Lawler ended up gaining a chance at obtaining the vacant welterweight strap against Johny Hendricks.
Lawler was unsuccessful in his bid for the title, but that didn’t stop him. He finished Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown, earning himself a rematch against the man he came up short against in his quest for gold. Lawler captured the belt from Hendricks. His winning ways kept growing. His fights with the aforementioned MacDonald and Carlos Condit are instant classics — if you haven’t seen them, then there is something missing in your life.
The “Ruthless” one seemed unstoppable and on a career-defining resurgence unlike any other. The question that everyone started to wonder was who would be able to provide a competitive match-up for the champion after his brutal onslaught. The name that many did not expect to see come up as his next opponent was Tyron Woodley.
Many felt that Woodley had not won over the fans, let alone earned a title shot. Then came the awkwardness stemming from the fact that both men called ATT home, though Woodley was less involved with the same physical gym as Lawler. The fans expected much of the same from Lawler in this bout, but they could not have been more wrong. Lawler was not only defeated, but knocked out for the first time in over a decade. The loss was obviously devastating for Lawler, but the next move is the one that may come as a surprise.
In January 2017, just five months after losing his championship title, it was announced that Lawler would be leaving American Top Team, the camp that pretty much helped him achieve UFC gold. Many have speculated as to the reasoning. It’s been suggested that it was due to the increased presence of Woodley. With that in mind, one question remains: Where does Lawler go from here?
The answer, in this writer’s humble opinion, is nowhere. While all of the details are currently unknown as to the full extent of Lawler’s departure, ATT was seemingly the best fit for him. Yes, the man who dethroned him is currently training in the same space and, obviously, that creates a lot of tension that most cannot even imagine. But the coaching and tutelage that Lawler received refined his natural abilities and honed in on what would make him championship material.
As far as the departure goes, maybe Lawler needs some time away from the haunting memory of his knockout loss. Maybe he needs to experience the chemistry of another gym and realize that the atmosphere and comradery isn’t the same. Or maybe, just maybe, he finds a new home and never looks back.