In the 2008 Brad Pitt film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the protagonist was born an old man and got younger and younger with each birthday. To hear American Top Team coach Kami Barzini tell it, the film might as well be about the UFC welterweight champion “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler.
“He gets younger and younger with every fight,” Barzini said. “In all my years coaching I’ve never seen anything like it. The man has been fighting for 14 years and he trains like a newbie. His work ethic is unreal. He’s an anomaly.”
Lawler, 33, is not the oldest current UFC champion, as he still sits behind Fabricio Werdum, Daniel Cormier and Holly Holm, but he is the senior member when it comes to UFC experience, having debuted in the promotion in 2002. Regardless of age or experience, he still has the passion for the sport that he did back then.
“I’ve been around a while,” Lawler said. “But it’s what I do and what I love to do. I always believed I would be a UFC champion. And I believe I will be successful in this defense as I was in my last.”
As many UFC fans recover from New Year’s Eve the night before, Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit will be getting ready for war when they face each other for the welterweight belt at UFC 195 Jan. 2 in Las Vegas.
The highly anticipated headliner is expected to be another watershed moment for Lawler, who should be a shoo-in for 2015 Fight of the Year for his July title defense against Canadian Rory MacDonald. While the 170-pound champion has not had any easy fights since his return to the UFC in 2013 when the UFC purchased Strikeforce, Condit poses yet another formidable challenge.
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“Carlos is a guy who will come in there in good shape and he’s a guy who can do it all,” Lawler said. “He trains at one of the best training camps in the world, so I expect him to have a great game plan. I expect a finely tuned athlete who is always looking to finish his fights. I know he’s looking to take my title.”
The last time someone tried to take his title, it was one of the best fights in the history of combat sports in terms of sheer heart. But Lawler says it looked worse than it was.
“I was never in pain in the Rory (MacDonald) fight,” he said. “Although it was an awesome experience. My face looked terrible but I was enjoying myself. I was in the moment and trying to figure out how to get the victory and find other ways to inflict punishment on Rory. The accolades for both of us have been amazing. We did it on one of the biggest stages that the UFC has had in history, and it was just awesome to be a part of that.”
Since moving from Iowa to south Florida, Lawler has enjoyed a career resurgence. Chalk it up to the sun or a new environment, but whatever is happening down there is working for the San Diego native.
“Camp is going great,” he said of life with American Top Team. “My coaches are doing a good job in getting me ready and my training partners are keeping me in check, so everything is right where it’s supposed to be. They push me and have gotten me where I am today.”
Barzini says Lawler is the prototypical student of the game, one who just happens to be the best in the world.
“He’s been a great addition to the team,” he said. “Lawler’s work ethic is unreal. Like I said, he gets younger day by day. He is great with the young guys, but also the veterans. He’s a humble champion. There’s no drama. He’s a professional.”
“Professional” is a word Lawler used to describe former teammate and one of the most dominant UFC welterweight champions, UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes.
“Being around Matt for a long time, I watched him do so many interviews pre- and post-fight and that has helped me today as a champion,” he said. “Matt was always a true professional with the media and also with the UFC, in doing everything they asked him to do. There are a lot of things that come with being a UFC champion, many of which you may not want to do, but it’s part of the privilege of being the champion.”
“Ruthless” says his life has changed a lot since moving to ATT. Before the switch, he was in charge of his own camps. Now he is a soldier following the many generals that Dan Lambert and Ricardo Liborio, owners of ATT, have put in charge.
“They tell me when to train, what to train and I show up and do what they tell me to do,” he said. “We all work together. I do have input on the strategy but we talk it out, watch film and put it all together to come up with the best game plan for fight night. I’m a champion because they helped and pushed me at the right times. I continue to listen to them. They’ve put together great game plans, and we make each other better.”
To get to this point, Lawler had to weather some dark times, when losing two in a row used to be a source of shame. But to put things in context, these were times when making a living while winning was difficult enough in the nascent sport of mixed martial arts.
“Yeah, there were some tough times but I always felt light during those times,” he said. "I tried to never blame anyone but myself for those times, and I tried to figure out what I needed to do to get better. I think by not blaming my circumstances and always trying to get better and believing in myself, that’s what paved the way for this kind of resurgence or comeback, whatever you want to call it.”
Barzini says Lawler hasn’t even reached his potential.
“He’s got a long way to go,” Barzini said. “He’s going to have a legacy to be proud of.”
To hear Lawler tell it, legacy means more than what shows up in the win or loss columns.
“I want my legacy to be of someone who was a tough fighter,” he said, “someone who, even in losses, still believed in himself and came back fight after fight to prove he’s a champion, and one who never made excuses.”