It was the comeback story of a lifetime. Twelve years after his UFC debut at the age of 20, Robbie Lawler fulfilled the potential so many believed he had, winning the UFC welterweight title with a razor-thin five-round split decision win over Johny Hendricks Saturday night in the UFC 181 main event at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Lawler said. “This wasn’t easy.”
He wasn’t kidding. After bursting on the UFC scene in 2002, Lawler burned out quick, getting released in 2004. Nearly nine years later, in 2013, he returned to the Octagon and won three straight before a razor-thin loss to Hendricks in their first fight in March. Two more wins later, Lawler met Hendricks again, and this time, a late surge put the title around his waist.
“I thought I needed to get into his face, force him to fight, that’s what my corner told me to do and I went out there and tried to finish,” Lawler said of the final round. “That’s how we fight in the UFC, that’s how you fight championship fights.”
Scores were 49-46, 48-47 and 47-48.
Lawler went after Hendricks as soon as referee Herb Dean waved them into action, firing off punches to the head and a series of knees to the body. Hendricks caught a breather as he pushed Lawler to the fence, and even when he dropped for a takedown, Lawler’s defense was tight, and offensively, the knees kept coming from “Ruthless.” With 1:30 left, Hendricks released his grip and the two separated. Hendricks fired off a beautiful punch and kick combination with under a minute to go, and he capped off the exchange with a takedown just before the horn ending the round.
Hendricks’ kicks to the body and legs were sharp in round two, and when they capped off a punching combination, they were even more effective. After another spell locked up against the fence, Hendricks put Lawler on the seat of his pants midway through the round. The action stalled on the mat, with Lawler eventually getting up with a little over a minute left and then landing a kick to the face. The exchanges started to heat up from there, Lawler holding the edge until he slipped to the mat and Hendricks attempted a choke before round’s end.
Outworking Lawler on the feet with punches and kicks in round three, Hendricks opened the challenger up for a takedown in the fourth minute and he got it. “Bigg Rigg” wasn’t able to do much with that takedown or a subsequent one, but they were all scoring important points.
After another listless two minutes to kick off the fourth stanza, Lawler got fired up again, nearly landing a kick to the head that would have likely ended the fight. But after those positive moments, Hendricks put the Floridian on the mat for the fifth time in the fight. The fans weren’t happy with it, but the game plan was working to perfection for the champion. Lawler landed a series of hard strikes when the two were on the mat though, letting Hendricks know that he wasn’t done yet.
Both fighters were told by their cornermen that they needed the fifth round, setting up the most important five minutes of each welterweight’s career since their first fight in March. Hendricks locked Lawler up against the fence until Dean separated them, and while the punches and kicks had slowed, both were still throwing. After another Hendricks lock-up and Dean restart, Hendricks went right back in search of the point-scoring takedown. Lawler sprawled out of trouble and fired off thudding right hands to the head and then followed with elbows to the body. Hendricks rose to his feet and Lawler emptied his tank in search of the knockout, but the horn intervened.
With the win, Lawler improves to 25-10 with 1 NC; Dallas’ Hendricks falls to 16-3.