I really had to dig to find my first interview with Robbie Lawler from back in 2002, and before I found it, I seemed to remember that he was as soft-spoken and to the point as a 20-year-old as he is now. But lo and behold, the (cyber) ink doesn’t lie, and the future UFC welterweight champion appeared to be a lot more talkative as a young man. Reading it back, it’s a good insight into where his head was at as he started to become a star in the Octagon. Spoiler alert – he still liked knocking people out. That’s never changed.
The general consensus among mixed martial arts observers on May 11 was that the fight they saw the night before, a UFC 37 preliminary match between Robbie Lawler and Aaron Riley, was one of the greatest contests in the sport 's short history. But Lawler, the unanimous decision winner, had a different view of things.
"After the fight, I was wondering what the hell I did wrong," said Lawler, who is preparing for a June 22 matchup with Steve Berger at UFC 37.5, where he hopes to continue what he started against Riley. "For this fight, I worked out a few things, and I'm not as bulky as I was the last time. I worked on my endurance, and I worked on my left hand a little bit more so when I hit somebody with it the lights are gonna turn out."
For those whose first exposure to the Davenport, Iowa resident was UFC 37, Lawler was a revelation, the type of fighter that can bring in fans by the hundreds. Young and quietly confident, Lawler came into the Octagon throwing bombs and left doing the same thing.
Not surprisingly, Zuffa has pinned its hopes on Lawler to expose MMA to the masses when his match against Berger is televised on Fox Sports' Best Damn Sports Show Period on June 25. It's the first look at the sport for a national basic cable audience, a pressure gig for anybody, especially a 20-year-old rookie, right?
"I don't really feel any pressure," said Lawler. "My last fight had more pressure. I had too much adrenaline flowing and I kind of got tired. This time I'm going to be calm and relaxed, and that's going to make me a lot more dangerous. I don't think it's going to bother me any that I'm going to be on national television."
And putting all youthful confidence aside, you kind of believe him, especially after his war with Riley, in which he showed remarkable poise as he stood in with the veteran brawler, and came out ahead, a surprising outcome to many. What was even more surprising was that Riley remained standing after tasting leather for three rounds.
"When I was fighting, I wasn't really thinking about it, but afterwards, when I watched it, I was like, 'Whoa, I hit him with hard shots and he didn't go down,'" said Lawler.
But after the first round, all eyes were on Lawler, a Miletich team member who had never been past the first round in his previous MMA matches. And after the effort he put out in the opening round, would he have the endurance to continue?
"I knew I was tired, but I also knew that he couldn't hurt me," said Lawler. "In the second round he was scoring points and I knew he was scoring points. I covered up a little bit, and threw back, but when I threw back, he would come in and throw punches and move back. And I would be missing punches so it looked a lot worse than it was. In the third round I knew I just had to suck it up if I wanted to win. And that's what I did."
And the crowd loved it. But despite his pleasing style, Lawler's propensity for fireworks is for strictly selfish reasons.
"I know that they're going to be watching me and that they like my style, but that's just the way I fight," said Lawler. "It's just natural to do things like that. If I play baseball I'm going to hit home runs; if I'm playing defensive end I'm going to get sacks, and I'm going to make it look exciting. That's just the way I do stuff. It's not that I'm trying to do it. It's just natural. If the crowd likes it, they like it. If they don’t, they don't, but usually they do."
Born in San Diego, Lawler moved to Iowa as a youngster, and his fighting instincts were honed early in life.
"I always liked to fight," he said. "My brother beat me up, and when we went to school, kids would see who was the toughest kid out in the schoolyard. It was just a natural instinct to fight and roll around. My dad got me into martial arts when I was little, but then I moved to Iowa and started wrestling, which I had never done before. Then Pat (Miletich) would come up to the high school and train. He saw that I was a pretty tough kid and he told me to come up and train with him."
Things moved fast for Lawler, who quickly gained a reputation for his heavy hands after making his debut with a 14 second KO of Landon Shalter at IFC Warriors Challenge 13 in June of 2001. His training with the Miletich team has undoubtedly enhanced his natural talents, but in a stark contrast to the patient styles of Pat Miletich, Jeremy Horn, Matt Hughes or Jens Pulver, Lawler fights as if double-parked. Why the contrast?
"When you play football and you score touchdowns, you don't want to march the ball down the field, you want to run it in on the kickoff, or intercept the ball and run it back to keep scoring," said Lawler. "That's what I want to do, as long as my body can keep up and I don't get tired."
Miletich and company won't let him get tired, and Lawler's rapid ascent is just another example of the value of having a talented training team behind you, pushing you to greater heights than you would have attained by training alone.
"It's a big part of my success so far," said Lawler of his training team. "You train with them and learn so much. They've been in the big matches, and they know the little things. I've been hanging out with Jens for about a year and a half now. We've become good friends and he's coming out with me for my fight. It's just good for your confidence to say, 'I just boxed Pat Miletich.' What does Steve Berger bring to the table that Pat can't?"
To most insiders, Berger's only chance to avoid becoming another KO victim is to get Lawler to the mat, a foreign area to the bomb-dropping youngster. Lawler expects as much, and he's ready.
"I expect him to try to take me to the mat," said Lawler. "Other than that, he's real good on his submissions and his standup is pretty good. But I think he's going to try to shoot in, take me to the mat and submit me. I move well on the ground, so if he gives me an inch, I'll probably get back to my feet pretty easily. I'll get some underhooks, get good position and get out."
Robbie Lawler has been a pro fighter for slightly over a year, and at the very least, the next year and beyond should be an interesting one. For Lawler, it's no surprise. Everything is going according to plan.
"I just talked to one of my friends a couple of months ago, and he said, 'A year and a half ago you said you were going to be in the UFC in about two years, and you finally made it.' I knew I would. I just have a knack for fighting," said Lawler. "If you want to be the best in the sport you have to train like that. I really want to be the best one of these days. I'm young, I have five fights under my belt and I figure I have a long way to go. But eventually I want to be the best."