Robbie Lawler has been fighting professionally for more than half of his life.
Now 40, Lawler debuted in 2001, just a few weeks after his 19th birthday, and has continued to step into the fire at least once per year every year since, save for 2018, when he was recovering from a knee injury.
His phoenix-like return to the UFC and rise through the welterweight ranks to finally claim championship gold? That run started nearly 10 years ago — February 23, 2013 — with a first-round knockout win over Josh Koscheck.
“I don’t know,” said Lawler, who faces Bryan Barberena this weekend in Las Vegas, when asked if it feels like more than nine years have passed since his return to the Octagon at UFC 157. “I’ve been doing this so like that it’s just like fights; just trying to figure it out, living day-to-day.
“It’s funny to look back, but I don’t look back too much; I’m just looking forward trying to figure out how I can improve and focus in on life in general.”
Lawler has always been about “actions over words” and while he doesn’t say much about the past (or anything much, really), you can see in the things he does that he takes a great deal of pride in the path he’s forged for himself and the place he’s reached in his professional career.
The thing that made that surprise run to the UFC welterweight title so captivating is not only was it Lawler fulfilling the promise he showed in his early days competing inside the Octagon, but it also came following a stretch where it seemed like he was headed in the wrong direction professionally.
Prior to his UFC return, Lawler went 3-5 under the Strikeforce banner, competing mostly at middleweight, while turning in performances where the joy for competing and the thrill of testing himself against another elite competitor just wasn’t there.
The same can be said of the four-fight stretch that preceded his UFC 266 bout opposite Nick Diaz last September, as Lawler landed on the wrong side of the results in each of those fights, getting out-hustled for the duration in three of those four contests. The passion again seemed to have waned, but stepping in there with his old rival Diaz evidently lit a fire in the former welterweight titleholder.
“I think it’s that he was a big name,” Lawler said, reflecting on what propelled him to have his best performance in several years last fall, where he collected a third-round stoppage win over the returning fan favorite. “I think I was picked to kind of be Nick’s coming out party and I wasn’t really having it.
“He’s a big name and my training partners did a great job of getting me ready for the fight. I didn’t do too much work — I did the perfect amount of work so that my body recovered and it ended well for me that night.”
Those training partners and the environment he’s in are a big piece of the puzzle as well.
Lawler is one of the veteran leaders of the team at Sanford MMA, the South Florida outpost where tenured standouts like Michael Chandler, Gilbert Burns, and Derek Brunson share the mats with emerging talents including Brendan Allen, Andre Fialho, and Ian Garry.
The long-time competitor has taken up a mentorship role with many of the young fighters, looking to pay it forward years after being the eager youngster in a room full of established, championship-level talents.
“Being around these up-and-comers, these guys that are pushing themselves to be the best, that definitely helps me,” said Lawler, who cut his teeth as a member of the Miletich Fighting Systems crew in Bettendorf, Iowa that included UFC titleholders Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, and Tim Sylvia. “Seeing young, hungry guys getting after it, I’m trying to give as much as possible to those guys because at one point in time I was the young kid trying to figure it out, trying to get where I am today. I feel like it’s an obligation and something I want to do, giving back to these young fighters trying to do great things.
Robbie Lawler | Fighter Timeline
Robbie Lawler | Fighter Timeline
“No, everything is different and I’m just trying to be the best version I can be,” he said when asked if he sees any similarities between the two all-star teams that have bookended his career. “I learned a lot from those guys at Miletich, learned a lot throughout my whole career, so it’s just figuring out what every individual around me needs, and if I can help them in a certain situation, that’s what it’s all about.
“But they’re helping me as much as I’m helping them, which is nice.”
Coming off the win over Diaz, the 40-year-old veteran was hoping to go “big name hunting,” but nothing materialized, resulting in his being paired off with Barberena this weekend.
“I’m looking for big fights and none of those came up, so Bryan is a guy that is on kind of a roll,” Lawler said of Barberena, who has earned consecutive victories and wins in three of his last four outings, most recently getting the better of Matt Brown in a Fight of the Night-winning battle in the veteran’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio. “He comes out and looks to fight, looks to put on a good show, so it’s a good matchup for the fans.
“It’s business as usual,” added Lawler. “You have to go out there, be professional and keep that level high. Fighting in the UFC, you can’t take anyone lightly because everyone is dangerous. You’ve got to be professional out there, and we’ll see what happens after this fight, but there are definitely some big names out there that hopefully I can get a hold of.”
And make no mistake about it: despite more than two decades in the game and having made the walk 46 times in his career after Saturday, Lawler is nowhere near ready to call it a day.
“I really love competing, I love training and getting myself ready, plus my body feels good,” he said when asked about the possibility of retirement. “I’ve done a pretty good job of taking care of myself and training smart, so as long as I enjoy what I’m doing and my body feels good, I’m healthy, I’m going to continue to do it, especially if I can do it at a high level.”
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