"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." - Robbie Lawler, 2002
This Saturday night, “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler is back in the Octagon to face hard-hitting Bobby Voelker in a pivotal welterweight matchup to be televised live on FOX. For Lawler, it’s his second bout back in the UFC after a nearly nine year absence, and in his return fight in February, it was just like old times as he finished Josh Koscheck in the first round. As we get ready for another look at the 31-year-old knockout artist, we’ll open the file on Robbie Lawler.
Nickname – Ruthless
Height – 5-11
Weight – 170
Date of Birth – 3/20/82
Hometown – Bettendorf, IA
Professional Record – 20-9, 1 NC
UFC Record – 5-3
When 20-year-old Robbie Lawler entered the UFC in 2002, he was going to be the organization’s Mike Tyson, an unrepentant knockout artist who thrilled fans with each bout. “Ruthless” was on board, saying, "When you play football, 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."
And that’s what he did in his first three bouts as he defeated Aaron Riley, Steve Berger, and Tiki Ghosn. But after suffering a dislocated hip against Pete Spratt in 2003, he would go 1-2 in his next three UFC bouts and get released. But he rebounded and battled his way back up the ranks, eventually winning championships in Icon Sport and EliteXC and then going on to star in the Strikeforce organization. In 2013, he returned to the UFC, knocking out Josh Koscheck in the first round.
THE EARLY YEARS – 2002
Robbie Lawler: Bombs Away
By Thomas Gerbasi
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 in to 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."
STRIKEFORCE – 2011
Robbie Lawler – Still Ruthless After All These Years
By Thomas Gerbasi
At one time, Robbie Lawler was pegged to be mixed martial arts’ Mike Tyson. An unrepentant destroyer whose UFC wins over Aaron Riley, Steve Berger, and Tiki Ghosn in 2002 skyrocketed him from unknown to star, the 20-year old dubbed “Ruthless” had just one speed in the Octagon: go.
"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," Lawler told me in a 2002 interview. "That's what I want to do, as long as my body can keep up and I don't get tired."
In any combat sport though, the knockout artists are usually the first to burn out and fade away. Tyson’s prime was painfully short, and when Lawler dropped three of his next four UFC bouts to Pete Spratt, Nick Diaz, and Evan Tanner, it looked like the speeding comet from Iowa had run his course.
But then a funny thing happened, and Lawler, now out of the UFC, rebuilt himself. The power and speed were still there, but now added to the arsenal was a resilience that spoke volumes. It said ‘hey, even if I don’t knock you out, I can still beat you.’ Sure, he would stumble along the way, but each time he picked himself up. And now, nearly a decade after he introduced himself to the world, Lawler is still here, still relevant, and still not even 30 years old.
How did this happen?
“It’s probably because I’m more well-rounded than people give me credit for,” said Lawler during the final stages of his training camp for Saturday’s Strikeforce bout against Tim Kennedy in Chicago. “I train hard and work on all my skills, and the reason I win fights by knockout has to do with being able to keep it on my feet and being able to stay out of submissions and compete.”
So does it bother the 29-year old to still have some call him one-dimensional?
“I don’t really care,” he said. “People are gonna hate, and that’s just the way it is.”
That is the nature of the beast in pro sports these days, and it’s a growing phenomenon in MMA, where one loss can get the critics flying out of the woodwork. Yet when Lawler says he doesn’t care, he really means it, and his ability to not buy in to any negative outside talk over the years may be the true key to his success.
Currently 18-7 with 1 NC, Lawler is at an interesting and pivotal point in his career. After scoring some memorable post-UFC knockouts over Falaniko Vitale, Joey Villasenor, Eduardo Pamplona, and Frank Trigg in various organizations such as Superbrawl, Icon Sport, PRIDE, and the IFL, Lawler settled in with EliteXC in 2007 and won that promotion’s middleweight title with a knockout of Murilo “Ninja” Rua.
The next location for him was Strikeforce, but he’s only managed a 2-3 record thus far, with wins over Melvin Manhoef and Matt Lindland, and losses to Jake Shields, “Babalu” Sobral and “Jacare” Souza. And there’s no cupcake waiting for him in Kennedy, so the question has to be asked, is it tough mentally to have to face killer after killer each time you walk from the locker room to the cage?
“No stress,” Lawler deadpans. “I know what I’m capable of, I know what I can do, and I’m not worried about anyone else.”
But Lawler has made the proper adjustments over the years to make sure he’s at his best come fight night. A longtime member of the Miletich Fighting Systems camp, Lawler worked with Matt Hughes H.I.T. Squad for a while before settling in with the Power MMA camp in Arizona, and while longtime striking coach Matt Pena is still on board, it’s the wrestlers in his new gym – Ryan Bader, CB Dollaway, Aaron Simpson – that have kept him working hard and staying hungry.
“They’re hard workers and they’re wrestlers, so that’s what I’m used to training with, and when I’m working out, that’s who my buddies are, so it was an easy transition,” said Lawler of the move from the Midwest. “When you grow up around wrestlers and train with wrestlers your whole life, it doesn’t really matter where they’re from.”
If Lawler’s team has gotten his takedown defense on point for this Saturday’s bout, allowing him to keep the fight standing, it might be a rough night for Kennedy, who “Ruthless” describes as “A hard worker, a grinder, and a pretty good guy at submissions.”
If not, Kennedy, who has submission victories in seven of his 13 wins, could make things very difficult for Lawler.
This ‘what if’ game makes this an intriguing battle, and it gets even more so since the stakes are high, with both fighters having what they see as unfinished business with 185-pound champ Souza. But Lawler’s not into the speculation game, so for now, he’ll just worry about the fight in front of him.
“I want to win and I want to be the best,” he said. “I’m not here to necessarily put on great shows, that’s just part of what I do.”
So has anything changed since he was a fresh-faced 20-year old looking to score the MMA equivalent of the 80-yard touchdown every time the bell rang?
“No, that’s just the way the game’s supposed to be played and that’s the way I play,” said Lawler. “I play with a lot of intensity and I just want to go out there and get the job done. And most of the time, it’s pretty exciting.”
THE UFC RETURN – 2013
Robbie Lawler: A Ruthless Return
By Thomas Gerbasi
Robbie Lawler has been in the fight game long enough to know that there are those fans that are either fickle or that focus strictly on the UFC and nothing else. So with Lawler’s eight year plus absence from the Octagon to fight with various promotions, including PRIDE, Elite XC, and Strikeforce, there is the distinct possibility that when he returns to face Josh Koscheck at UFC 157 this Saturday night, there might be a few viewers who are wondering who the “new guy” is.
So for those fans, what does “Ruthless Robbie” hope they see?
“A hungry kid coming out ready to fight with my heart,” said Lawler, and even though he’s going to turn 31 next month and now has 29 pro fights under his belt, that description would have been apt for his UFC debut back in May of 2002, when he was a 20-year-old force of destruction who was expected to be the Mike Tyson of the UFC’s early Zuffa era.
Back then, Lawler didn’t fill notebooks with quotes or pound his chest and declare himself the king of the sport, but when the bell rang, he was always must see TV thanks to the kind of punching power that made people fall down in funny ways when tagged. And if they didn’t fall down, their original fight plan usually got altered significantly.
It was a heady time for Lawler and the sport, as the formerly outlaw sport started showing signs of mainstream acceptance before the MMA explosion of 2005. The San Diego native, who trained out of the renowned Miletich Fighting Systems camp in Iowa, won his first three UFC bouts in 2002, decisioning Aaron Riley and stopping Steve Berger and Tiki Ghosn.
When asked what he remembers about those early days, he says “Just going out there and fighting hard. Not a lot of people were realizing what you were doing. The sport wasn’t as big when I first started in the UFC. The sport’s really evolved and it’s more mainstream now.”
Yet by the time it started hitting the mainstream, Lawler’s UFC stint had come to a halt. A UFC 45 win over Chris Lytle was surrounded by losses to Pete Spratt, Nick Diaz, and Evan Tanner, and now fighting at middleweight, he took his show on the road.
Never failing to find success or solid work, Lawler delivered wins over Joey Villasenor, Frank Trigg, “Ninja” Rua, Scott Smith, and Melvin Manhoef in various organizations, while suffering losses against “Mayhem” Miller, Jake Shields, and “Babalu” Sobral. He won a couple of belts as well, but never told himself that his UFC days were over forever.
“I never closed the door on going back to the UFC,” he said. “I figured it was going to happen eventually.”
And with Strikeforce (where Lawler fought eight times) closing its doors after its January 2013 event, it left things open for Lawler to make his return. But it won’t be without a couple key changes. First, he will be returning to welterweight, something he admits to thinking about even when he was in Strikeforce.
“I knew when I was gonna go back to the UFC I was gonna go down to 170,” he said. “I wanted to wait until I was back in the UFC to cut down to ’70, but I was gonna take a fight in Strikeforce at 170.”
That’s a big move, especially for someone who has been fighting as long as Lawler has, but he says the cut so far has been smooth.
“Everything’s going good and I’m not too worried about my weight. I know I’ll make it, and the furthest thing from my mind is making weight. I’m just concentrating on getting my body ready and getting mentally prepared.”
And aiding in that process will mark the second big change for Lawler, as he’s moved down to Coconut Creek, Florida to train with American Top Team. The decision surprised some people, who will always associate Lawler with the members of the Miletich camp (though he has also done work with the Power MMA team in Arizona), but after losing three of his last four Strikeforce bouts, a change will probably do him good.
“My manager, Monte Cox, set it up,” Lawler said of his move to ATT. “There are a lot of good training partners down here, a lot of good coaches to push you and get you ready, they know what it takes to get a guy ready, and they’re bringing out the best in me.”
That’s not to say ties are severed to the past, as longtime striking coach Matt Pena has also joined Lawler in Florida for this camp.
“Pena’s out here and he’s working with some of their guys too, and it’s a good atmosphere,” said Lawler, who will need all his tools sharpened to beat Koscheck, a top welterweight contender who has the wrestling that can give him some issues. Has he kept an eye on “Kos” and the rest of the UFC’s 170-pounders?
“A little bit, not too much,” he said. “I’ve been watching everyone from afar and seeing how everything shakes out, and he (Koscheck) is definitely a big name in the UFC.”
A big name who it would be nice to add to his victims’ list come Saturday night. And if that’s the case, this blast from the past can immediately make himself a major player in a stacked division. But if you’re expecting a bombshell statement from Lawler, nothing has changed over the years because this is one fighter who saves his bombs for the Octagon.
“I don’t even look that far ahead,” he said of his future prospects. “I’m just coming out and trying to make a statement with every fight, no matter how big someone else thinks it is. It’s always big, but I’m not too worried about where this puts me in someone’s picture.”