How Robbie Lawler made himself into one of MMA’s greatest icons

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LAS VEGAS — There was never anything flashy about Robbie Lawler. He was never going to make headlines at a news conference. Truth be told, he’d have skipped every news conference or interview he’s ever done if he wasn’t contractually required to do so.

He wasn’t the most physically gifted fighter, or even among the Top 10, in MMA history. We could talk about all things he was not — he wasn’t a physical freak of nature like Jon Jones or a superior athlete such as Georges St-Pierre or a genius in the cage like Khabib Nurmagomedov.

What he was, though, was the ultimate Fighter’s Fighter, a guy who would show up in shape, squeeze every little bit of ability he had out of his body and go home until it was time for the next mega-fight.

He fought at both middleweight and welterweight in his career, but was never better than he was at the start of his second stint in the UFC. He returned to the promotion at UFC 157 on Feb. 23, 2013 in Anaheim, California, where he stopped Josh Koscheck in the first.

Through a split decision victory over Carlos Condit on Jan. 2, 2016, Lawler went 8-1 in that run, losing only in a close welterweight title fight to Johny Hendricks. In those nine bouts, he won Fight of the Night four times, had Fight of the Year three times and added a Knockout of the Night. For that nearly three-year span, few were better.

In that time, he went 1-1 against Hendricks, 2-0 against Rory MacDonald, and had other wins over Koscheck, Bobby Voelker, Jake Ellenberger, Matt Brown and Condit.

Many believe his UFC 189 win over MacDonald was the greatest fight in UFC history.

Robbie Lawler , left, lands a left hit to Rory MacDonald to end their welterweight title mixed martial arts bout at UFC 189 on Saturday, July 11, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler will retire after his fight Saturday, ending a Hall of Fame career. (AP Photo/John Locher)

That fight got him inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame on Thursday, two nights before he’ll wrap up his memorable career Saturday in the featured preliminary bout of UFC 290 when he takes on Niko Price at T-Mobile Arena.

He’s 41 and still in magnificent shape for a guy his age, but he’s no longer able to do what he once did at the level he once did it. He’s 2-6 in his last eight and was knocked out three times and submitted once. That’s not the Robbie Lawler MMA fans have come to love, but the guy loved to compete, loved to fight and gave everything he had every time out.

He was hardly introspective or eloquent Wednesday as he discussed his pending retirement at UFC 290 media day. He didn’t even announce his own retirement; he let UFC president Dana White do that for him.

“I’ve been doing this a long time; accomplished a lot and just felt it was time,” Lawler said in his typically understated manner.

He didn’t need to talk or draw unnecessary attention to himself because he’d do that when the bell rang. If you were new to the sport, Lawler might not draw you into it by listening to him at a news conference; he’d sure keep you into it, though, if you stumbled past one of his fights on television.

In addition to the UFC, he competed in PRIDE, Strikeforce, the International Fight League and Elite XC. He fought for those promotions the way he did in the UFC, leaving a mark wherever he went.

He came out of the famous — infamous? — Miletich Fighting Systems camp in Bettendorf, Iowa, in the early part of this century. That gym was famous for developing the “iron sharpens iron,” mentality regarding training that still pervades the sport to this day. It produced fighters such as Pat Miletich and Matt Hughes, both former UFC welterweight champions; Tim Sylvia, a two-time UFC heavyweight champion; Hall of Famer Jens Pulver; Jeremy Horn and, of course, Lawler.

Miletich, Hughes, Lawler and Pulver are in the Hall of Fame, and Lawler may have another induction. He was inducted into the Fight Wing, along with MacDonald, but his career clearly merits an induction in the Modern Wing, where the greatest fighters ever have been honored.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 06: Robbie Lawler poses on stage after his induction into the UFC Hall of Fame during the UFC Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at T-Mobile Arena on July 06, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Robbie Lawler surveys the crowd Thursday at T-Mobile Arena after he was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. He’ll end his magnificent career on Saturday against Niko Price at UFC 290 at T-Mobile. (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Lawler debuted as a pro on April 7, 2001, when he knocked out John Reed in the first round.

And he’s never changed. He’s the same fierce guy in the cage at 41 years old as he was when he debuted at 19.

Along the way, he became one of the sport’s biggest stars, even though he never carried himself that way. He never adorned himself in bling nor did he have designer suits tailored for him to wear at news conferences. He did his things and fans began to catch on fairly quickly that they were watching someone special.

He chuckled about the adulation he received as he reminisced about his career.

“It’s kind of crazy and I actually try not to focus on it,” Lawler said of the accolades he’s received from fans and media. “It’s one of those things like where I created this gap between other people giving me accolades and praise; you can’t go through life trying to seek praise from other people. … Maybe one of the reasons I’ve been able to do this for so long is that I just focused on what I have to focus on.”

He needs to focus for 15 more minutes — or, knowing Lawler, a bit less — as he completes his final match against Price.

He knows now that when the final bell sounds, win or lose, the sell-out crowd at T-Mobile will rise as one and cheer and chant his name. For many years, he was one of the best fighters in the sport.

When he leaves, his fans will show him that he was also one of the most popular.

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