It's an uncommon occurrence in mixed martial arts, for sure, but Robbie Lawler has some experience fighting on a card in which a vacant welterweight championship is on the line. He did so for the first time on a summer evening in 2012 while competing in Strikeforce. But on that night in Portland, Ore., the grab for 170-pound gold was not the main event -- that was Luke Rockhold's middleweight title defense against Tim Kennedy -- and didn't even involve Lawler.
There is some funhouse-mirror symmetry at play here. Saturday's anticipated game of Punch-Out between "Ruthless Robbie" and Johny Hendricks for the unoccupied UFC throne (10 p.m. ET, PPV) will be preceded by another welterweight contest, one pitting Carlos Condit against Tyron Woodley. It was Woodley who fought in that Strikeforce fill-a-void title tilt nearly two years ago, with Lawler his opening act at the time, dancing in a middleweight bout third down on the bill.
And around and around we go.
Who would have watched Lawler back then and imagined him stepping into the bright Dallas spotlight of this weekend's UFC 171 main event with so glorious an opportunity in the palm of his hand? The hand will be his left one, and it will be closed tightly into the same stunning fist that played a powerful role in transporting the 31-year-old Iowan from the valley of nowhereville to the top of the mountain.
Lawler (22-9, 1 NC) is on the cusp of becoming the successor to the greatest welterweight champ in the sport's history. How stupendous a concept, particularly for this man. Even with a winning streak of three fights and counting, Lawler has a way to go before he could justifiably be spoken of in the same breath as Georges St-Pierre, who ruled at 170 pounds for six unanimously decisive years. But boy has this 14-year veteran of the sport come a long way in a short time.
Consider that Strikeforce night a scant 20 months ago. Lawler had his moments, but Lorenz Larkin had a lot more of them, enough to bury Lawler in the rubble of fistic ruin or at least culminate a process that had been ongoing for years. It was Lawler's third loss in four fights and his fifth defeat in an eight-bout run with the promotion extending back to 2009.
A career launched at age 18 with so much promise -- Lawler won six of his his first seven fights, six by KO -- had lost its way.
Lawler once had looked like a champion in the making. Yet no matter how hard the kid could throw leather -- and he could do so with gusto aplenty -- he was not about to punch his way through the glass ceiling in his own gym. Lawler was a product of a Miletich Fighting Systems assembly line that manufactured shimmering belt wearers, including Pat Miletich himself and Matt Hughes, both top-of-the-pecking-order welterweights. That steel-sharpening-steel lineage pushed Lawler forward but, with a friend and training partner entrenched as a dominant champion in his weight division, also held him back.
"I didn't really worry about titles for the longest time," Lawler said last week during a conference call with reporters. "Matt Hughes was a UFC champion at the time. I just enjoyed fighting."
Without a goal to work toward, Lawler went nowhere. Or at least nowhere that an elite fighter wants to be. Following that guns-ablazin' 3-0 UFC start, he dropped two of his next three fights and suddenly was gone from the game's leading promotion.
He fought in King of the Cage. He fought in the Pride Fighting Championships. He fought in the International Fight League. He fought in EliteXC. Lawler got back on the winning track, but even as he stirred up whatever fans got to see him with knockout after knockout, he was drifting and losing interest.
"I feel like I was always working hard, but I don't know if the excitement was there," he acknowledged. "Maybe it was whom I was fighting for or what-not."
Finally, Lawler found a home in Strikeforce. It was a happy home at times but just as often a house of horrors. His debut, against Jake Shields, lasted all of 2:02, the time it took Shields to choke him out with a guillotine. He was on the verge of another defeat in his next outing, as kickboxer Melvin Manhoef's leg attack had Lawler limping and immobilized, but Lawler unleashed a desperate right hand that laid out the Dutchman.
The checkerboard resume continued to fill out with a decision loss to "Babalu" Sobral, in which Lawler had difficulty making the 195-pound catchweight limit, and then an invigorating 50-second KO win over Matt Lindland. Lawler was too exciting to ignore but too erratic to invest much interest in.
That last part did not just apply to the fans but to the fighter himself. Lawler's run in Strikeforce closed out with three more losses in four fights, the last being the Larkin bout.
But the moment that best exemplified the Robbie Lawler of that time came not inside a cage but on a dais. It was fight week in Chicago in the summer of 2011, with Strikeforce trying to build interest in its card by holding a press conference with the fighters, including Lawler and his opponent, Tim Kennedy. The reticent Lawler was never a goldmine of quips and soundbites, but even his typical one-word monotone would have been an improvement over what reporters got that day. Lawler was so excited to be there that, right in the middle of the media session, he fell asleep.
What finally woke Lawler up? It was a change of venue that he had no control over. Strikeforce was bought by Zuffa, the company that owns the UFC, and after a short time of coexistence, the second-fiddle promotion was shut down and its fighter contracts were absorbed by the UFC. And just like that Lawler, having lost five of his last eight bouts, was back in the biggest and best promotion in MMA. And fully aware that he was a lucky man.
"Coming to the UFC, it gave me excitement," Lawler said. "I was excited to be in front of everyone. I was excited to fight the best in the world, for the best organization in the world. I wanted to prove myself."
Lawler, notwithstanding his lackadaisical past, has made the most of his opportunity. It's not merely that he's won all three of his fights or that he knocked out onetime title challenger Josh Koscheck or tha he bested the weight division's flavor of the month, Rory MacDonald, in his most recent outing.
Lawler has evolved from a fight-to-fight pugilist to a big-picture dreamer. He has set goals for himself and become devoted to them. He cleaned up his diet. He moved his training to south Florida and American Top Team.
"Ever since then, I've just excelled," he said. "I've gotten better. And mentally I'm right where I need to be."
As Lawler spoke about his serpentine journey to Saturday night's career-defining opportunity, it occurred that this reflectiveness was in itself a significant change. Lawler recognized the connection as well.
"I never wanted to be in the light," he said. "I wasn't ready to be in the light. I'm just a quiet guy who just loved to fight. I think as I matured, I'm ready to take that step. I'm embracing everything that has to do with the UFC. I'm ready to be out there in front of everyone, do what it takes to be a champion."
To make that happen, all he has to do is defeat Johny Hendricks. That's no small task, but it's far less daunting than having to overcome an opponent and yourself.