Everything you need to know about this weekend's big fight at UFC 189.
Psst. Want to know a secret?
We’re trying to keep this quiet, so don’t say anything to anyone, but the UFC is holding a title fight on Saturday. No, we’re not referring to the tussle for an interim belt that you’ve been hearing so much about. This other one is for a real, legit strap.
Robbie Lawler, quiet man who dutifully goes about his violent business. Rory MacDonald, stoic and wordlessly chilling slaughterer. They’ll tiptoe within striking distance and scuffle for the welterweight championship in the UFC 189 co-main event (10 p.m. ET, PPV).
Yes, co-main. The top of the marquee at MGM Grand Garden Arena touts “The Conor McGregor Show,” one of those grand spectacles for which The Strip in Vegas is known. That one—McGregor vs. Chad Mendes, standing in for injured champ José Aldo—promises to be Cirque de Soleil meets Penn & Teller.
Lawler and MacDonald will put on a show, too, but there’s no glitzy trailer being screened. The curtain doesn’t rise until the two of them are inside the cage.
Lawler, 33, will be making his first defense of the 170-pound title he won by beating Johny Hendricks, via split decision, last December. That slim victory capped a career comeback for “Ruthless Robbie,” and was his third straight win after a loss to Hendricks in their first title fight matchup. Lawler (25-10, 1 NC) stands at No. 6 in the SI.com pound-for-pound fighter rankings.
MacDonald (18-2), No. 3 in the SI.com welterweight tally (behind Lawler and Hendricks), also is on a three-fight win streak, which began in the wake of a split-decision loss to Lawler in November 2013. The 25-year-old has long been viewed as an heir to the 170-pound throne, and this is his first shot at the golden ring.
In addition to the pay-per-view telecast of Saturday night’s five-fight main card, four prelims will be shown on Fox Sports 1, starting at 8 p.m. ET, and the event’s first two bouts will be available on the UFC Fight Pass online service at 7. The main card also will be screened by Fathom Events at movie theaters nationwide.
As recently as three years ago, Lawler was on a downward spiral—three losses in four fights—and what once had been a promising career looked to be slipping away. He was long gone from the UFC and was toiling for Strikeforce, struggling more than the promotion itself.
But then, after that second-fiddle fight company folded and its athletes were tossed into the UFC fray, Lawler somehow rediscovered the fight within him. It’s paradoxical: He moved to the bigger stage, competing against what was presumed to be a higher class of opposition, yet his performance results shined brighter than ever.
Within three fights, he was in a title fight eliminator with a guy generally perceived as the successor to the great Georges St-Pierre, who also happened to be the then-champ’s training partner. MacDonald, like GSP, had it all: standup, grappling, athleticism. But Lawler had an answer for everything, his strongest suit being a will to push forward and come out on top. And he did. It was a split decision, a close one, but Robbie was the one who earned the right to compete for the brass-and-leather strap St-Pierre had decided to surrender.
Lawler didn’t win the vacant title on the night in March 2014 when he and Hendricks first met. But it was such a crowd-pleasing fight that the UFC put the two of them back in the cage together less than nine months later. And for Lawler, the rematch proved magical.
Will that be the case for MacDonald?
Last five fights
12/6/14 Johny Hendricks W SD 5
7/26/14 Matt Brown W UD 5
5/24/14 Jake Ellenberger W TKO 3
3/15/14 Johny Hendricks L UD 5
11/16/13 Rory MacDonald W SD 3
10/4/14 Tarec Saffiedine W TKO 3
6/14/14 Tyron Woodley W UD 3
2/22/14 Demian Maia W UD 3
11/16/13 Robbie Lawler L SD 3
7/27/13 Jake Ellenberger W UD 3
Tale of the tape
|Tale of the Tape|
|March 20, 1982||Birthdate||Jul 22, 1989|
|San Diego, CA||Birthplace||Quesnel, British Columbia|
|Coconut Creek, FL||Residence||Montreal, Quebec|
* Official weights announced at the weigh-in (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)
Other numbers to count on
20: Percentage of significant strike attempts that Rory MacDonald successfully landed in the first round of his first fight with Robbie Lawler (7-of-34), according to FightMetric statistics. The lackluster start put MacDonald behind early in what turned out to be a split decision. Rory ended up landing 34 percent for the fight, to Robbie’s 43 percent -- a number that itself is so-so but by comparison seems pinpoint.
1: Leg kick by MacDonald in the first meeting, to 14 by Lawler. However, Rory connected to the body 15 times, while Robbie did so just five times. Both men aimed their most significant strikes toward the head.
4: Takedowns by MacDonald in the 2013 fight, on six attempts. Lawler did not take a single shot.
Robbie Lawler becomes champion
Rory MacDonald earns title shot with late KO
We’ve already seen what these two can do against each other. Fighters grow, polish old skills, develop confidence in new ones. But ultimately, they are what they are.
Lawler is a forward-moving, explosive power puncher with enough of a wrestling base to keep a fight standing, where he can continue to throw leather at you until you fall. Which, if he’s connecting, won’t take long.
MacDonald is a jack-of-all-trades who can pick you apart on your feet or take you down and beat you up. He’s not a one-punch threat, but when he’s in rhythm, he’s a piston firing from every angle. You feel surrounded.
As they showed in their first meeting, these men are well matched. And Lawler appears to be defying nature by continuing to get better, while MacDonald seems to have his head more clearly focused and in line with his sublime skill set. If time has not withered either man’s physical gifts or gritty resolve, this should be a potent head-to-head.
Lawler owns the title belt and a victory over MacDonald, but Rory is the betting favorite here, with a money line ranging from -175 (bet $175 to win $100) to -220 (bet $220 to win $100) at various sportsbooks. The line on Lawler ranges from +145 (bet $100 to win $145) to +169 (bet $100 to win $169).
In the first meeting, MacDonald was a frustratingly slow starter. His patience paralyzed him. Being that this is a title fight, which means it’s five rounds rather than the three they fought last time, it might seem that Rory has the time to be deliberate again in his approach. But for the good of his psyche, he must come out with more fire. MacDonald hasn’t fought in nine months, and he needs to show right away that he’s not rusty or sluggish. If he wants the title, as he says he does, Rory needs to go out and take it.
MacDonald by decision.
“I had a couple things in training and my body wasn’t feeling good. I just lost motivation. I couldn’t train as hard as I usually did. The injury kind of made me not focused. It just made me not into it.”
—Rory MacDonald, talking to reporters in his training gym about his mental state during his split-decision loss to Robbie Lawler in 2013
“I’m going to prove you wrong -- again.”
—Lawler, talking to Fox Sports about being the underdog, despite being champion and owning win over MacDonald
The rest of the card
Chad Mendes vs. Conor McGregor, welterweight interim championship (main event); Dennis Bermudez vs. Jeremy Stephens, featherweight; Gunnar Nelson vs. Brandon Thatch, welterweight; Brad Pickett vs. Thomas Almeida, bantamweight.
Preliminary card (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1): Matt Brown vs. Tim Means, welterweight; Mike Swick vs. Alex Garcia, welterweight; Cathal Pendred vs. John Howard, welterweight; Cody Garbrandt vs. Henry Briones, bantamweight.
Online prelims (7 p.m., UFC Fight Pass): Neil Seery vs. Louis Smolka, flyweight; Yosdenis Cedeno vs. Cody Pfister, lightweight.
Mike Goldberg will handle blow-by-blow and Joe Rogan analysis for the main-card telecast on pay-per-view as well as prelims on Fox Sports 1 and the UFC Fight Pass. There will be an hour-long postfight show on Fox Sports 1, starting at 1:30 a.m. ET.