Sunday January 3rd, 2016

The welterweight division has historically been the UFC’s showcase for dominant champions. Georges St-Pierre’s second reign at the top of the sport lasted for five years and through nine title defenses, one short of the fight promotion’s record. Before him, Matt Hughes had two reigns totaling seven defenses. Both of these champions’ bouts were barely competitive. No one could hang with them.

Today the land of 170-pounders is ruled by a more egalitarian king. Robbie Lawler may be nicknamed “Ruthless,” but he sure is kind to the UFC’s paying customers, treating them to high entertainment and narrow escapes every time he steps into the cage.

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The 33-year-old, who became champion a year ago via the slimmest of split-decision victories, turned his first title defense into an instant classic back in July, thrillingly knocking out Rory MacDonald in the fifth round of a fight the champ was losing on the scorecards. It was a runaway for Fight of the Year.

What could Lawler do for an encore? Well, he could produce another fifth-round magic show in what ended up as a split-decision victory over Carlos Condit in the main event of UFC 195 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

Lawler (27-10, 1 NC) spent the first four rounds economizing his fistic output, mostly just stalking Condit (30-9) with fists coiled to unleash counterstrikes whenever the challenger ventured too close. The champ connected with the evening’s harder shots, for sure, but they were few and far between, while Condit remained busy with an output that, while ceaseless and crisp and delivered from all angles, seemed more aimed at maintaining distance from Lawler’s dangerous fists than damaging Lawler’s face and neurological presence. It was a curious clash of game plans, and it was anybody’s guess as to what the three blind mice at cageside were scribbling on their scorecards.

Both fighters’ cornermen seemed to have an idea, though. When Lawler retreated to his stool following the fourth round, the loudest voice of all was on repeat. “Hey, we’ve got to get this done,” the champ was told. “We’ve got to get this done. Put him away. Put him away. Put him away.”

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Across the cage in Condit’s corner, trainer and relaxation-tape voiceover artist Greg Jackson apparently had been watching the same fight. “So obviously, this is the most dangerous round,” he told his man. “He’s lost this fight. He’s going to come with everything he’s got.”

True that. Lawler emerged from his corner for the fight’s final five minutes as a hunter firing two weapons, each wrapped in four ounces of leather. He pursued Condit from the get-go, throwing ill-intentioned punches and following them with more of the same. Coming off a fourth round in which he had been outstruck by 47 to 6, according to FightMetric statistics, Lawler turned on the heat in a dramatic way, bringing the MGM Grand Garden Arena crowd to its feet with a final barrage that had Condit wobbled for much of the second half of the five minutes. The champ ended up landing 53 significant strikes in the round, after having connected with a mere 39 total through the first four sessions.

Condit didn’t just cower and take it. He fired back even while on unsteady feet, actually landing more strikes than Lawler in Round 5, just as he had in all previous rounds. But none of the challenger’s 62 punches and kicks connected with a force that threatened to fell the champ. They just put Lawler briefly on the defensive, giving Condit a few short respites from the champ’s withering assault.

When the final horn sounded, barely audible over the collective roar of the on-their-feet fans, both fighters sagged against the cage. They had no fight left in them. They barely mustered the energy to stand at the center of the cage flanking the referee as the scores were read, revealing that the fifth was indeed the swing round, with two judges scoring the bout even going in.

Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC via Getty

Whether or not you agreed with those ballots -- and there was much room for debate, with Condit having run away in the striking stats, though Lawler’s 82 fewer connections seemed to have more effect on equalibrium -- there was no room for regret. Lawler and Condit had given their all. What more could the fans ask for?

Well, they could request a rematch. When the judges’ decision was announced, boos rained down upon the octagon until Lawler, being interviewed at center cage, said, “Let’s do it again.”

That seems unlikely. Though UFC president Dana White did give the idea lip service at the postfight press conference, it’s rare that a challenger who comes close but falls short is given a second straight shot.

​ Condit’s time does appear to be running out. He’s just 31 years old, but he’s been a prizefighter since he was 18 and, between MMA, boxing and kickboxing has 44 battles under his belt. At the press conference, he acknowledged that he might now hang up the gloves. Even if that was just his disappointment talking, he does not wear the look of a man determined to make another slow build to the promised land of title shots.

Lawler has challenges ahead without him. Tyron Woodley, who has won four of his last five fights, is likely first in line. Demian Maia has won four straight, and at age 38, it’s now or never for the jiu-jitsu ace. Kickboxer extraordinaire Stephen Thompson has won six of his seven UFC outings and is on the rise. And Rory MacDonald and Johny Hendricks keep hanging around.

However the welterweight title fight matchmaking plays out, it’s safe to say it’ll be a win for the UFC fanbase for as long as Lawler is involved. He’s never in a mismatch, always finishing just a half-step ahead. And that is a pleasure to behold. His game is perpetually moving forward because he and his big fists are perpetually moving forward. Ruthlessly.

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