NEW YORK -- June 2002. In just his sixth appearance as a professional mixed martial artist,
Heralded at the time as a watershed moment for a sport attempting to claw its way out of the shadows, the event didn't dissuade the young Lawler from treating his opponent,
Trading shot for shot was a hallmark of Lawler's early fights, and it's the reason he was put in showcase positions other fighters could only dream about. To this day, Lawler's welterweight contest, and Ultimate Fighting Championship debut, against
That hard-charging teenager UFC officials recognized in Lawler is the same mid-20s fighter EliteXC reps see today -- an unadulterated striker who rarely disappoints. And on May 31, the matured fighter -- one capable of recognizing a moment while still brushing the pressure aside with ease -- has a second chance to shine in front of an uninitiated audience.
On Thursday, while reporters peppered
"I've been here, done that," Lawler smiled.
Technically, though, he hasn't. No mixed martial artist has. MMA in primetime, like UFC's stint on FSN, will be remembered as a seminal moment for the fighting sport. And it's no coincidence that Lawler, a hard-punching southpaw with a penchant for knockout victories, will be associated with both events.
"A fight's a fight," he said. "If it's game seven and I need to hit a free throw, what's the difference between shooting a free throw with no one there or everyone there? You go through the same movements. Everything is the same. So I want to be in this position. I want to be in the spotlight."
Yet, there's an important distinction to make: in Lawler's world "spotlight" doesn't translate to "stardom." If the money comes, great, but the 26-year-old has always wanted wins and wars. Most anticipate he'll find both Saturday against
Smith, too, has had his share of highlights. With a heavy right hand, he used his weapon in a dramatic fashion to get around
Half a decade ago, Smith might've been able to capitalize on Lawler's ruthless-bordering-on-recklessness style, but nowadays, chances are slim. Lawler has proved time and again that a performance with strikes that don't produce knockout blows cannot be considered sub-par.
Hype gives way to actual fights. Pressure, power, patience, footwork and ruse -- all were traits that made
Forget the magazine covers and front-page stories. Forget the incredibly premature -- and embarrassing -- comparisons to
Kimbo Slice must stop
So how does Slice go about keeping us captivated?
"Just go in to see if he can knock him out," the heavyweight's trainer
Undeniable at this point is Slice's raw punching power that, even for the heavy-handed Rutten, has brought on some nervous laughs as Slice pounded out rounds on a heavy bag in their Thousand Oaks, Calif., gym.
"I really worked on his footwork, rotating his body to make his punches longer," Rutten said. "He already has a good reach, but now he's got even a better reach. We made him stand a little more square. He can take a hit. He wasn't afraid. All those things are working really good together."
Thompson, carrying what many believe to be a weak chin into the fight after losing six of eight fights -- five by knockout -- since 2006, admits it feels like he's been set up to lose. And the 29-year-old Brit is just now starting to get annoyed that most people consider it a "forgone conclusion that Kimbo's going to [defeat me]."
"But I just have to keep remembering that Saturday is my time. After Saturday, we'll see then," he added. "They don't want to put [Slice] against anyone that [will defeat him]. Unfortunately for them, they got it wrong."
Thompson lacks the skills of a good wrestler as shown in his last outing against
"I don't want to have a three-round, stand-up war with Kimbo," Thompson said. "At some point, if the opportunity is there, I will take him down. But at the same time, I'm not going to be overly concerned."
While admitting he liked the physical matchup for his guy, Rutten conceded that Thompson can present problems for Slice.
"Thompson being taller is going to work to our advantage because it's more difficult to work for a takedown," he said. "He's going to have to come all the way down. It's way worse to fight a short, stocky guy who's really fast with takedowns."
As of Thursday, approximately 7,000 seats were sold for the event -- a smaller-than-expected number Shaw blamed on the card's availability on prime-time TV -- but the total credentialed media has provided anything but a weak stat. According to Shaw, the tally topped 140 members, rivaling the
Ad sales have also sold-out with rumors that Miller Brewing Company and Burger King were among the players to purchase spots. Reports surfaced earlier in the week that some CBS affiliates would not be airing the card as scheduled, but Shaw said it would run as planned in 96 percent of available CBS-affiliate households, including all major markets.