What an upset.
Robbie Lawler was nearly a 4-1 favorite over Matt Brown on Saturday night. And Lawler did indeed defeat Brown in their UFC main event in San Jose, Calif.
So where’s the upset?
It’s right here in 49-46, in 49-46 again, and in 48-47. That you even have to be made aware of how cage-side observers Wade Vierra, Michael Bell and Derek Cleary viewed the proceedings was decidedly unexpected.
Lawler has won 24 bouts during his 13-year professional career, 20 of them via knockout. All but two of Brown’s 19 victories have been finishes, including 12 KOs. The guys aren’t distance runners. They sprint to the finish.
The text book on these fighters: They’ve both attained master’s degrees from finishing school in order to put opponents through the school of hard knocks.
You take Brown and Lawler, lump them together, and you get “Brawler.”
And yet you might very well spot a smiling bald man trudging along a dusty roadway somewhere in Death Valley …
“I said if Brown-Lawler went five rounds,” Dana White said after Lawler (24-10, 1 NC) had his arm raised as winner of a unanimous decision, “I’d walk to Vegas.”
It’s doubtful the UFC president will actually undertake the 500 miles back to the fight promotion’s headquarters on foot. But if he did, it would be a jaunty stroll. He’s no doubt happy and relieved to have a solid No. 1 contender for the welterweight championship.
That’s not exactly breaking news, as White had promised the winner of this bout a shot at Johny Hendricks. But you know how the best laid plans sometimes can unravel. With Rory MacDonald, the top 170-pound challenger in the SI.com rankings, coming off a dominant victory, the chess game might have become complicated for UFC matchmakers if this one turned out to be a dud.
This one did not turn out to be a dud. It wasn’t the slobberknocker many expected to see in this clash between unabashed aggression and relentless hostility. But for 25 bloody, concussive minutes, these two took turns stalking each other and landing shots that would have wobbled a less sturdy target.
The story of the fight may have been not so much the strikes that landed but the ones that didn’t. Brown (19-12) came in as the most accurate welterweight in UFC history, having landed just under 60 percent of his significant strike attempts. But on Saturday night, in seeing his seven-fight winning streak snapped, he connected with just a third of what he flung Lawler’s way (82 of 242).
One reason for that, no doubt, was the step up in competition. Brown had never before faced anyone on Lawler’s level. But, really, it wasn’t simply the status of “Ruthless Robbie” that made him hard to hit, it also was his ruthlessness. Brown was touched by a combination right at the start, so he felt Lawler’s power and wisely adjusted his own assaults. He retained his trademark aggressiveness but was judicious with his forward motion, adding sideward movement into the mix. It was awkward movement, to be sure, but it moved him in and out of firing range. Brown still got hit plenty -- 80 of Lawler’s 200 significant strikes landed -- but he didn’t linger in the danger zone for what could have turned into a sustained beatdown.
That’s not to suggest that this fight was fought from distance. Both men closed in on the other at various times, and at least in the early going they traded the role of aggressor. Brown made good use of the clinch. Lawler was successful on both takedown attempts and bloodied up Brown and appeared to hurt him in the third round. But they don’t call the guy “The Immortal” for nothing. Brown survived. But as the fight wore on, Lawler was the fresher man and Brown, though remaining dangerous, wasn’t able to turn the tide.
He did, however, impress his opponent. “There’s two champions in this ring tonight,” Lawler said afterward. “He’s a hell of a fighter. We put on a great show for these guys [in the crowd]. He came toe-to-toe with me, and not too many people will do that.”
Now, about that “two champions” remark …
Lawler was on the verge of being able to make that claim, hyperbole-free, when he fought Hendricks back in March for the belt vacated by Georges St-Pierre. He even had Hendricks wobbled in the middle of that fight. But “BiggRigg”persevered, earned a unanimous decision, and now wears the shiny brass-and-leather strap. Hendricks is rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn biceps, and while Dana White wouldn’t set the matchup in stone, he indicated that Hendricks vs. Lawler II could take place on the Jan. 3 card in Las Vegas.
“I’m very excited,” Lawler said of the prospect of getting another shot at the champ. “He’s nursing some injuries, but I’m going to be the one waiting for him. That’s nice.”