Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
By Jeff Wagenheim
December 07, 2014

The younger man infused his intuitive flair with a prime-of-life acumen and self-assurance. The older man plunged with daring into a fountain of youth and swam tirelessly and purposefully.

Only nine fighters wear UFC championship belts, and while they bring to the cage varying degrees of mythical archetype, every one of them has a story. The plots twist with every turbulent turn of the page.

At age 27, Anthony Pettis is only five years younger than Robbie Lawler. But an octagonal cage has a way of warping the calendar. When Lawler first touched gloves for a prizefight, back in April 2001, Pettis was a 14-year-old high school student. Lawler was a teen himself, but he became a man that night, and when he made his debut in the UFC one year later, he already had the look of someone who soon would be The Man.

Today that label fits both men.

Pettis withstood the smothering wrath of Gilbert Melendez before suddenly and brilliantly choking out his lightweight challenger in the second round of Saturday night’s UFC 181 co-main event in Las Vegas. Then, in the main event, Lawler brought 9,617 to their feet at the Mandalay Bay Events Center by taking down the reigning welterweight champ, Johny Hendricks, via the rocky road of a split decision.

Pettis demonstrated luminary preeminence, but Lawler was the star of this show.

That Lawler would walk out of the octagon wearing a UFC championship belt is an impressive feat, of course, but what elevates it to shocking is that it didn’t happen a decade ago. Lawler burst on the scene by winning his first three bouts in the promotion, the latter two by knockout, and 2002 ended with him sitting at 7-0 as a professional.

Perfection gave way to the harshness of reality, though, over the two years that followed. Lawler lost for the first time to Pete Spratt at UFC 42, a hip injury doing him in. He got back on track seven months later against Chris Lytle, but then came Nick Diaz and Evan Tanner, which is to say a loss and another loss. His unlimited promise having fizzled, Lawler said goodbye to the UFC at the end of 2004.

Fansided: Lawler talks in postfight press conference

From there, the pugilist’s pathway led lawler through a few minor-league promotions, with a pit stop in the Pride Fighting Championships. In 2007 he found his way to EliteXC, which had lofty ambitions and a television deal to give it liftoff, and he immediately became middleweight champ. When that promotion was gone in ’08, Lawler ended up in another second-fiddle operation, Strikeforce, where over the next four years he won some and lost some, ceaselessly dangerous but forever flawed.

Strikeforce eventually was bought up by Zuffa, parent company of the UFC, and everyone knew how that story was going to end. The promotion put on its last-gasp event on the first night of last year, and afterward Lawler was brought over to Dana White’s domain.

He was an afterthought. A has-been who never really was.

Lawler was a month short of his 32nd birthday when he stepped into the octagon to face Josh Koscheck in February 2013, eight and a half years after he’d last been there, and expectations were not high. But Lawler won by first-round knockout, then knocked out Bobby Voelker five months later, and before the year was out he had taken down presumed top contender Rory MacDonald via split decision. He’d earned a title shot, as improbable as they come.

That didn’t work out so well for Lawler, although the fans certainly won on that night back in March. Lawler and Hendricks battled through a back-and-forth five rounds, with Hendricks sewing up a unanimous decision with a feisty final session. He got to sit on the throne that had been abdicated by Georges St-Pierre. And Lawler got to go back to work, which he did, beating up two more contenders — Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown — to earn a second date in the cage with Hendricks.

Late on Saturday night the building was electric, the crowd having just witnessed the sublime virtuosity of Pettis, who after being manhandled against the cage for the better part of the first round had changed everything in an instant. The 155-pound champ didn’t walk out of the cage as much as float out among the masses atop the crowd’s adoration.

Now it was time for the main eventers to close the show. Hendricks seemed pretty relaxed about it, which is the way he seems to be about everything. (House on fire? Car headed over a cliff? Hey, I’ve got homeowner’s and automobile insurance, you know what I mean?) Lawler, by contrast, was intensity personified. He had seen the error of his ways in allowing the first title fight to go the distance. He was going to get in the champ’s face this time. Which he did, for a while.

Lawler had a strong first round, landing some punches and knees and taking very little from Hendricks. But Lawler disappeared in the second (18 strikes landed), the third (13) and part of the fourth. It was a somnolent 15 minutes, with Hendricks controlling the fight in the clinch and on takedowns, during which the thought came up: Is Lawler done?

Lawler was not. He didn’t get much done while the fight was standing, but as the five minutes wound down and he couldn’t get the relentless champion off him, Lawler began landing fists and elbows to Hendricks’s head. Again and again, unabated. It was hard to tell how much damage he was doing, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of those blows. Most important, was it enough to win the round?

Hendricks apparently didn’t think so, because he fought the fifth round like a man who believed he had it in the bag as long as he didn’t get caught. At the postfight press conference, the sullen ex-champ said simply, “I didn’t fight.” He offered other words, some shaped into explanations that jangled against each other to form a cacophony of confusion, dejection and incredulity.

Hendricks was not alone in being shaken by the split decision. Lawler clearly had won the first and last rounds, but that left three in the middle in which the challenger had done very little. One judge, Sal D’Amato, gave Hendricks all three. Marcus Rosales gave Lawler (25-10, 1 NC) the fourth, rewarding that late flurry of damage. Both were being perfectly reasonable. But then there was Glenn Trowbridge, who found it in his heart to give the challenger not just the fourth round but also the second — a round in which Lawler was outlanded, 35-13, and was taken down and kept there. From one cage-side vantage point, apparently, Lawler must have looked good doing what little he did.

Trowbridge’s silliness was not a game-changing verdict, though, just a dubious distraction from what was: Robbie Lawler, in his 14th UFC fight over two stints nearly a decade apart, was at age 32 a champion. The beauty of this hit home as he celebrated in the octagon with a couple of his fans, Pat Miletich and Matt Hughes. Eons ago, they all trained together out in the Iowa farmlands. Both once wore the UFC welterweight belt. On Saturday night, they looked as proud as they could be.

There had been familial celebration in the cage after the co-main event, too. Sergio Pettis, a 21-year-old bantamweight who had won by decision in one of the night’s early prelims, was among the entourage basking in his big brother’s glory and greatness. Anthony Pettis has always been the flashiest fighter this side of Anderson Silva. His nickname is “Showtime,” and where other fighters’ names can be aspirational, this one is a no-hyperbole description.

Gilbert Melendez knew this going in, and he was determined to not allow Pettis (18-2) to put on a show. The way one achieves that, we’ve always assumed, but not by running from Pettis but by crowding him. If you don’t give him room to operate, goes the thinking, you can take him out of his game.

That seemed to work for the first five minutes, as Melendez turned it into a grind-it-out fight along the cage, landing more strikes, more telling ones, and preventing Pettis from being “Showtime.”

The former Strikeforce champ went right back to work in the second, although by that point Pettis was finding his range at short distance, peppering his challenger with shots that, while not go-to-sleep blows, were slowing Gilbert’s attack. Then, after Melendez lunged forward for a takedown right after taking a left to the head, Pettis quickly seized the neck, clamped on, rolled Gilbert over to his back and got the tap. It was as quick as that, at 1:53 of the round. Stunningly efficient.

Now what?

We have a new welterweight champ and a shockingly dominant lightweight belt holder. We have a No. 1 contender at 170 pounds, Rory MacDonald, who was sitting at cage-side, patiently waiting … until he realized that he might have to wait some more while Lawler and Hendricks complete a trilogy. And we have an unbeaten 155-pound Russian wrestler who also wants what’s due to him, although Khabib Nurmagomedov saw some things on Saturday night that surely will make him understand that, if given the chance, he soon will be stepping into the cage with one of the sport’s golden boys.

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