It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that Robbie Lawler was fighting for the first time in the UFC as a name to watch from the Miletich camp, blasting opponents off their feet.
Lawler was the new kid on the block, a training partner to welterweight champion Matt Hughes, and it seemed logical that he would be the man to take the handoff from Hughes as the next great champion.
On Feb. 23 of this year, at UFC 157, Lawler will be stepping back into the Octagon for the first time since 2004, now an “old man” in the game, set against Josh Koscheck.
Talk about a rough "welcome home.”
Still, Koscheck isn’t going to bring anything into the cage that Lawler hasn’t seen before; as dynamic as the sport and its fighters have become, a takedown is still a takedown and an overhand right is still an overhand right.
Given the names in the division—Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Johny Hendricks, Martin Kampmann, Rory MacDonald, Carlos Condit—it’s hard to imagine Lawler standing out, really.
But upon careful reconsideration, he does begin to stand out, if for no other reason that he’s a contradiction in so many terms: a youthful veteran, an established newcomer, a quiet fighter.
And he’s better now than he was the first go-round in the UFC.
Lawler has a serious test in front of him with Koscheck, but win or lose, odds are he’s going to get his feet back under him and find his equilibrium within the division, and when he does, he could rise up the ranks for a shot at Georges St. Pierre’s title.
None of this is to say that Lawler isn’t a beatable fighter, but at 30 years old, he’s still got a lot he brings to the party, including some serious physical power and explosiveness.
Anytime someone looks at the welterweight division they see it in parts as the murderers’ row it is, with GSP playing the part of capable warden, putting down any uprisings with a kind of no-risk mechanical efficiency that belies the depth of the division.
Lawler matches up well with nearly all of the top welterweights and he possesses the kind of power that could knock any of them out cold.
And having fought many of the past years as a legitimate middleweight, Lawler is going to be a very big, powerful man in the ring at 170.
On paper, Lawler is an improbable threat to the title; most of his losses seem to stem from being outworked on the mat and he’s been submitted five times.
But most of the men who submitted him—Jake Shields, Jason Miller, Ronaldo Souza—are among some of the best submission artists in the game; a threat he won’t be facing against GSP.
All of this conjecture is really based around central notion, being that a highly motivated and excited Lawler is capable of beating anyone in the division on any given night—especially if they are foolish enough to stand and trade with him, like Melvin Manhoef was.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Lawler look like he was honestly enthused to be fighting, but sometimes coming home can bring back the memories of better days and rekindle the joy of riding hard and fighting harder.
If there is any place for aspirations, it’s the UFC, and for Lawler, stepping down into the welterweight division, sans all the fanfare he was afforded as a younger man in the Octagon, could be the perfect formula for an awakening.
After all, he’s in a prime position; no one is expecting much out of him and most, while acknowledging his presence, have him somewhere out of the corner of their eye, standing by the gate.
Given that this is a sport where nothing is given, Lawler has a real chance to take it all by force; much as it’s the punch you don’t see coming that knocks you out, it’s also the threat you don’t see honestly that runs you over.
But he’s going to have to be more than he has been in recent years and exactly what he was once upon a time, before he became disenchanted with life and reckless in the cage.
He’s going to need to be ruthless.