Robbie Lawler, circa 2001, was a fight promoter's dream. Raw-boned, corn-fed and lily white, the 19-year-old Iowan prodigy appeared to be cut from granite as he laid waste to Saburo Kawakatsu at a long-forgotten extravaganza in Hawaii.
The world wasn't watching Shogun Fights, but that wasn't important, at least not for Lawler. One man who mattered was in the front row watching the laser light show and world-class fighters—Dana White, in his first year as UFC president and looking to reinvent the fight game.
White, on his way toward becoming one of America's most iconic fight promoters, knew what he wanted. And he wanted Lawler, going so far as to compare a kid in his fourth professional fight to the fearsome boxer Mike Tyson, signing him to a UFC contract in what he called "a Christmas present to myself."
At the time fans had a bit of fun with that piece of hyperbole. Though not yet bald and bombastic, White was already developing a reputation as an emotional and compelling interview. This, it was thought, was just an early example of Dana being Dana.
White saw Lawler as a star in the making and did everything in his power to make that happen. Against fellow Midwestern bangers, Lawler excelled. He knocked the potential right out of fellow prospect Aaron Riley at UFC 37 and just a month later knocked out Steve Berger at UFC 37.5, becoming the first fighter to compete on cable television, hand-selected by White for Fox Sports' The Best Damn Sports Show Period.
Training at Pat Miletich's famed gym in Bettendorf, Iowa, Lawler was put to the test daily in practice sessions with world champions like Jens Pulver and Matt Hughes. Under Miletich's guidance, Lawler, a southpaw, developed a stiff right hand and the killer instinct you needed to simply survive in an environment that saw plenty of fighters slink off in the middle of the night, unable to face the prospect of another day at practice.
"Pat was one of the first guys who could do it all, grapple, wrestle and strike. I just tried to take after him and work on all aspects," Lawler said. Like all Miletich fighters of that era, he remembers his days in the gym fondly.
"More than anything, he put us in situations where we made each other better. Jeremy Horn brought a lot to the table. Matt Hughes brought a lot to the table. Lots of guys you never heard of. He made it a grind. It wasn't easy. If you stuck around for more than a month, that was definitely saying something. Just the mental toughness you get from training in a gym like that was huge."
The memories come floating to the surface easily. Horn's patient guidance and pursuit of martial knowledge. Being trash-talked and rag-dolled by Hughes for two solid years, never once yielding or giving up. And being put in with heavyweights when fighters his own size wanted no part of sparring with the fearsome youngster who swung every punch like it was his last.
"When Pat first started fighting there really weren't that many weight classes. He fought a bunch of heavyweights when he first started so it just didn't seem odd to me," Lawler said. "I lifted weights and was strong. I was a tough kid, willing to get after it and I thought I hit just as hard if not harder. And I didn't have to sit in front of a big guy and let him punch me. It's not a tough man's game."
Lawler, ultimately, wasn't ready emotionally or athletically to live up to the expectations that he would be Miletich's next breakout star. Fighting, at the top level at least, is about more than competing in the cage. There are responsibilities to the promoter and the fans that Lawler says he just wasn't ready for at the time.
A media nightmare, he quickly developed a reputation as one of the toughest interviews in the sport. Even UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, a genius at drawing out amazing soundbites for the UFC's pay-per-view soundbites, couldn't break through Lawler's stone wall.
"I was young," he explains. "I'm older now."
In the cage, too, he struggled. Although the right hook and ability to regain his feet after a takedown were already staples of his game, he wasn't quite sophisticated or patient enough to deliver his best weapons against really good fighters. After that quick start, he bombed out of the UFC in 2004, becoming an MMA ronin, drifting from promotion to promotion, never quite living up to his promise.
Was it too much too soon? Did White's high expectations go to a young fighter's head, stifling growth and development? After all, if you're already Tyson-esque, what more is there to learn?
Lawler says it wasn't so. The once-brash young man, now a brash older man, told Bleacher Report that White didn't say anything he wasn't already thinking.
"It really didn't matter what he said. In my head, even before I started the sport, I was going to be the best ever," Lawler said. "I was going to knock everyone out. So it didn't really matter what he said. I already had a belief in myself that I have what it takes to get the job done. That's why I've kept fighting for as long as I have. I always felt I was capable of so much more than I've shown. And I'm getting better every day."
Thirteen years and 29 fights later, White's then-comical proclamation suddenly doesn't seem so funny. Now days away from his 32nd birthday, Lawler is fighting for UFC gold for the very first time, perhaps redeeming one of White's rare missteps in the process. When he meets Johny Hendricks for the UFC welterweight title Saturday in Dallas, Texas, Lawler will finally have a chance to achieve what many thought was his destiny.
Through the years, through stops in Japan, Hawaii, Elite XC and finally Strikeforce, Lawler never gave up hope. While contemporaries and teammates slowly dropped from the MMA scene, he still believed.
"Stubborn is not giving up and coming back every day when stuff is rough and not easy. I guess I want to be stubborn," Lawler said. "I'm a grinder. You just wake up every day and get after it. I was banged up here and there. There was a time it felt like I just couldn't get healthy. But I kept learning. It would have been easy to give up and do something else. It would have been easy to give up. To say 'This is hard. Maybe I shouldn't do this anymore.' What I thought was 'I'm in it. And I'm going to stay in it until I can't do it anymore.' Everything I've been through, it's just made me a stronger individual, plain and simple."
Training today at American Top Team, 1,400 miles and a world away from his Midwestern roots, Lawler brings a slice of home with him, flying in longtime boxing coach Matt Pena to help him fine-tune his game alongside Top Team's Ricardo Liborio, "Conan" Silveira and Kami Barzini.
It's a relationship Lawler resisted for some time, despite pleas from manager Monte Cox to give a change of scenery a chance. Eventually Lawler relented and admits he's a better fighter for it.
"The (Josh) Koscheck fight came up and I was like 'Man, this is a big fight. I should probably go down there.' I spent three weeks down there and it worked out well," he said. "The trainers are great. If I didn't feel like they wanted me there, I wouldn't have gone there. But I heard it a few times from my manager, that they really wanted me down there and were asking about me.
"I'm excited to go train every day. I'm excited to be back in the UFC. Fighting on the big stage. And I'm with a really good team. The fighters are awesome and they push me hard. There's a hundred guys down there and they're all really good. Even the guys no one has heard of. And the coaches are awesome. Put all those things together, with my mentality and I believe great things are in store for me."