Robbie Lawler flashed his pearly whites throughout his UFC title fight with Johny Hendricks. All but forgotten, one foot out the door just two years ago after a loss to Lorenz Larkin in Strikeforce, Lawler had worked his way back into title contention.
That, alone, is something to smile about. But getting punched in the face? Lawler was just so happy to be fighting for the belt that the mere thought of being there was enough to light up his eyes.
Hendricks lands a left hand? Smile.
Hendricks lands a big knee? Smile.
Hendricks buckled Lawler's leg with a hard kick—you guessed it: Lawler smiled. By the end of 25 minutes of combat, it was almost by rote.
There would be no smiles afterwards, of course, when the judges revealed their scorecards and Lawler learned that, 13 years after bursting onto the MMA scene, he would not be sitting on the throne after all. Post-fight, his glare was hypnotic, his mental daggers piercing everyone who dared meet his eye.
"The thing is, when you leave it up to the judges, those things happen," he told the press at UFC 171's post-fight conference. "I just didn't do enough tonight, they thought. I need to go back to work, obviously."
But during the fight, he was happy, the kind of joy written on his face that only comes when a man is doing what he loves, when he is immersed in his world, among his people and competing to the very best of his abilities. He gave everything he had, walloping Hendricks with a stiff jab and a strong left hand, defending eight of 10 takedowns by the former NCAA champion and generally looking like the best version of himself we have ever seen in the cage.
It wasn't enough. And that's okay.
The second half of that fifth round will be a tough memory for Lawler. He was clearly winning and just fell apart.— Tomas Rios (@TheTomasRios) March 16, 2014
While some tried to shame him for losing steam in the closing minutes of the fifth and final round, Lawler had been clipped by a hard Hendricks left hand. Like many of the blows landed throughout the bout, a normal human would have met his maker, or at the very least the mat. Lawler survived. There's no penitence required for that.
As is true with many of the greats, his fiercest critic was himself.
"I should've done more in the fight and thrown more punches, thrown more kicks and took him out," Lawler said after the fight. "...I don't know. It's easy to look back now and look at the things you should've done. I didn't do it tonight, and he fought a hell of a fight."
The truth is, Robbie Lawler fought to the best of his abilities. That's all we can ask for from an athlete. Every man has his physical and psychological limits—Lawler reached his and still finished second. There's no shame in that.