Throughout his 13 years as a professional mixed martial artist, there have been many different taglines attached to Robbie Lawler's name.
When the young powerhouse first emerged from the Bettendorf, Iowa-based Miletich Fighting System in 2001 and blasted his way onto the UFC scene behind brutal knockout power and a relentless fighting spirit, the sky seemed to be the limit. MMA was a fledgling sport in those days, and as Lawler's profile began to take shape, he drew comparisons to a young Mike Tyson—another fighter who worked in the medium of ferocity.
But whereas "Iron Mike" bludgeoned and battered his way to a world title, such a destination would not be in the cards for Lawler. A few sharp—albeit, surprising—losses knocked him out of the UFC nearly as quickly as he came.
There would be stretches of success in the years that followed his time inside the Octagon and periods of inconsistency as well. His first three years out from under the UFC banner, "Ruthless" was a monster, putting together an impressive run across multiple promotional platforms. He won eight out of 10 showings with one no-contest, picking up several championship belts along the way.
While he began to bring light to the shadow of unfulfilled potential that hung over the early years of his career, his inability to find an organization where he could make a lasting stand kept those clouds somewhat lingering overhead.
When he signed with Strikeforce in 2009, Lawler's promotional hopscotch came to an end, and the opportunity to make a solid run presented itself. But the inconsistency would return, and along with it an apparent loss of love for what he had always done best, as Lawler would find victory in just three of his eight showings for the now-defunct San Jose, California-based promotion.
It appeared as if the "what could have been" storyline would be the prominent tag on Lawler's career, and questions lingered as to whether his long-awaited return to the UFC last February would be a swan song of sorts. The American Top Team product dropped down to welterweight to face perennial contender Josh Koscheck at UFC 157, in what very well could have been his final showing on the sport's biggest stage.
That is certainly how things could have gone, but Lawler was ready to show the fighting world another side...something that called back to his early days of settling unfortunate souls with brutal bursts of violence. The 32-year-old steamrolled the former title challenger, and with less than a full round of work, Lawler was back.
Whereas a return to form would have been enough for most fighters, other elements accompanied Lawler's comeback. In addition to staking out his place in the most competitive division in the UFC, his performance against Koscheck also reminded fighters and fans alike the type of damage he could do with his hands.
While the accolades poured in on Lawler's account, such things never registered on his personal radar. The heavy-handed brick-thrower has never been one to break focus, and he didn't figure 12 years into a career was any time to start.
"I don't really think about or pay any mind to what everyone thinks about my fighting style or if they watch me fight; I just concentrate on myself," Lawler told Bleacher Report. "It makes a little easier. It's nice that fans want to see me fight. It definitely helps and gets everyone excited. It gets the UFC excited and they are quick to put me back in there. But I really just focus on myself and getting ready to fight.
"I worry about myself and nothing else. I focus on making sure I'm sharp, and it doesn't matter who I am fighting. I need to perform at my best and try to elevate my game to the highest level I possibly can, so that is what I concentrate on doing."
An impressive knockout in his return created excitement and gave the Iowa resident momentum to make his climb up the ranks. Victories over Bobby Voelker and talented young Canadian Rory MacDonald amplified his resurgence. That electricity kept rolling into his welterweight title showdown with Johny Hendricks at UFC 171 in March.
While "Bigg Rigg" ultimately emerged on the other side of the five-round war with the 170-pound strap in tow, Lawler had nothing to hang his head about in the aftermath of his battle in Dallas. He had given the former Oklahoma State University wrestling standout hell for 25 minutes and put more damage on Hendricks than any other fighter had ever come close to.
Nevertheless, having to exit the Octagon on March 15 without the belt has only served to spike his hunger for another shot at the welterweight title. Despite the loss, his stock is still riding high, and Lawler is all but guaranteed another championship opportunity if he can get past his next challenge, which will be Jake Ellenberger at UFC 173 next Saturday night in Las Vegas.
"I was a little let down I didn't win the fight, but I gave it my all that night," Lawler said. "I was ready to get back into it and back to work after the fight. My body felt good, and I wanted to get back to the gym and start getting better.
"I actually called them about a week-and-a-half after my last fight and asked for me next one. I was already back to lifting pretty hard, and my felt good and recovered. I let everyone at the UFC know that if they needed me to step up and fight I would be ready."
He will step into the Octagon to face "The Juggernaut" in a matchup that will feature two of the welterweight division's most powerful strikers and be one of the most anticipated tilts on the UFC's annual Memorial Day weekend card. Much like Lawler, the Omaha, Nebraska, native has the ability to end an opponent's night with one clean shot, and that element—along with a potential title shot hanging in the balance—has Lawler focused and ready for the showdown in Las Vegas.
"I'm familiar with him a little bit but not too much," he said. "I trained with him one day a long time ago. I know he used to fight for in the IFL when that was around and has done pretty well in the UFC. But I really don't think too much about that stuff. I'm more focused on myself and getting myself ready and my coaches more or less worry about Ellenberger. They put me in those situations in practice and make sure I'll be ready for the fight.
"Another shot at the title would be awesome. I feel like I deserve it. I feel like the fight was close and I did a lot of damage, but when it comes down to it, I need to get ready for Jake Ellenberger. He's a helluva fighter, and I need to be ready for him."
With his bout against Ellenberger just around the corner, storylines old and new will surface and tie into the pre-fight buzz. While Lawler has had his fair share of memorable moments inside the cage, he's also been dealt a fair share of setbacks as well, and those still linger. Yet he's never looked better and is arguably writing the most impressive chapter of his career.
While he's in the process of chasing down the dream of becoming a UFC champion, a title isn't Lawler's great motivator. Underneath it all, his love for the scrap has returned with force, and his quest to find the best Robbie Lawler on fight night is the true fuel to his fire.
"The title is one of my goals," Lawler said. "I want to go out there and fight my best, and the ultimate goal is to actually go out there and fight to my full potential. Winning the title in the UFC would just solidify it, but really performing at my absolute best is the thing I'm striving for.
"I've always loved to fight. I love what I do, and that is why I've been doing it for so long. I really enjoy fighting and competing at a high level. I love getting in there and getting after it."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.