The most difficult and most immediate question was, who the heck won?
We’re probably going to be arguing about the outcome of this bout for a while.
When the dust settled after 25 minutes—and arguably one of the greatest final rounds of all time—three ringside judges at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas allowed Lawler to retain his championship via split decision (47-48, 48-47 x 2).
Meanwhile, most spectators on social media appeared to think Condit should’ve gotten the nod. Fifteen of the 20 media analysts who scored the fight at MMADecisions.com also had it for the challenger. UFC President Dana White came to the postfight press conference and said he did too.
Among the listed media scorecards, only three observers favored Lawler (27-10-1 overall; 12-4 UFC) in the bout. Two opted to make it a draw.
But despite that disparity, there was no robbery here. This fight was so good and so close all positions are equally viable. In other words: It’s a quandary and leaves no clearcut way forward for Lawler and his welterweight title.
Luckily, the second, far simpler question provides a highly effective remedy.
That question is, “What do we do now?” and the obvious answer is: Book an immediate rematch between Lawler and Condit before it’s too late.
In the wake of this loss, Condit (30-9 overall; 7-5 UFC) is openly talking about retirement.
These sorts of declarations are common in the immediate aftermath of physically and emotionally grueling defeats. But the 31-year-old veteran—who is already the former UFC interim and former WEC champion—is the sort of guy who might not simply be blowing smoke when he says this time he left it all in the Octagon.
“I’ve been at this for a long time—over 40 professional MMA and kickboxing fights,” Condit said at the postfight press conference. “Tonight was kind of a do-or-die moment for my career, and I was all in. If I got that strap, I was going to keep fighting, and if I didn’t, like I didn’t, I have to see if I can continue to do this.”
By now, this fight’s numbers are well-known. Condit threw nearly 500 significant strikes during the five-round affair and out-landed Lawler 176-92 in that department, according to Fight Metric—the UFC’s official statistics service.
Condit’s significant strikes landed are the second-most all time in a UFC title fight, according to Fight Metic’s Michael Carroll. Lawler’s minus-84 differential is the worst ever for a decision winner, Carroll posted to social media.
Lawler's absorbing 4 sig. strikes per minute. High for a champ. Not sure how much longer he can play with fire. 5th round Robbie tho. Wow.— Michael Carroll (@MJCflipdascript) January 3, 2016
The 531 sig. strikes Lawler has absorbed in title fights are more than any fighter has absorbed in UFC title fights.— Michael Carroll (@MJCflipdascript) January 3, 2016
Condit out-struck Lawler in every round, though Lawler stormed back to make things much closer in the definitive final stanza. Condit’s sheer volume and his ability to control range with his kicks were impressive. Yet, Lawler appeared to stun him with hard shots on several occasions, including dropping Condit to the canvas with the fight’s single-most powerful punch (a right hook) in the second round.
In the end, who you tabbed to win this bout likely came down to a discussion of whether Condit’s work rate outdid Lawler’s power. The answer may reveal a philosophical rift in the bedrock of the sport—one that isn’t easily explained away and where the opposing sides aren’t likely to meet in the middle.
MMA is not strictly a numbers game, after all. The sport is too dynamic and too diverse for that. Nobody wants to get to the point where winners are determined simply by adding up the number of punches and kicks. In this instance, Condit’s areas of expertise were on full display—and they may well have been good enough—but so too were Lawler’s heart and fearsome heavy hands.
There are likely deeper discussions to be had here, too. MMA’s 10-point must system continues to be a fairly blunt instrument for scoring such a nuanced athletic contest. It may be time to start looking into alternative systems, as well as the specific methods by which all these techniques are being scored and by whom.
For now, though, we’re left with a puzzle with only one solution: Let’s do it again, brother. Let’s do it again.
White was characteristically reticent to plot out a hair-trigger next step on fight night. He and the rest of the UFC brass no doubt want to go back to the office, survey the options and crunch the financials. It’ll be some time yet before we find out the immediate future of the 170-pound title.
"We don't make the fights tonight," White said at the presser. "The fight was awesome...and I had it 3-2 for Condit. It was an amazing fight, congrats to both guys. We'll see. We'll see how this thing plays out and what happens."
And look, much like reforms to the scoring system itself, immediate rematches are the sort of thing we all want to be careful with. Nobody wants the UFC title picture to devolve into an endless series of do-overs. We’re already getting a heavyweight rematch at UFC 196 next month and recently deposed champs like Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey are likely to get second cracks to regain the gold during 2016.
As a general rule of thumb, the UFC should move to keep things moving, to keep thing fresh. In this instance, however, an exception should be made.
The welterweight division is among the sport’s most competitive right now, but it’s not as though there are a wealth of better options banging on Lawler’s door.
Rory MacDonald remains the division’s No. 1-ranked contender, but he just lost to Lawler (in another thrilling bout) at UFC 189 last July. It was MacDonald’s second career defeat to Lawler, and without significant upheaval at the top, he’ll need another win or two to rehabilitate himself into a viable title challenger.
No. 2 Tyron Woodley is the cut-and-dried next choice, and from a purely competition-based standpoint, he certainly deserves it. But Woodley isn’t much of a proven draw and—though he beat Condit in March 2014—his two most recent victories (over Dong Hyun Kim and Kelvin Gastelum) don’t exactly make him a slam dunk.
Who should be next for Robbie Lawler?
On top of that, Woodley has never seemed like the UFC’s favorite. In June 2014, White went on record saying he believes Woodley “chokes in big fights,” via MMAFighting.com’s Dave Doyle. That’s a harsh indictment of a fighter who remains 15-3 overall, but it could matter when the UFC sits down to decide its next move.
Former champion Johny Hendricks (No. 3) is the only other man ranked above Condit right now. He split his first two meetings with Lawler in a pair of exciting fights at UFCs 171 and 181, but he too seems to have fallen from the fight company’s favor recently.
Hendricks was forced to pull out of a scheduled bout against Woodley at the last minute in October 2015 after complications during his weight cut. His next fight will be against Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson at UFC 196 and doesn’t shape up as the bout he needs to tee him up for another title opportunity.
If the UFC takes a sober (and fiscally mindful) look around the welterweight division, it seems likely that Condit-Lawler II will come out smelling like a rose.
If Condit is serious about walking away from the sport, it also adds a fair amount of urgency.
While immediate rematches aren’t always the ticket, this one is. Let’s get it done, before we lose the chance forever, and we’re left with more questions we can never answer.