At least the oddsmakers had this one dialed.
Nearly every website that offered a betting line showed Lawler and Condit in a dead heat. Odds Shark’s Justin Hartling, for example, made the bout a pick ’em in his pre-fight odds and predictions piece, with both men going off at matching minus-115 numbers—and so it was, almost entirely across the board.
This obviously spoke to the incredibly competitive nature of the matchup and the parity at large in the 170-pound division right now.
The point was: We hoped to get some definitive answers from the fight itself.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
It’s possible the outcome only made things murkier.
In the aftermath of Lawler’s split-decision victory, there has been considerable furor over the judges’ verdict and what the UFC should do next. There have been calls to overhaul MMA’s scoring system and renewed cries to do something—anything—about these unreliable ringside officials, who so often appear to watch a different fight than the rest of us.
This time it wasn’t only the judges who appeared conflicted, though. A good many spectators took diametrically opposite views of this bout. The action was so good and so close that almost any opinion was viable.
About to re-watch last night's title fight. Live, I had it 48-47 Lawler ...— Brett Okamoto (@bokamotoESPN) January 3, 2016
Condit robbed . Disgraceful decision. ufc— Stephen Nolan (@StephenNolan) January 3, 2016
Rewatched Lawler Condit. Draw would've been best. 1st 10-9 Condit 2nd 10-9 Lawler 3rd 10-10 4th 10-9 Condit 5th 10-9 Lawler 48-48— Leon (@LeonVegaSuarez) January 5, 2016
In the end, perhaps whom we thought won revealed a rift in how some of us watch this crazy sport.
Both Lawler and Condit put on masterclasses in what they do. Their performances may have been starkly different, but they were both stellar.
Condit attempted to overwhelm the champion with volume. His output and diversity of strikes over five rounds was incredible. He said at the post-fight press conference that his game plan was to keep Lawler at bay with kicks and his lengthy jab, disrupting the champ’s rhythm and preventing him from getting into range for his powerful punches.
For the most part, it worked. If this was a football game, Condit would’ve dominated the time of possession, but Lawler was too good to allow the challenger to make it a blowout.
“I think part of the plan went well,” Condit said at the presser. “I think my distancing was good. I was able to make him miss a lot of his big shots, and I was able to catch some of mine. [But] he had his moments where he was able to get into the range that he’s super-dangerous at, that boxing range, and throw those devastating hooks.”
The champion’s offense came in spurts. While Condit chipped away at him more or less nonstop, Lawler engaged in sporadic bursts of violence. For stretches of the fight he would go dormant—credit Condit’s effectiveness for that—but when Lawler saw his openings or sensed some urgency he came forward with sudden flurries of powerful punches. Each time he did, he appeared to hurt his opponent.
We know all about the insane statistics Condit amassed. He threw nearly 500 significant strikes in this fight, according to FightMetric.com. He out-landed Lawler nearly 2-to-1 (176-92) in that department, crafting a historically lopsided differential in a fight in which the guy on the short end of the stick ended up winning.
But Lawler’s punches were harder; they seemed to hurt more. A whopping 89 percent of his significant strikes went to the head, while 80 of Condit’s total strikes landed to either the body or to the legs. In the second round, Lawler floored him with a right hook—the most memorable strike of the fight.
Moreover, each time Lawler went on the attack he wreaked the sort of havoc and caused the kind of damage that historically makes an impression with the judges. When the verdict was announced, we learned that his gambit was successful with two of them.
The rest of us were on our own. Absent any standardized system to value all these disparate techniques and opposing styles, we were left to our own devices.
And maybe our own biases.
If you watched this fight in a more analytical mode, you likely thought Condit won, and you certainly had the numbers to back up that position. Perhaps his work rate spoke to you. Maybe the diversity of his attack seemed like the more well-rounded, more effective performance of mixed martial arts. Perhaps he made Lawler look sluggish and inactive by comparison.
If you watched this fight with your heart on your sleeve and an old-school eye toward damage and violence, Lawler was clearly your guy. He came the closest to finishing the bout, and in the instances in which he hit his highest gear—especially when he was able to trap Condit near the fence—he appeared to instantly swing the momentum in his favor.
That included the vitally important final round, in which Lawler mustered the endurance and drive to come out guns blazing and salt away his second successful title defense.
“He’s our Evander Holyfield, man,” UFC President Dana White said of Lawler at the post-fight media conference. “He’s never in a boring fight. When he gets hurt, he continues to go toe-to-toe. I respect so much when you’re in a fight like this and you have to come out in the fifth round and do what Robbie did—and he did it.”
At the risk of oversimplifying, maybe it came down to this: If you watched this fight with your head, you likely thought Condit won.
If you watched with your gut, Lawler got your nod.
Neither approach is explicitly right or wrong. After all (at least for the spectators), this is supposed to be fun. Watch the fights any way you see fit. It stands to reason that in a sport as nuanced and sometimes wacky as MMA, there’s always going to be a wealth of divergent opinions swirling around big fights.
Amazing the change in public opinion Carlos Condit has gone thru from that close fight with Nick Diaz to this close fight with Robbie Lawler— Seán Sheehan (@SeanSheehanBA) January 3, 2016
Statistics are nice, and the people who compile them do impressive yeoman’s work. In a modern athletic culture becoming more and more reliant on analytics, it seems important that MMA tries to keep up, devising some hard and fast way to quantify and evaluate performances.
Yet at this point, the numbers frequently don’t tell the whole story. Not every punch or kick is created equal.
MMA remains a sport that deserves—sometimes demands—to be watched with as much emotion as reason. It’s a sport that still demands to actually be watched. Often your eyes will tell you things about a fight that the numbers will not.
Do you fancy a Condit-Lawler rematch?
Or at least that’s what Lawler’s supporters would probably argue this week.
As the dust settles, the one area that leaves absolutely no wiggle room is that he’s still the champ. The way forward for the 170-pound division is somewhat less clear-cut, though in the spirit he’s exhibited since coming to the Octagon as a precocious 20-year-old in 2002, Lawler has made it clear he’s down for whatever.
Meanwhile, Condit says he’s considering retirement. He came razor-close to capturing the undisputed UFC title but—at least on the official scorecards—came up just short. In the hours immediately following that disappointment, he indicated he will require some soul-searching before he knows if he can go on.
The smart money says that no matter what happens, controversy will continue to swirl around these guys for a little while. From the sidelines, we’ll have all the same discussions we always have after close fights and hinky decisions. We’ll propose rule changes, whole-cloth scoring alterations and continuing education classes for judges.
It’s true that the system could certainly be improved, though there is no potential change to the rulebook that will eliminate close fights.
It also seems unlikely that there will be a change that prevents some of us from seeing exactly what we want to see.