It turns out you can drape Lawler in his brand-new Reebok “champion’s kit,” overhaul the pay-per-view broadcast with fancy retooled graphics and summon some technological wizardry to project hype videos on the actual floor of the Octagon, but the UFC welterweight champion is still going to do what he’s been doing since he was 19 years old.
Now 33, he just does it better than ever.
Lawler shifted through a number of familiar gears during the 21 minutes he spent in the cage with Rory MacDonald on Saturday night. He went from laid back to deadly serious and back again as the two put on a brawl that lifted an already stellar PPV.
In the middle, Lawler almost—but not quite—gave it away before recovering and scoring a TKO victory early in the final round.
When it was over, he left MacDonald crumpled and defeated from a badly broken nose. Lawler stood in the center of the cage, spattered in blood and screaming from the ecstasy of successfully defending his 170-pound title for the first time.
So, pretty much vintage Lawler.
“That was the accumulation of a beatdown!” he hollered about the fight’s final sequence when UFC color commentator Joe Rogan asked him about it immediately afterward. “That wasn’t one punch, that was years of fighting coming to fruition. I’m the champ! I’m here to stay!”
It was a modus operandi that should be well-known to hardcore MMA fans by now. They’ve only been watching Lawler do it since about 2002.
His turnaround from a rough stretch spanning 2010 and 2011 where he went 1-3 in the Strikeforce middleweight division has been nothing short of remarkable. Lawler’s drop to welterweight, his move to Florida’s American Top Team and a revamped training regimen have all conspired to give us one of the more miraculous late-career resurgences in UFC history.
There is an old adage in the fight game that says you’re not really a champion until you successfully defend your title. By that measure—or any—Lawler is now the new standard-bearer in a weight class that unexpectedly lost dominant champion Georges St-Pierre to retirement near the end of 2013.
It was both exhilarating and sobering to watch what Lawler and MacDonald did to each other in this fight. Both men turned in inspired performances, but as MMAFighting.com’s Chuck Mindenhall succinctly noted, it was the sort of bloody slobberknocker that served as a stark reminder of their own mortality:
Like their first fight at UFC 167, Lawler started slowly. He came out of his corner stalking MacDonald around the cage like a man who knew full well he’d see the championship rounds. MacDonald scored early with a series of body kicks, though for the most part, Lawler appeared to steer clear of his more dangerous combinations and easily sprawled out of the challenger’s takedown attempts.
Lawler didn’t visibly loosen up until late in the second round, but when he did, he firmly took control. His jabs started to snap the 25-year-old Canadian’s head back. His fluid punching combinations methodically turned MacDonald’s face to hamburger, and down the stretch in the stanza, Lawler may have broken the Red King's nose.
That momentum built into the third round, but just when it seemed as though the champion would tuck this bout into his back pocket, MacDonald stunned him with a high kick. He followed up with a flurry of punches and knees that had Lawler badly wobbled. Even as he assured referee John McCarthy he was OK and gestured defiantly to the crowd, Lawler could be seen stumbling back to his corner.
MacDonald turned up the volume on the head kicks in the fourth and again seemed to have the champion on the ropes. Lawler’s lip was gashed on the right side, and blood trickled under one eye. Somehow, though, he survived, stuffing MacDonald’s takedown attempts and returning fire, even though his strikes now lacked the snap of earlier in the fight.
The fourth round ended with both men battered, standing in the center of the cage and staring into each other’s eyes until the referee and one of Lawler’s cutmen dragged them both away. Early boos from the largely Irish crowd—which had come to cheer Conor McGregor to victory in the main event—had turned to cheers.
The fight looked up for grabs heading into the final round. Early in the stanza, however, Lawler landed a straight left flush to the middle of MacDonald’s face. If his nose was already broken, that punch completely smashed it. The Canadian immediately clutched his face and fell to the canvas as McCarthy moved in to halt the action.
When the scorecards were revealed after the fact, it turned out MacDonald was leading, 39-37, on all three. But for the fifth time in Lawler’s last 10 fights, he did not need the judges.
“I feel great,” a battered Lawler told UFC interviewer Megan Olivi backstage a few minutes after the fight ended. “I’m just glad the crowd could enjoy the true warrior spirit that I imposed on him and I’m just glad I got a knockout.”
For obvious reasons, neither he nor MacDonald made it to the post-fight press conference, though they did have time for a candid, “no hard feelings” photo op at the hospital:
Lawler continues to be one of the UFC’s more enduring puzzles. He has now won four fights in a row and is 7-1 since returning to the UFC in 2013. Yet his uncanny ability to get himself into these sorts of close, hotly contested slugfests makes it unclear how long he’ll hold on to the belt St-Pierre vacated nearly two years ago.
Lawler has now beaten MacDonald—ranked No. 2 in the division and a guy who was pushed as GSP’s heir apparent for years—twice, and he defeated No. 5 Matt Brown less than a year ago.
Yet the champ sits 1-1 against former titlist and No. 1 contender Johny Hendricks. Both of their previous bouts were crowd-pleasing, back-and-forth battles, and a third fight between them is likely not far away.
Fourth-ranked Carlos Condit also returned from a long injury sabbatical and defeated Thiago Alves in May. Tyron Woodley (No. 3) hasn’t fought since January but is still waiting in the wings.
Clearly, there will be no shortage of competition for Lawler’s title moving forward.
On this night, though, he proved that a better-than-ever Lawler can still turn back the clock on a new-look UFC.