As I mentioned before this card is fuckin staaAAAAaaaAAcked so I’m going to write a little about it each day (nerdgasms everywhere) and then do the usual preview Friday. Today I’m going to cover the Main Card tilt between two, IMO, future Hall of Famers.
There was once a gym in Bettendorf, Iowa that produced some of the most prominent early-Zuffa era UFC names. Miletich Fighting Systems, established by the first-ever UFC Welterweight Champion, Pat Miletich, forged such fighters as long-time Welterweight Champion and UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, former Lightweight Champion Jens “Lil’ Evil” Pulver, and former Heavyweight Champion Tim “The Maine-iac” Sylvia. In May of 2002, the vaunted Midwestern gym presented to the Octagon 20 year old welterweight Robbie Lawler, who although now has established a solid overall MMA game, is still known for exactly what he was known for then: a fucking grenade of a left hand.
Lawler’s first stint with the UFC lasted 7 fights, with a 4-3 record – including a legendary back-and-forth loss to a then 20 year old Nick Diaz – to show for it. His last fight in the first go-round was contested up a weight class up at 185 pounds, where he stayed for the next act of his career. Lawler turned into a bit of a domestic nomad, plying his trade to whomever in the United States wanted to pay him his asking price and gathering such accolades as the ICON Sport, SuperBrawl, and EliteXC Middleweight Championships. He then found his way to Strikeforce, the only promotion to give the UFC a run for its money the past decade or so, and found mixed results in a pool of, if not top flight, just below it middleweights. Strikeforce, as the story goes, was purchased by Zuffa and its roster, at least the portion that was found to be up to snuff, was absorbed into the UFC. Having gone 11-6 in the span of about 8 years, Robbie Lawler was, in a way, coming home. And a funny thing happened. Now re-stablilized at American Top Team after being a bit of a gym jumper for a spell, “Ruthless” returned to his old stomping ground of 170lbs, won 3 in a row, lost a close decision to Johny Hendricks, won 2 more, and then won the UFC Welterweight Championship. The frag-fisted lefty from Bettendorf was now the 170lb king of the world. And no one was happier for him then two previously mentioned former champs:
Lawler would defend the belt twice before surrendering it to Tyron Woodley via 1st round KO almost a year ago to the date of UFC 214. Some say it was just his time, he was 34 then, 35 now, he had his reign. I would argue that maybe Woodley, a hyper-explosive athlete, was just Lawler’s kryptonite at that moment in time, given, yes, Lawler’s advanced age, but also his combined high level of activity (still averaging three fights per year since 2012 at that point) and ever mounting level of competition. He also left ATT between then and now, so his training camp very well could not of been 100% perfect. When it all shakes out, there is a saying that the simplest answer is usually the right one. Nearing 34 (then) with 38 fights in the bag, maybe Robbie Lawler just needed a break.
With a year to rehab and refresh now behind him, Lawler looks to return Saturday and make one last run, his left hand in tow.
Across the cage from Robbie Lawler will be none other than the UFC’s resident wild child, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. The longtime fan favorite was actually a decorated kickboxer before debuting in MMA in 2006. To that end, although Cerrone is now also an absolute handful on the ground, particularly off his back, his is still mostly known for some of the prettiest and deadly punch/kick combinations you’ll see in the sport.
As a diehard fan of the late, lighter-weights promotion, I would be doing myself a personal disservice if I didn’t mention Cerrone came to the UFC via the WEC and is a true legend of the WEC canvas, where he thrice tried uncsuccessfully to win the WEC Lightweight crown. More on that in a second. More recently, by happenstance due to a late replacement opponent, “Cowboy” has moved up to 170lbs. He has benefited greatly, it would seem, from no longer having to cut down to 155 and finished the first 4 welterweights he faced. But more on that in a second.
Aside from his success between bells, Cerrone is also known for being an absolute maniac both in terms of how he approaches his career and his exploits outside the cage. He fights at a ridiculous, unheard of clip, entering the octagon 4 times a year from 2013 through 2016. He will take any and all comers at seemingly any weight-class. Indeed it was Cerrone clamoring for the fight Nate Diaz eventually got against Conor McGregor at UFC 196. Outside the cage, Cerrone seeks as much adrenaline as he finds inside of it, participating in any extreme sport he can, regardless of whether or not he has a fight on the horizon.
Now I address the elephant in the room. “Cowboy” has now for awhile leveraged the use of a sports psychologist for his career. The reason for this is he starts slow and often gets in his own head, sometimes seeming unsure and tepid, a complete juxtaposition to the way he acts, thinks, talks, and succeeds the other 99% of the time. This is the main reason he fights so often – it doesn’t give him time to think. Grip it and rip it. He also, as alluded to, seems to falter at the highest pressure and biggest moments, losing all 4 major title fights he has been in as well as his most recent bout, a borderline #1 contender’s contest against Jorge Masvidal. When the lights shine the brightest, Cerrone’s flame burns the lowest. This can’t happen Saturday, as he enters the cage against another returning Welterweight in a fight with, whether the native Coloradoan likes it or not, major implications.
Both Cerrone and Lawler enter the cage Saturday coming off losses. However both of those losses came off the backs of win streaks against top-notch opponents and both men remain in the Top-10 of the welterweight rankings. With Stephen Thompson hurt and the aforementioned “Gambred” Masvidal coming off a loss to Woodley’s UFC 214 title challenger Demian Maia, it would not be a stretch to see the victor of this fight get a title shot, if not a #1 Contenders bout. Either way, two of the best “hitters”, as Nick Diaz so aptly refers to them, in the division and the sport enter the cage Saturday to see who really wants one last shot at the belt. Only one can leave with their hand, or maybe more accurately, their fist, raised.