UFC 181 Recap: Lawler Finally Captures UFC Gold

12 years, 6 months, and 27 days. That was the amount of time between Robbie Lawler making his UFC debut (a decision victory over Aaron Riley on May 10th, 2002) and finally capturing UFC gold. Lawler winning a belt was something that up until a year ago nobody had seriously considered. He was a fashionable pick in his first crack at the belt back in March of this year, but ultimately came up a round short. After that, many had written him off again, saying that once fighters get a shot at a title and don’t come through that they tend to have a letdown. Robbie Lawler is obviously not your average fighter. He came out and put his stamp on the fight at the opening bell, and closed the bout with a flurry that had the champion on the ropes. In the middle, some long spells of inactivity allowed Hendricks to pile up points and seemingly take control, but Lawler did enough on two judges’ cards to earn a split decision.

While I haven’t checked any real sources on this stat, I’m going to make the assumption that of fighters who have actually captured a UFC belt, Lawler has gone the longest from his organizational debut to holding the title, which is a very impressive distinction in a sport like MMA that evolves so rapidly. Lawler has certainly evolved with the times. For much of his career, he was essentially a brawler looking for one big shot. It always made him a fan favorite, but wasn’t necessarily conducive to high-level success. Since returning to the UFC in 2013, he has become a much more patient and tactical fighter. If the knockout comes, it comes, but he doesn’t go hunting specifically for it. While just two of his 19 victories prior to 2013 came be decision, three of six since coming back to the Octagon have gone the distance. While sometimes decisions can be equated to “boring” fights, that’s hardly the case with Lawler, who put on excellent fights with Hendricks and Matt Brown during this run. Next up for Lawler is likely another rematch, however it won’t be the trilogy with Hendricks. Instead, Rory MacDonald will get his first crack at UFC gold, probably sometime in the spring of 2015. Not to be outdone, lightweight champion Anthony Pettis retained his belt against Gilbert Melendez via second-round submission, becoming the first fighter to stop the former Strikeforce champ. Melendez found some success early by pushing forward and pressuring Pettis against the fence, getting him to the ground on a couple of occasions. The same source of his success would prove to be his downfall however, as Pettis began defending the takedowns with more success and catching Melendez in the exchanges surrounding the attempts. Pettis seemed to stun Melendez on multiple occasions from in tight, and after one such occurrence the challenger shot for a low single. Pettis took the opportunity to slap on a guillotine choke that forced the tap at 1:53 of the second.

It seems the only thing really separating Pettis from superstardom are his frequent and lengthy absences from action. When he actually steps in the cage, there may not be a fighter who is more gifted offensively than the current champion. His devastating kicks get most of the attention, but it was Pettis’ hands that did the majority of the damage in this bout. Of course, he’s now finished his last two bouts with submissions as well (one from guard, and one in a scramble), so there really is no place that opponents are safe from him. There seems to be a certain undefeated Russian who wants to be next in line for Pettis. I’m not sure how well that bout will go for Khabib Nurmagomedov, as he is still pretty one-dimensional, and even more hittable than Melendez. The other option for Pettis would be the bout against featherweight champion Jose Aldo, but with the 145lb heating up quite nicely, it seems the calls for that bout — fantastic as it would be — have died down considerably. Also on the main card, Travis Browne predictably hurt Brendan Schaub with strikes, eventually scoring a TKO with ground-and-pound. Schaub found some success early, but as long as the fight remained on the feet it seemed like only a matter of time before the Hawaiian would land. While Joe Rogan was fawning over Browne’s ground work, it seemed to have more to do with Schaub being semi-conscious than Browne really being that proficient on the mat. Still, it was an impressive performance from Browne, and an excellent rebound from his loss to Fabricio Werdum. Depending on what happens with the heavyweight title(s), Browne could be in line for the winner of Junior dos Santos and Stipe Miocic. If that were the case, a title shot would certainly be on the line. If the dos Santos/Miocic winner faces Werdum while Cain Velasquez heals up, Browne could face either Andrei Arlovski or Ben Rothwell, which would both shockingly have a big impact on the title picture. The heavyweight action continued, as Todd Duffee needed just 33 seconds to make his birthday a happy one. In a career built on quick wins, his knockout of Anthony Hamilton was his third fastest. All 11 of Duffee’s bouts have now ended by (T)KO, regardless of which side he ends up on. There are still unanswered questions about his chin and cardio, but Duffee proved that he still hits extremely hard, and is a dangerous fight for anyone in the UFC. Another big hitter that could end up in Duffee’s future is Soa Palelei. The opening bout on the pay-per-view saw Tony Ferguson once again turn to his submission game, earning the victory over Abel Trujillo. Ferguson got caught by Trujillo early in the bout, but managed to hang tough and survive. After the first round, it didn’t seem like Trujillo had much left to offer, as even when Ferguson got overzealous with a submission attempt (as he so often loves to do) he wasn’t made to pay for it. The scramble and choke was extremely quick from Ferguson, and he continues to both impress and confound with his performances. It’s hard to say who should be next for Ferguson, as it seems like he deserves a step up to top 15 competition, but most of the fighters in the low end of those rankings are coming off of losses. Perhaps someone just outside that range, like Gleison Tibau, would be appropriate. On the undercard, Josh Samman would have provided, by far, the best story of the night had Lawler not emerged victorious. His brutal head kick KO was both impressive, but extremely emotional for the TUF veteran following the passing of his girlfriend. Urijah Faber picked up yet another submission win, but this one was not without controversy, as Faber poked Francisco Rivera in the eye which set up the finishing sequence. Next week, the UFC returns with two cards, as Friday night will see the conclusion of ‘The Ultimate Fighter 20’ which includes the crowning of a new UFC champion in the women’s strawweight division. Saturday night will be a big night for the heavyweight division, as UFC on Fox 13 features three bouts on the main card which could impact the title picture. MMAOddsBreaker.com will have coverage of both events, as always.

Written by Brad Taschuk

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