Dana White found his favorite fighter in 2001, not inside the Octagon at one of the UFC's five events that year, but at the unheralded Shogun fight card in Hawaii. The Hawaiian scene was exploding in 2001 and Pacific Entertainment wanted in on the action. Complete with laser lights and three big screens allowing fans to see the action all around the arena, the event was state of the art for 2001. There was international talent in almost every fight, including appearances by "KID" Yamamoto, Yves Edwards, and Wesley "Cabbage" Coreirra. All the talent brought Dana White and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to the show and the two liked what they saw (and not just the fighters. Sean Shelby's wife was promoting the show and Shelby hit it off with the Zuffa crew, eventually becoming an integral part of the company and WEC matchmaker). Tony Fryklund went to war with Martin Armendarez in the fight of the night, but the young man who really stood out was 19 year old Iowan Robbie Lawler.
Lawler was every thing White wanted in a fighter. He was good looking, had a physique, and most importantly he loved to stand and bang. When his Shogun opponent Saburo Kawakatsu tried to coax him to the ground,Lawler wanted no piece of the action on the mat. The fight was stood up several times and Lawler ended up pounding him out. Needless to say, Lawler's next fight was in the UFC Octagon.
Continue the Robbie Lawler Story after the jump....
White's intent with Lawler was to build a star. They gave the young striker matchups that they thought would suit him well and Lawler thrived. His opponents were fellow bangers from the Midwest and Lawler put on a show against them. He beat the potential out of Aaron Riley over three rounds at UFC 37 and with only half an event's rest, knocked out Steve Berger at UFC 37.5. Fox Sport's Best Damn Sports Show Period had committed to airing the best fight of the night on cable television. Zuffa picked Lawler versus Berger and the two had the honor of being the first MMA fight shown on nationwide cable in America.
After that fight, White was more convinced than ever that he had something special. Lawler was carefully matched against Pete Spratt and the intent was to get him in the title mix at Welterweight as soon as possible (and possibly creating a "AKA" situation with Lawler and teammate Matt Hughes). That never became an issue as Lawler was outclassed standing by Spratt, getting nailed with leg kicks like he was Mark Coleman, before dislocating his hip in the second round.
It was a lesson learned for the UFC: you cannot try to predict what is going to happen in the fight game. Carefully laid out plans can be torn to shreds in an instant. Lawler got back on track in a self congratulatory effort against Chris Lytle at UFC 45 before being derailed again, this time by Cesar Gracie prodigy Nick Diaz.
Diaz and Lawler were supposed to have a prototypical "grappler versus striker" match. Instead, Diaz schooled the undisciplined Lawler standing, decking him with a big right hook (see 2:00 mark here) and giving MMA its first Flair Flop moment.
Looking to reinvent himself, Lawler made the move to middleweight for what would be his final UFC fight against Evan Tanner at UFC 50. Like he was out skilled standing by Diaz and Spratt, Tanner tooled him on the mat, catching a triangle choke in the first round. At just 22, Lawler's UFC career was over, an important lesson to be studied by the Rory MacDonald's and Chris Horodecki's of the world.
The Octagon doesn't care that you are just learning the game. It's a merciless place, filled with hard men looking to do you harm. Robbie Lawler learned the hard way that a young fighter better have a complete game-otherwise he might find himself competing on the fringes, awaiting a chance to return to Dana White's welcoming arms.