Judo Chop: Ruthless Rising, Robbie Lawler's veteran skills

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Robbie Lawler just might be the most unlikely title challenger ever, and yet he's got the necessary skills to become the UFC's new welterweight champ. BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch breaks down his wily veteran ways.

Greetings time traveler. Much has changed since your time, the year 2002 AD. Despite the trend you thought you saw, our cell phones are actually much larger now. All films are now shown in three dimensions, though the 3D glasses are as stupid-looking and headache-inducing as ever. The humble sport of MMA, which had just started to gain respect in your time, is now featured on network television, and its landscape has been totally transformed. Matt Hughes lost his title to a fighter named Georges St-Pierre who would prove even more dominant before himself abdicating the belt. Chuck Liddell is no longer the greatest light heavyweight of all time, and his career ended on a 3-fight losing streak, all losses coming by way of KO.

Yes, MMA sure has changed a lot since your day... What's that? Robbie Lawler, you say? Oh no, he's still around. Yeah. In fact, he's still one of the best welterweights on earth; he's fighting for the UFC title this weekend, and he looks sharper than ever. How is this possible, you ask? Why, the answer is simple. The wild young gun you once knew and loved has become a patient, well-rounded veteran. Certainly, he's tasted defeat more than a few times in his career, but he is undoubtedly better for it, and there is a serious possibility that, this Saturday, he will defeat the consensus #1 welterweight in the world 13 years and 32 fights into his MMA career.

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No, I'm not kidding. Lawler and Hendricks are actually very similar fighters. Both possess thunderous punching power and solid wrestling, which they tend to use defensively, to keep the fight on the feet. Both do their best work coming forward, and both operate best at the same range. Among all these similarities, it is Lawler's experience which stands out as the most notable difference, and I expect it to play a part in this weekend's main event.

Lawler's years of experience seem to have granted him a degree of comfort, even nonchalance, in the heat of battle, and his move-forward style is differentiated from that of Hendricks by a sort of calm, methodical approach that makes use of a greater variety of weapons, and a number of clever tricks.Today, we're taking a look at those fruits of experience.

HOOKING OFF THE JAB

As I mentioned above, Lawler and Hendricks are both well known for their punching power, but they differ in their punch of choice. Hendricks strongly favors his left-hand, sometimes past the point of good sense; Lawler, however, has always been more fond of his right hook. Though he throws either hand with considerable power, it is the right hook to which he owes most of his knockouts, and the right hook to which he tends to resort in dire straits. And before that right hook comes a simple weapon that many other southpaws--southpaws like Hendricks--forgo almost entirely: the jab.

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1. Moving forward, Lawler reaches out and pulls down the lead hand of Scott Smith.

2. And quickly fires a hard right jab through the hole.

3. Another jab immediately follows, while Smith's rhythm is still disrupted, and he fails to parry it.

4. Now Lawler finds himself a bit overextended, with his feet in a parallel line. In position to do nothing else, he jabs once again, landing the punch and using the small window of opportunity to step his lead foot to the right...

5. Opening up his stance enough to throw a hard cross to his opponent's collarbone.

This is Lawler at his pressuring best. Smith became underrated shortly after falling to Lawler, and then actually fell off just shortly after that, but at the time he was a dangerous, if still green middleweight striker with considerable power. Lawler didn't walk through him easily in either of their two fights, but his best success was found when he stuck to his jab and pushed Smith back into the fence. After the jab found its home, he would find a natural opening for his favorite punch.

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1. Lawler hand fights with Smith's lead again, pulling his hand out of position.

2. This time, as Smith reaches out to catch the next jab, Robbie loops a long right hook over his shoulder and clips him in the temple.

3. Another hook falls just short as Smith adapts to catch it on his forearm.

4. He's out of range, but Lawler cleverly goes back to the jab, shooting it straight between Smith's hands. Another small step forward and it would've landed, but it does succeed in keeping Smith's back against the cage.

Lawler has a tendency to get wild, but that has shown itself less and less as he has matured and grown as both a fighter and a person. Now, more often than not, we are treated to sequences of simple, thoughtful pressure like the ones above. Neither Hendricks nor Lawler have faced many southpaws. In fact, Hendricks has only fought one in Rick Story, to whom he lost, while the last lefty on Lawler's resume was Nick Diaz in the Stocktonians coming-out party on UFC 47. Still, in a battle between two southpaws, Lawler's greater variety of punches and his consistent jab could be a big advantage.

BODY WORK

Neither Lawler nor Hendricks are known for their incredible staying power. Both men can absorb punishment remarkably well, but we've seen both fade down the stretch a number of times. In this five round fight, the man who gasses first will very likely end up the loser. Lawler, despite his own past conditioning problems, has the tools to make sure that Hendricks tires long before he does himself.

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1. Ninja Rua circles Lawler, pawing and feinting with his jab, but offering no real threat.

2. As Rua steps forward on a jab, Lawler walks him right into the sweet spot for a vicious kick to the liver.

3. Placing his left foot down, he follows up with a right cross from an orthodox stance.

The left round kick has become for Lawler, like it has for Vitor Belfort, something of a sleeper weapon. Known for his powerful boxing, Lawler is able to sneak his kicks in when the opponent thinks himself out of Lawler's effective range. He targets both the head and the body, a switch-up which sometimes results in spectacular finishes like that in the Bobby Voelker fight. Against a stocky puncher like Hendricks, Lawler will find value in his long kicks, and the body assault will pay dividends later in the fight.

Lawler's other body work tends to come in the clinch, which may be too dangerous a place to hang out with Hendricks, who proved his Herculean strength when he muscled GSP around with a single underhook for much of their five round fight. Still, Lawler has never been afraid to get physical with his opponents, and it is his willingness to work in his opponent's wheelhouse that often nets him the win. When it comes to the clinch, there are few more opportunistic than Robbie Lawler.

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1. Controlling the right wrist of Bobby Voelker, Lawler lands a hard knee to the liver.

2. Voelker is forced to fight for space, and he gives up his left overhook in favor of a collar tie.

3. Lawler breaks Voelker's collar tie with his shoulder by rotating his body, creating additional space by pushing Voelker back with his elbow.

4. Now with just enough room to strike, Lawler uncorks a left uppercut, followed by a right hook that misses the mark.

5. As Voelker tries to counter with a left hook, Lawler rolls under it, landing another short left.

6. Now Lawler comes underneath Voelker's missed hook with a huge right uppercut.

There are few men as dangerous in a wild exchange as Robbie Lawler. Not only is he deadly with either hand, but he has defensive movements built into his punches that make him a surprisingly elusive target even as he swings away at his opponent's head. Johny Hendricks would be wise to avoid these exchanges with Lawler, and Lawler would be wise to force them on Hendricks whenever the clinch is engaged.

Check back tomorrow for my breakdown of Hendricks' game, and lots more UFC 171 coverage from Bloody Elbow.

For more fight analysis and fighter/trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast that focuses exclusively on the finer points of face-punching. Be sure to check out our technique-centric recap of UFC 170, and look forward to my preview of UFC 171 with Bellator's Jimmy Smith this Thursday. Please take a minute to rate and review the show on both iTunes and Stitcher.

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