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The virtuosity of Matt Brown and the exaptation of Robbie Lawler

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Looking in depth at one of the most thrilling matchups in recent UFC history.

April 2001: Less than a month after his 19th birthday, Robbie Lawler has his mixed martial arts pro debut. He knocks out John Reed at Extreme Challenge 39 in Illinois in one round. He goes to train at Miletich Fighting Systems, the greatest camp in the world. He is young, athletic, talented and loves to fight. The sky is the limit.

August 2001: Twenty-year-old Matt Brown is convinced to try heroin by a friend.

This is what it does. The drug is converted to a morphine derivative in the bloodstream, and passes through the blood-brain barrier, breaking down into pure morphine. It stimulates opioid receptors which produce dopamine, and simultaneously inhibits dopamine inhibitors, producing a wave of pleasure. It also inhibits the cells on the medulla oblongata which regulate breathing. In the case of an overdose, blood pressure drops, and the individual passes into a coma.

Brown overdoses and wakes up in hospital. They tell him that he died, briefly.

April 2003: Riding a wave of hype as a new, up-and-coming prospect, Lawler loses to Pete Spratt in an upset when Spratt's leg kicks dislocate his hip.

April 2004: Lawler takes on unknown jiu jitsu specialist Nick Diaz. In another brutal upset, Diaz lights Lawler up with boxing combinations, taunting and waving him on. Rushing forward, Lawler is knocked out, poleaxed by a punch behind the ear. Following his next fight, a submission loss to Evan Tanner, he is released from the UFC.

He wanders the martial arts landscape like a nomad, taking fights in Affliction, EliteFC, and eventually settling into Strikeforce, where he begins to carve out a decent career as an action fighter. He bounces around training camps.

March 2005: Matt Brown makes his pro MMA debut. He wins by submission.

May 2008: Having left the drugs behind and devoted himself to fighting full time, Brown is a cast member of the 8th season of the Ultimate Fighter. He loses by submission to eventual winner Amir Sadollah. Later, he manages to snag a UFC contract by knocking out Matt Arroyo in the finale.

June 2009: Lawler fights Jake Shields at a catchweight. He loses by submission.

March 2007: Having won his last three fights, Brown takes on Ricardo Almeida. He loses by submission.

January 2011: Strikeforce are struggling to find challengers for their newly minted Middleweight belt-holder, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. Lawler steps up. He loses by submission.

June 2011: Now riding three straight losses in the UFC, Brown fights to stay employed against John Howard. Howard is a strong competitor who has himself lost two straight, albeit to top competition in Thiago Alves and Jake Ellenberger. He is a -255 favourite against Brown. In a tooth and nail fight, Brown wins by decision, and Howard is promptly cut from the organization.

The implication: if you can't beat Matt Brown, you don't deserve to be here.

Wake up!

Pay attention. If you're watching the UFC regularly, then chances are you might just get a little lulled by the constant stream of events. So: focus. Try to think for a second on just how fantastically strange and compelling the main event of UFC on Fox 12 actually is. A few years back, if you told me that Brazil would be beaten 7-1 at home by Germany in the semis of the World Cup in 2014, I would have been very surprised. If you told me Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown would be fighting in a title eliminator, I would have been gobsmacked. There would be follow-up questions:

"Has the UFC, or more specifically its welterweight division, fallen to pieces?" No.

"Is there perhaps some kind of log-jam of contenders allowing Brown and Lawler to leap to the front because they're action fighters?" Brown is on a seven fight winning streak with six knockouts, and Lawler is the consensus #2 welterweight in the world.

How did we get here? How did gritty journeyman Matt Brown and fun, flawed, busted prospect Robbie Lawler end up fighting for the chance to contest for what may well be the UFC's greatest belt?

The future

Welterweight has always been the division of the future.The weight limit runs between 155 and 170 pounds, about the size of an average man. Big enough to appeal to everyone who dislikes the smaller weight classes, small enough so that the athletic talent isn't taken by other sports. It has always made for a deep and competitive pool of fighters.

Wrestlers, kickboxing specialists, volume hitters, one-punchers, and submission artists fought to get to the top. Georges St-Pierre stood over the struggling morass of athletes and fighters, and clinically knocked anyone who climbed up the mountain back down. He and his trainers obsessively drew together olympic wrestling; gymnastics; swimming. Testing and discarding. GSP would glide through his challengers like a jet among bi-planes.

By far the most dominant blueprint in the division was the wrestle-boxer, focused around the double-leg takedown and the big right hand.

The return

When Ruthless Robbie Lawler came back to the UFC, he dropped from 185 lbs back to welterweight. His first match was against Josh Koscheck, the archetypal wrestle-boxer, almost universally considered a hideous matchup for Lawler. There was some minor outcry that Robbie was too "fun" for this, that he was being wasted in a fight which had solid potential to be 15 minutes of Koscheck in top position.

There were two trains of thought on the booking. Firstly- perhaps the Zuffa brass wanted to get rid of Lawler. The Strikeforce fighters were generally better paid than their UFC counterparts, and their expensive contracts had been carried over. Those who didn't immediately prove their worth, like Roger Gracie, were summarily cut.

The second line of thought was that perhaps the Zuffa matchmakers genuinely believed in him. When he had signed Lawler for the first time, Dana White had referred to him as "my christmas present to myself". There was an outside possibility that the UFC management were still fans, with all the blind optimism that represents.

If they were, they were right to be. The slim hope for Lawler was that Koscheck would try to test out his primitive stand-up, but Koscheck came ready to wrestle. Lawler crushed him with a left upper and a barrage of ground and pound after scrambling from a takedown. It was a shocker.

The new Robbie Lawler

Following up, he fought Bobby Voelker in a match which would have made a far more appropriate debut. It was exactly the kind of fight which Lawler always would have won, and he obliged. By this point, the new welterweight Robbie Lawler was beginning to sink in as a real presence. He moved to Coconut Creek in Florida to train with the surging American Top Team. He had sported a variety of different hair and beard stylings in his run outside the UFC. Now he was clean shaven, bald headed. He'd never been soft, but he had cut every ounce of fat away to make welterweight. Robbie Lawler the entertaining, unreliable action fighter was being sloughed away like dead skin. Underneath was something that very much resembled what everyone had thought he could become, all those years ago.

Then came another bizarre jump in competition. Rory MacDonald was the young phenom from Canada, the heir apparent to GSP. Lawler was to fight him in a #1 contenders match. The similarities between the two fighters were eerie. Rory, like Lawler, was carrying a great weight of expectation on his shoulders at a very young age. Like Lawler, he doesn't deal with interviews, and comes across as quiet and more than a little awkward. A man who is only truly alive when they are fighting

He differs from Lawler slightly though. The impression of MacDonald is of one who gets lost in the splines and interconnections which make up combat. Seeing him in the cage is watching someone who tries to comprehend the entirety of the reality of the cage, to read the web of possibilities around him like a spider testing vibrations in silk. Lawler is more focused on the finish and the knockout, on the possibilities of the fight as equations solved. Looking back on past bouts that he lost, you could see him looking too far into the future of the fight, hypnotized by that image of that perfect interdiction which would close the possibilities off, giving up takedowns and taking leg kicks until it was too late.

In the match-up between yesteryears hot prospect and today's, there seemed no question of who would come out on top, who was more advanced, more skilled. The first round was tentative, but with a veteran's cunning, Lawler sealed it with a few careful leg kicks. After all, he was fighting a younger version of himself. In the second, MacDonald went to his takedown game, and grounded Lawler for almost the entire period. Watching it, the primary thought was: "Oh. OK. Well, this is how Robbie Lawler loses fights."

Then, in the final round, against all expectations, Lawler exploded with a crushing left right hook, downing MacDonald, and clinching the win. After the scores were announced, Lawler looked over at the young fighter, buried by the weight of failed expectations, like Lawler himself all those years ago. He walked over to Rory. Never much of a talker. Robbie simply said what no-one had ever said to him:

"Forget what all the fans think. Do you."

The Title Fight

GSP retired, so Lawler was to fight Johny Hendricks for the vacant strap. Once again, the solver and the adapter came to the surface. The first two rounds were classic Lawler analysis as Robbie rolled and dodged Hendricks' punches, considering his timing. Hendricks' main success came from the stinging leg kicks that punctuated his combinations. Trading punches, Lawler could be seen visibly laughing with joy.

In the third and fourth, Lawler had seen enough to act. He beat Hendricks from pillar to post.

The last round was a new experience for Lawler- he'd been defeated before by those who had never let him land his best punches, who had simply closed off the avenues to him solving their fighting style. This was the first time that someone had taken his best hits and survived. Halfway through the last round, his gas tank ran empty, and Hendricks surged. He hit Lawler with his cleanest shots of the night and took him down against the cage, Lawler's face a picture of pure frustration as the clock ticked down.

He lost the decision.

Metal

If you look at Matt Brown, the first impression is of a throwback. Not necessarily of a fighter, but more of some lost archetype of the American worker. Physically, he doesn't have the bulging vascularity of a thoroughbred like Lawler, and is closer to something like a professional tennis player.

He's extremely focused, almost to the point of being stern, but can surprise with a dry, laconic sense of humour. Where most of the top fighters nowadays come from the big super-camps like ATT or Jackson's, Brown fights out of the relatively unknown JG MMA and Fitness Academy. As a result, he's always been something of a mystery. When he was interviewed for Heavy Hands, Connor Ruebusch asked him about some of Brown's credentials.

"Wikipedia told me you had a brown belt in judo. I didn't know that."

Brown paused. "Well. Neither did I."

Everyone burst into laughter. Later, a particular leg kick that he'd used to down Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson came up.

Brown: "That wasn't a kick, it was a sweep." Wryly. "That's my brown belt in judo right there."

He designs his own exercise equipment, runs his own podcast ("Legit Man Shit", which quickly got him into trouble when he made some antiquated and ill-advised riffs on women's MMA). A student of the fight game who is more than happy to talk boxing, kickboxing, and MMA, he rarely mentions specific techniques. Instead, he focuses more on the nature of what it means to fight, ideas of pressure, distance and rhythm. It doesn't seem down to a lack of articulation, but more a conscious decision- he avoids definitions because he inherently senses them as limitations, and that to label is to isolate, and to isolate is to stagnate. When he talks about how he turned his fighting career around, he has no one overarching reason why. "Just, like, a million things."

His father ran a machine-shop, and Matt used to help out. There is undeniably something hard and steely about him, but listen and watch enough and it becomes apparent that it's not something cold and mechanical. His approach is closer to the ideals of Japanese sword forging: fold and hammer and mold and make something not just hard and sharp, but flexible.

This mental flexibility is mostly in application to the fight game, of course. He is still something of a throwback outside of it (the aforementioned podcast, or ill-advised remarks about "fighting retards").

If you watch this man fight, you will not be surprised if he is not the most civilized guy in the world.

The virtuoso

Lawler came back into the spotlight with an explosion, a reaffirmation of just how good he was. Brown's rise has been much, much slower. A slog up from the very bottom of the UFC's vast welterweight division, all the way to the top. He had no preconceptions as a talented prospect to live up to, none of Lawler's wide-ranging impact on the world of MMA.  He simply had to beat guys, then beat better guys, then beat better guys than that.

Some of the notable opponents in that seven-fight streak

Stephen Thompson. Brown was a +235 underdog. Thompson was an electric kickboxer who had finished his UFC debut with a stunning headkick knockout, granting him a solid amount of hype. Brown dragged him into a gruelling technical brawl and beat him by decision. He is undefeated since.

Mike Swick. Brown was a +145 underdog to the popular TUF contestant. Brown knocked him out with an overhand right along the cage in one round.

Jordan Mein. Brown was a +300 underdog. Another thrillingly talented prospect, with devastating boxing and elbows. Brown went toe-to-toe, and finished Mein with a brutal barrage of elbows to the kidneys as the younger fighter turtled. Mein is undefeated since.

Finally, he fought Erick Silva. It was Brown's first main event.

The Brazilian fighter was another athletic specimen- quick, strong and hard hitting. If Lawler had had to defeat an image of his younger self to progress, then Brown had to fight the one thing which had always been his kryptonite: an aggressive, opportunistic submission fighter. Although there may be better grapplers in the welterweight division, it's doubtful that any of them can jump on a submission with the speed and savagery of Erick Silva.

Shortly into the fight, Silva landed his new favourite weapon. A kick directly to the liver, delivered with the ball of the foot.

Here is what a liver kick does. The organ buckles under the blow, and the capsule of nerve fibers around it spray agony back up to the brain. A giant sponge which takes a full quarter of the body's blood supply, the liver belches the blood backwards as it is squeezed under the impact. Dealing with the sudden spike in pressure, blood vessels flare and dilate, and then pressure plummets. The body collapses.

Silva leaped on top of Brown and started to hammer away Then he transitioned to his back and started working for the submission. Watching it, the primary thought was: "Oh. OK. Well, this is how Matt Brown loses fights."

Then Matt Brown fought off the submission. Then he stood up. Then he went to work.

Watching Matt Brown on offense is like watching a professional soccer player doing keep-up tricks with a ball. The understanding of mass and momentum- a gentle touch here causes it to be pushed here, strike it just so and it bounces off and returns to you with this much. Or, perhaps a virtuoso player of some lost tribal percussion instrument. Turning the edge of the hand, closing the fist or rapping with the elbow, striking at every point to coax out a glissando. All this couched in a language of pure bloody savagery.

Silva was battered around the cage for two and a half brutal rounds before finally crumpling in the third.

Exaptation

Lawler's last fight was against Jake Ellenberger. Another wrestle-boxer, with a big right hand. The dominant archetype during that time of the welterweight division when Lawler had been going win-one-lose-one over in Strikeforce.

At the very start of the round, Lawler threw a head kick. His kicking game had been notable absent against Hendricks. Kicks are seen as risky against wrestlers, as they compromise balance and open up the takedown. Starting with a headkick was particularly risky, or fearless. Then he threw another. Then another.

It was as though Lawler was saying:

"Yeah, I get it. I understand you already. I don't need to figure this out at all."

The fight became an emasculating rout, as Ellenberger was backed repeatedly into the cage, completely unable to deal with Lawler's multifaceted offense. The fight would be eerily mirrored by Rory MacDonald against Tyron Woodley, another explosive wrestler, a few months later. It was a damning indictment against what had once been thought of as state-of-the-art MMA.

Lawler's time outside the UFC has perhaps made him even better than he had been if he lived up to his potential early. Constant fights against far bigger, stronger grapplers has left him with a deep, powerful understanding of how to challenge the takedown. Forced to conserve his energy, he has learned how to interpret the strategy of the fight. Champions often pare down their games to what is effective, their most reliable weapons. Lawler, while improved in strategy and athleticism, hasn't lost those back-pocket, killshot techniques like the flying knee or the headkick that are the weapon of the up-and-coming fighter. He didn't put stress on his body by constantly cutting weight for years.

He's an example of exaptation, or "the evolution of traits to serve a particular function, which come to serve another". He learned how to be decent against middleweights. All those elements came together to make him great against welterweights.

After the Ellenberger fight he said. "I want the title. I'm coming for the title!"

It was made a little less convincing but a little more charming by the way he was clearly trying not to burst into laughter. He called out for the UFC's most storied belt like a boy who has been coached by his parents to say something nice in front of his in-laws, because if he does, they'll let him have another crack at that arcade game. He's sure he's figured it out by now.

Robbie Lawler loves fighting.

The past

Lawler has to stand out in the open for this fight. When he lost to Hendricks, it was close and debatable, and he was able to get back as a contender almost immediately. Losing to Matt Brown puts him a lot further down the totem pole. No more extra chances, no taking time off to figure things out. If he is going to really live up what everyone once wanted for him and win a belt in the shifting, monstrous environment of the modern UFC welterweight division, then he has to do it now.

It is seen as a good opportunity for him, because he is the clear and righteous favourite. Bigger, a more technically adept distance striker and boxer, and the better and sturdier athlete. All those talents which have coalesced into a truly terrifying mixed martial artist.

However, it's not just in the metaphorical sense that Lawler has to stand in the open. He can't take time off in the fight. If he chooses to shell up like he did against Hendricks, to try to spend some time figuring out his opponent, if he allows that engine of ruin which sleeps in Matt Brown to cough into life, turn over and start rolling up through the gears, then that could be bad for him. For all his disadvantages athletically, trying to run the numbers on that incalculable, free-flowing virtuosity which Brown brings to the table seems like a losing proposition. Simply put, he might be the single worst man in the sport to take one solitary backwards step against.

Whatever happens, we should be happy to see this fight. Not just because it's almost certainly going to be viscerally thrilling, but because at both men are affirmations of the possibilities of the sport that we watch. Living rebuttals of anyone who dismisses those who stumble or fall by the wayside.

In the best way possible they show us that when it comes down to it, we really don't know much about this whole MMA thing. Elite fighters don't always come from the places we expect. Sometimes the developments of dominating styles aren't based around the things we subconsciously think of as being powerful, like wrestling or control. Sometimes they're based around kicking ass, going after opponents in a fearless blood-hungry way, which still doesn't sacrifice a drop of technique.

It's not always the new athletes or the hyped-up prospects that show us the future. Sometimes, it's the throwbacks. The failures. The past.