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UFC 189: Lawler and MacDonald- The violent mathematicians

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Why the under-hyped co-main event is just about the cleanest, purest, most thoughtful MMA violence you're likely to find

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Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

At UFC 189, when Rory MacDonald and Robbie Lawler meet, it won't just be to determine who is the best welterweight in the world. It'll be an almost unprecedented meeting of two great thinking fighters.

I once watched a documentary about David Tammet. He's a mathematics prodigy with numeric synesthesia, something thought of as the product of a cross-wiring in the brain, where senses and perceptions become mixed. In this case, it means that Tammet "sees" numbers as shapes and colours.

At one point he mentioned how he solved equations in his mind by envisioning the numbers as a landscape, and travelling through it, and finally just describing where he ended up. I'd been thinking of his incredible mathematical ability as being some kind of off-shoot or natural product of a rather specialized brain, but that specific part made me wonder: what if it wasn't? What if he became incredibly good at mathematics because it was beautiful? Maybe the unthinkable visualizations of logic he saw were so compelling that he immersed himself in them wholesale, until he understood them from the inside out. His own world, one of solutions and logic, where he could lose himself completely, to the exclusions of all else.

I think of Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald as being a bit like that.

Quiet men in a quiet title fight

You know what? Life's not about money. Obviously, I'm doing this for money, also, but it has never been my goal to be a f---ing billionaire. I'm going to live in the woods one day. Hunt, be weird, not have to listen to people call me a psycho all the time.MacDonald on the Joe Rogan Experience

It's the run up to UFC 189, and sliding in under the radar is one of the least-hyped welterweight fights I've ever seen. Partially this is because the champion Robbie Lawler and the challenger Rory Macdonald are both terrible at fight promotion. While the McGregor show has been cranking up to fever pitch in Las Vegas, these two have largely been reduced to identikit statements about how they're in the best shape of their lives, and how they'll knock the other guy out, and no, GSP isn't coming back. Until the weigh-in, where a pumped up Lawler slapped down MacDonald's arm, this adorable video where the two were made to trash talk has been about as incendiary as its gotten.

They might make more money if they went at it a bit more, if they built up the fight and manufactured some kind of beef. It's difficult to think that either one of them cares.

In many ways they've always been mirror images, similar men born into different times in MMA. Both started without any significant combat sports background: Lawler wrestled in high school; MacDonald started Jiu Jitsu at 14. Both men went pro when they were just teenagers. Each went to one of the greatest fighting gyms in the world, where the dominant world champion of his time trained. Lawler went to Miletich Fighting Systems, alongside Matt Hughes. MacDonald went to Tristar, with GSP. Each was the oft-cited but rarely-seen thing: the MMA native, and talent and pedigree got both of them hailed as the future of the sport. Neither ever seemed built for the spotlight, though. They've always been quiet, almost introverted. In some dislocated way, it makes sense to see them fight for the belt and finally fulfill their earlier promise.

Neither has taken a route as direct as might have been expected, but if there's been a constant throughout their careers, it's how much they both love to fight. You don't start taking ammy bouts and smoker fights in local bars; you don't turn pro as a teenager unless you really, really like fighting. That love isn't something which has faded with time or been soured by losses. It's deepened. Both have pressed down into through the layers of technique, down into the strata of violent mathematics.

The champ

I'm just a fan. Not of any fighter, but of the matchups, what people are trying to accomplish. The battle within the battle, and really what I watch for is: Can guys make adjustments? Are they capable of changing things up in a fight? -Lawler for Fight Magazine

Lawler used to be a bust. After the upset losses to Pete Spratt and Nick Diaz, he had the long period spent wandering the wilderness as a fun, flawed action fighter. Too stubborn to cut down, he'd fight much bigger men in Strikeforce. Sometimes he'd win, and sometimes he'd lose. He also had environmentally impacted asthma, although he didn't know it.

In Strikeforce, it was very frustrating for everybody because Robbie would go out and look great in the first three to four minutes of every fight and then just falter. He said it felt like he was breathing through a straw. - Monte Cox, to ESPN

When he came back to the UFC he transformed. He sloughed off the weight, lost the beard and the hair, got with American Top Team, fixed up the asthma in Florida. The turning point was when he beat Rory the first time they met. Lawler had always struggled with kicking offense, and so it seemed oddly apropos, almost a marker of maturity and knowledge, that that he'd beat the kid who was his younger self by taking a swing round with leg kicking.

Afterwards, he knew better than anyone else what it's like to be a young guy with the weight of expectation on your shoulders, when all you want to do is fight. He didn't say much to Rory. Just: "Forget what all the fans think. Do you."

The now-champ is something like a tree which grew out and up until its own weight dragged down the branches. When it got sick, when the deadwood was cut away, what was left was stronger and more resilient than anyone had any right to expect.

He's always been a powerful hitter, and the way he thinks and solves in the cage is appropriately direct. The man he's been locked up with is a puzzle, and all Lawler wants to do is solve it. The supports of bone, pulleys of muscle and tendons, and the temporary structures of offense and defense are all linked together in a single entity. There's no cleaner or better way of understanding for Lawler than to reach out and find the switch which turns all of that off.

The right punch is a single perfect number. He'll get hit in the face, torn up by leg kicks, and he won't give a damn as long as he finds it. His physical safety comes a long, long way in second place. Lawler threw just two punches in a round in which he was getting destroyed by Melvin Manhoef, and knocked the Dutchman dead with the second. He rolled a six, seven, eight strike combination and came back with a single sizzling left hand against Johny Hendricks in their first fight, and then laughed with the pure joy of it.

Still, Lawler gets lost in there sometimes. His punches stop coming. He seems a far off, like someone turning over a knot in their hands, looking for a strand to pull on and work away. It often happens when he's up against someone who throws a lot of different looks at him. This is the problem with single solutions: when they're wrong, you have to start again from scratch.

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The challenger

If you're fighting for someone's opinion, for status, it's the wrong reason to fight - MacDonald, to the Telegraph

MacDonald started in a different time for the sport, fighting under a very different kind of coach. Where Robbie expanded and collapsed and came back, Rory has been trained very carefully by Tristar coach Firas Zahabi.

While Zahabi's most accomplished pupil is GSP, I do wonder if MacDonald might be his most complex, challenging protege. A preternaturally gifted and driven athlete like GSP might seem destined for greatness no matter what. Rory's gifts are more intangible, and are less in his drive or his athleticism -although both are better than good- but more in his natural understanding of the fight.

To help someone like the young MacDonald to become great is a tricky proposition. Left to their own devices they might drown themselves: banging it out on the feet when they shouldn't, fighting too heavy because cutting messes with the fun of the brawl, wrecking their body from an early age. Conversely, too much interference or focus on technique and you risk smothering what made them special and fearless in the first place.

Under the watchful eye of Zahabi, MacDonald has slowly built up a multi-dimensional style, lacquered in layer upon painstaking layer. The jab that made its most famous appearance when he beat BJ Penn was stretched to the painful extremes of utility against Ellenberger. The kicking, the wrestling and the boxing continue to slowly coalesce together into something special.

The way MacDonald solves is abstract. Less about tunnelling inside to find the single, perfect solution but more about holding the equations of the fight in his mind as a structure. If you stand here and strike like so, then it moves the opponent here, if he comes back in this way you come underneath with the takedown. The rhythms of the environment are his. He's not quick on his feet, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a fighter in the UFC who can back stronger and faster fighters into the cage with such an eerie consistency.

His style sometimes seems clinical or detached. The expressionless voice, the sharp suits can give a brief impression of a kind of corporate monotony. You can forget that he's a bright, slightly introverted young man, loyal to his friends. You can forget about the love of violence, until he talks about headbutts and time limits, and how he's looking forward to having blood on his face, and you remember what still lives under those carefully built layers.

Still, MacDonald gets lost in there sometimes. The cage is a pool with the possibilities and reactions as eddies and currents. He'll tap on the surface with a jab or a body kick and stand and watch the ripples propagate and swell and bounce to and fro. This is the problem with wide solutions. They can be too broad, abstract and fragile.

Clean and simple

Even now, after the weigh in, when people are finally getting excited, these two continue to evade much of the media attention. They likely wouldn't have it any other way. The main event is big, brash and exciting. It works at all levels, and even without Aldo, it feels like it deserves to be at the top of the card. This bout is something quite different. Not lesser, but it's more simple, as it just asks question of contrasting bloody philosophies: whether MacDonald can envelop Lawler in those wide, all-encompassing structures, or whether Lawler can dig into them, and find the single number that knocks them all down.

A clean, refreshingly pure fight, like a glass of mineral water. Something simple as the lines of a broken nose; as uncomplicated as the violence of mathematics.