Robbie Lawler defends his welterweight title against Carlos Condit this January 2, 2016 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Single Sentence Summary
Phil: Blood for the Blood God at the top of the division that competitive relevance forgot.
David: Morpheus is fighting Neo (if Morpheus and Neo were related to the Sopranos)!
History / Introduction to the fighters
Phil: Condit was a fun action fighter. What's he doing in another UFC title fight? In some ways it's a reflection of the way that MMA has evolved, slowly moving away from wrestling and towards the ability to just put out pure offense. More though, it's just a reflection of what people like in MMA. Carlos Condit brings the violence, and always has. His incredible in-cage durability has been mirrored by a long and successful career, in part because he's as thoughtful and careful in how he trains outside the cage as he is fearless inside it.
David: MMA is definitely passed its "defense wins championships" mantra. But let's face it; a lot of it is just the joy of Thunderdome now that GSP is out of the picture. I miss the guy, personally. Like Bowser, love him or hate him, you don't have a full Mario game without him. But with Bowser gone, the leftovers get to freely decide for themselves who will pick up that Canadian torch. This fight is the culmination of that ‘parents are gone, let's raid the fridge and watch Tales from the Crypt' glee that welterweight now has.
Phil: Robbie Lawler was a fun action fighter. What's he doing as UFC champion? A long and eventful MMA journey was characterized throughout by nothing so much as stubbornness. Lawler was going to fight his way and damn anyone who thought otherwise. In these last few years, that stubbornness and those years dedicated to his craft have been leavened by a bit more of a willingness to fight strategically and by an elite coaching team, making for a champion whose sheer will to win is downright scary.
David: Lawler's career looks a lot like Arlovski's on the surface; a former contender inexplicably relevant in an evolving world. But where Arlovski is still carrying the stench of DeLorean, Lawler has that witness stamp, using his observations in a very scientific way by fusing modern MMA with his primal attitude and caveman strength.
What's at stake?
Phil: The welterweight belt is in a strange place. No-one's put a GSP-esque stamp on it, and there's a good chance that in the shark tank of this division that no-one actually can. Add to this that we have potential contenders with issues with weight (Gastelum, Hendricks) and PEDs (Lombard), and that Zuffa just transparently don't like Tyron Woodley very much. As such, we're getting title fights like this one- fun, but not necessarily competitively relevant. VERY fun, though.
David: I don't know. I feel like Condit is that action fighter whose major flaw is being in a fight less than five rounds. Does Condit lose to guys like Martin Kampmann and Johnny "I know the difference between WADA and VADA, Where's my rifle?!" Hendricks if those are five round fights? At minimum, I give him the benefit of the doubt.
Phil: This is a great point. Diaz is the common pick for the fighter who'd be champ if there was "unlimited rounds" but he was limping and beat up by the end of his fight with Condit, and had to resort to cheating by going for takedowns. The Hendricks and Woodley fights being three-rounders was criminal, and at this stage in his career, Condit should be in five-rounders every time.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Brutal Bob Lawler is still stubborn and still wants to punch people. An insistence on fighting a particular way doesn't necessarily make him uneducated in his approach. His game is incredibly deep, he merely likes to focus on the subtleties of his core competency. What this translates to is someone who has an unbelievable amount of craft on the feet. He's brilliant at maintaining a critical distance for maximizing the damage he can inflict while parrying, blocking and rolling his opponent's shots. However, he also has a tendency to just chill out at range while he's figuring his opponent out. His preferred operating distance often leaves him eating a lot of kicks, and that's not necessarily a recipe for good things against Condit.
However, his boxing skill is far, far ahead of the challenger's, combining sheer horsepower with a command of technique and rhythm. He can kick, too, with a head kick / body kick / horizontal knee collection which all have very similar tells. He doesn't do it very much, though, because he doesn't want to. He likes fights to be fun, and punching people is fun, and where the depth and violence of his game really shines.
David: It didn't take much to make Lawler exponentially more effective than he used to be. By that I mean, economy is the word of the day. Sure, he's still able to bounce Tiki Ghosn's Steiner-bearded head up and down the canvas like a basketball, but he's learned to be economical throughout the pugilism journey, and let the destination fall where it may. Just watch that first round with Tiki (because it's hilarious, and watching Tiki lose is pettily fulfilling) compared to Rory. Robbie was content to throw virtually nothing in the entire first round; opting to measure distance, and get a sense of Rory's habits. Yes, a lot of this is done in training before the fight, but Lawler understands the importance of learning in-fight; you can train for old habits, but not new ones. Robbie can get away with this brand of in-cage studying because if punch comes to shove, his Plan B, which is tab the nuclear codes, is pretty much just as effective.
But in technical terms, a big part of his evolution is that ridiculous jab. A lot of guys jab because they think that's what efficient boxing demands. They're right, but only nominally. MMA doesn't reward the jab the way it does boxing. Lawler understands this, and so he makes his right hand jab as violent as possible, stepping into it for pressure rather than chambering it for setup. Not only does he end up being a component of Lawler's boxing, but amplifies the brutality and efficiency of his straight left (a punch he didn't develop until later on).
Phil: Carlos Condit's game is not so much deep as it is broad (more on this in Connor's excellent piece). Whereas Lawler's game is built on strong fundamentals of hook, straight, cross and that jab, Condit's game barely has any foundational tools at all- the closest thing he has is likely the Jackson-Wink oblique kick. The basic tools of a striker are normally their hands, but Condit is honestly not a great boxer, throwing loopy, elbow-flared shots which he nonetheless manages to pack a surprising amount of power into. He makes up for a lack of reliable weapons through sheer diversity, reaching into his toolbox and throwing attack after attack at the opponent until he finds something that works. Flying knees, front kicks, one-twos, body shots, stepping elbows.
None of this would work without his durability and workrate. In this way, Condit is one of the most athletically dependent fighters in the sport- without a reliable boxing or counter game, and with straight-up awful takedown defense, he is very reliant on pushing the opponent backwards with marching combinations. His unorthodox approach often leaves him getting hit when he's badly out of position. Taking a clean counter overhand from Johny Hendricks or Tyron Woodley would leave most people reconsidering their position as an organic lifeform, but Condit can just blink, step back, shrug it off and go back to work.
David: Condit reminds me of old school Big Nog on meth; there's a diversity to his game that flourishes thanks to his ability to absorb punishment. Condit isn't just an assortment of "is that all you got" defense, and kitchen sink offense. He threatens with those Ginsu patellas of his, and a variety of elbows. I think this is the real essence of what makes Condit an elite fighter; he maintains a high output regardless of range or position. Close quarter combat? He's got knees, elbows, even scapula stabs (!) like some gangster Gumby.
Range fighting? "Spinning shit", and multi-projectile kicks. Ground warfare? More elbows from the bottom, punches, even more elbows, and submission attempts. It's a little like speed chess where the sheer output and diversity of attacks forces opponents into cracker jack decision making that typical fights don't foster. It's not about technique. It's about tactics. Sometimes it pays to sacrifice the former for the latter in a sport where techniques are constantly taken away, be it boxing technique while on your back, or grappling technique while being forced into vertical scrapping.
Insight from past fights
Phil: Condit's addition to his lacking pocket game appears to have been the stepping elbows he used against Thiago Alves. This may be premature, but I don't think these will work? Attempting to handfight and use elbows against Lawler was tested a few times by Rory Mac, and got him countered almost every time. Conversely, though, Lawler got kicked a lot from range, including the headkick(s) which almost finished him. Essentially, the ranges for this one are very defined - Lawler with huge advantages at boxing range, Condit with a big advantage at kicking range. The question becomes who has better footwork and discipline for holding their preferred distance.
David: If there's one thing that never left Lawler ever since Pete Spratt forcefully rotated his hips the wrong way, it's the willingness to eat leg kicks at the cost of movement. Rory never committed to them, whereas Condit won't stop. On the surface, it's the kind of detail that is a little too embedded in broader trends to make a difference, but subtle doesn't mean 'not vital', and I think Condit's kick output could win him enough early rounds to make this one a white-knuckler even during the decision announcement.
Phil: Yep. Lawler's most puzzling mid-career loss is still Larkin, where he really should have been far ahead of his opponent in terms of technique and experience, but just gave the fight away to kicks, unorthodoxy, movement and his own inertia. Things he's always struggled with a bit.
Phil: Gotta be the damage. These guys have both been fighting for a long time and they've taken enough shots to kill most land mammals many times over. One or both of them could come out and just not look the same. Lawler was wobbled by Rory Mac, and Condit blew out his knee against Tyron Woodley. Slight physical cracks are there if you're looking for them. In general I don't believe in "uncrackable" chins. Even Condit.
David: Any chance Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit ends up taking cues from the Gabi Garcia fight at Rizin? Man what a train wreck.
Phil: I think Lawler's increasing strategic focus since returning to the UFC speaks well for his chances against an always-flawed opponent in Condit. These are cunning, experienced vets, and I expect the fight to start slow before descending into the blood sea... but Lawler can fight a better distance game against Condit than vice-versa, and is far more likely to be able to push his opponent into the fence. Pace, durability and dangerous kicks are effective weapons against someone like the champ... but if Lawler is on his game, I think he can stop Condit from using them very much. Robbie Lawler by TKO, round 3
David: TKO? That's some huevos right there. I can't see Condit getting knocked out, but it wouldn't surprise me. I just don't see it happening tonight. Lawler has a thudding power more than a sudden power (like Dodson), and I think sudden is what it'll take to put Condit away. I think this is gonna be fun, but also closely contested where Lawler is landing the big strikes without ever getting room to straight tee off. Condit's toughness allows him to stay active, but it won't look good to the judges. Robbie gives up the early rounds to Condit, and surges late. Robbie Lawler by Split Decision.