Robbie Lawler's slow burn toward the UFC welterweight title smolders on.
After pulling the plug on Matt Brown's Cinderella story via unanimous decision Saturday in the main event of UFC on Fox 12, Lawler once again finds himself the top contender for the company's 170-pound title.
He's now assured a second bite at the apple against champion Johny Hendricks, but as is often the case for UFC title hopefuls these days, he'll have to wait a bit to get it.
Hendricks is still healing from a torn bicep suffered while claiming the vacant championship with a decision win over Lawler at UFC 171. Though it was initially believed he'd return in the fall, reports now indicate the UFC may push the rematch back until 2015:
"I want to get back to work and go after Hendricks," Lawler told UFC color commentator Joe Rogan in the cage after his victory over Brown. "He's nursing some injuries, but I'm going to be the one waiting for him, and that's nice."
Whenever it happens, another meeting with Hendricks will provide Lawler's latest—and potentially last—chance to add an exclamation point to his career's unexpectedly stellar third act.
Most observers likely thought they'd already seen the best of him when he returned to the Octagon after the Strikeforce purchase in 2013.
Lawler had been absent from Zuffa since back-to-back losses in 2004. In the interim, he'd become EliteXC middleweight champion and once fought for Strikeforce gold, but had also been dogged by inconsistency. He was perennially winning a few fights and then losing one, usually by either letting a decision get away from him or by getting caught in a submission on the ground.
A drop to welterweight to begin his UFC return seemed like an intriguing twist, but that sort of last resort seldom cures everything that ails a struggling fighter. Simply finding a new weight class rarely makes a whole new man.
For Lawler, it has amounted to a rebirth. He's now 5-1 at 170 pounds, his only loss coming via that razor-thin judges' verdict to Hendricks five months ago. As the welterweight class staggers forward amid Georges St-Pierre's extended hiatus, the 32-year-old Lawler—suddenly all grown up and in control of his potential—figures to continue being a major player.
But first, with Hendricks finishing up his rehab for the duration of 2014, Lawler will get a necessary (albeit perhaps unrequested) break.
The victory over Brown capped a stretch where he fought five times during the last 12 months. Their bout won Fight of the Night but fell just short of the sky-high expectations we'd set during the lead-up.
It would have been hard to exceed the prefight hyperbole, and given that the night's two championship stanzas essentially amounted to rounds 16 and 17 for Lawler, dating back to July 27, 2013, it feels like he's earned a short vacation.
For much of their peak-and-valley slugfest, he was in full control of Brown with his tighter, more technical counterpunching style. Lawler scored with uppercuts and kicks to the body, and he stunned Brown with a shot to the midsection in the third round that referee John McCarthy mistakenly ruled a low blow.
He might've pitched a shutout had Brown not stung him with a right hand in the first. For a few seconds there, it appeared we might be in for another Lawler letdown, but he maintained his composure and weathered Brown's best offense—mostly in the form of elbows in the clinch as well as the occasional takedown try and submission attempt.
The pace slowed in the middle rounds, and even as Lawler took full control on the scorecards, it dawned on us this wasn't going to be the epic, Fight of the Year-caliber brawl we'd hoped to see. Perhaps our hopes had been unfairly raised, and as MMA Mania.com's Jesse Holland and many others noted on Friday, it would have been nearly impossible for this bout to live up to the hype.
Still, it was pretty good.
The ever-game Brown appeared to injure his hand when he came out firing in the final round, but he continued to throw jabs, kicks and elbows until the final horn. Lawler stumbled him with one last left 10 seconds before the end, sealing the final round and a clear-cut unanimous decision (49-46, 49-46, 48-47) when the final scores were announced.
The loss snapped Brown's seven-fight win streak, and the 33-year-old underdog went to the hospital instead of the post-fight press conference. UFC President Dana White attended the media event, however, and said that even in defeat Brown's stock was on the rise with the fight company.
Lawler seemed to agree, as the two fighters exchanged encouraging words inside the cage immediately following the decision.
"I said there's two champions in this ring tonight," Lawler explained to Rogan when asked what he said to Brown. "He's a hell of a fighter and we put on a great show for these guys. He came toe-to-toe with me and not too many people will do that."
Hendricks also didn't shy away from Lawler during their first meeting back in March.
Once the champion's arm is good to go, the UFC will have yet another highly anticipated donnybrook on its hands. When that finally happens, Lawler will get another chance to set his hot-and-cold career on fire for good.