Almost from the first moment he set foot inside of a cage, the expectations for Robbie Lawler were immense. He was an all-state wrestler in high school, but it was the natural power in his hands that led so many to predict mixed martial arts greatness for him.
He turned pro only a couple of weeks after his 19th birthday. He was in the UFC by the time he was 20, with only four fights, all first-round knockouts, under his belt.
He was, along with lightweight B.J. Penn, the greatest prospect in the UFC. He was a can't-miss kid if ever there were one.
"Robbie had a tremendous amount of talent and it was pretty obvious that he could do great things," said Monte Cox, Lawler's manager then and now.
It took nearly 12 years after his first UFC fight, a decision over Aaron Riley at UFC 37 in 2002, for Lawler to finally get his title shot.
Along the way was a trail of missed opportunities, disappointments and difficulties.
Lawler won regional titles, but never achieved the expected greatness at the elite level of the sport.
But just when it appeared that he would be relegated to the huge pile of can't-miss prospects who missed, it all of a sudden came together.
The kid for whom so much was expected is now a grizzled veteran after 32 fights and 13 years as a professional and will finally get his first UFC title shot.
He'll meet Johny Hendricks on Saturday at American Airlines Center in Dallas in the main event of UFC 171 for the welterweight title vacated by Georges St-Pierre.
Cox, who has been by Lawler's side all these years, is hardly surprised.
"Looking back on it, Robbie was rushed into the UFC," Cox said. "He had four or five fights and that is awful early to be in the UFC. He had beaten up local guys, but he hadn't been tested against the best in the world.
"Over all the years, though, I always believed that Robbie could get it together and be the guy we thought he could be."
Lawler feels much the same way. He was good enough to get it done, but didn't.
For some, failure to reach expected success can be devastating and shatter one's confidence. Through all of the trials and tribulations, though, Lawler kept the faith.
"It all depends on the person, but for me, I just wasn't ready for whatever reason [to deal with all the expectations]," Lawler said. "Skill-wise, everything wasn't where it needed to be at that time. Everyone is different, but for me, I just wasn't ready for the spotlight and my skill set wasn't where it needed to be. I needed time to grow, not just as a fighter but as a person and that was big.
"But I never lost my confidence. I always believed in myself and even in the bad times, when I'd do bits of greatness here and there, it was those kinds of things that kept me alive and helped me to get to where I am now."
It wasn't easy and it sure wasn't quick, but Lawler stands one big left hand away from the championship of the world.
It's a long way from when he was fighting simply for the joy of fighting. He gave up pretty much everything in a sacrifice for greatness, but he said he has no regrets.
"It's awesome to be here now [fighting for the UFC title 13] years after I started," Lawler said. "There wasn't much money in this sport when I started, but I didn't get into it because of money. I loved to fight and I loved MMA. There weren't a lot of material rewards then, and to be here now, where there is a lot of money and a lot of spotlight and stuff going on, it's an exciting time for me.
"It was maybe five, six years in before I started accumulating some money where I could do some stuff and buy things. Before that, I was struggling pretty bad. I didn't get to eat as much as everyone else did and I didn't have a lot of luxuries, but I didn't need them. I didn't want them. All I wanted to do was train, sleep and hang out with my friends."
He won his first three UFC fights before losing three of his next four, which started him on a wandering journey along the back roads of MMA.
He would win some and look spectacular, but lose others and leave experts shaking their heads.
But after a loss to Lorenz Larkin on July 14, 2012, in Strikeforce, things changed. He'd gone from intense, knockdown, drag-out brawls in sparring while part of Pat Miletich's camp in Iowa in his early days to no sparring at all.
He basically didn't spar before facing Larkin, in effect going 180 degrees away from the aggressive sparring philosophy he was brought up with at the Miletich camp, and it left him unprepared.
"We talked after that and we both realized that he needed to spar some," Cox said. "Not sparring kept him concussion-free, but in this sport, you need to spar some to be able to see the openings and get your timing and all of that."
Not long after, Strikeforce folded and Lawler's contract was absorbed by the UFC. Nine years after he left, he was back in a high-profile bout at UFC 157 against Josh Koscheck.
This time, he sparred and he showed what he could do with the proper training.
He knocked Koscheck out in a magnificent performance, then stopped Bobby Voelker in his next outing. When he scored a split-decision over Rory MacDonald at UFC 167 in November, it put him on the precipice of a championship.
All those years, all those struggles, finally made sense. He was going to get the chance to fight for the title that once seemed like a birthright.
"I've been through a lot, but I am excited to be where I am and to get this chance," Lawler said. "I'm excited about the path I've taken and I'm glad I overcame everything and I'm here now. I wouldn't change a thing."
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