A rising star in the early days of the UFC's Zuffa era, Lawler was hyped hard as the next big thing.
But after nearly a decade spent roaming from promotion to promotion as the guy who never quite lived up to his potential, Lawler has become 2013's greatest MMA redemption story. And with a win over highly touted welterweight Rory MacDonald on Saturday night at UFC 167 in Las Vegas, that long-ago forecasted crack at the gold just might come along after all.
"I never lost sight of my goals," said Lawler (21-9, 1 no-contest). "I never stopped thinking I could reach the top. It was just a matter of getting my head in the right place."
Lawler was barely 20 years old when he made his UFC debut with a unanimous-decision victory over Aaron Riley at UFC 37 in May 2002. A pair of knockout wins in his next two fights established that he had thunder in his fists, and his fights were nights to circle on your calendar.
The young star rode with the sport's hot camp of the moment: Miletich Fighting Systems in Bettendorf, Iowa. Run by the first UFC 170-pound champion (the current welterweight title, called lightweight at the time), Pat Miletich, the camp featured future UFC Hall of Famer and then-welterweight champ Matt Hughes, inaugural UFC 155-pound champ Jens Pulver and two-time heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia.
The sky appeared to be the limit as Lawler won his first seven career fights, six of them knockouts in six minutes or less.
"You don't appreciate what you have when it all comes to you real quick," Lawler said. "I went from nothing to everything all at once."
But things soon changed. An upset loss to Pete Spratt at UFC 42 was his first taste of defeat. That turned into a string of three losses in four fights – including a memorable face-plant knockout at the hands of Nick Diaz – and his UFC run was over just as it began.
Hughes, for his part, stuck with his friend through the down times. But he didn't sugarcoat what was going on.
"He was a young kid," Hughes said. "He was in his teens for his first fight in the UFC, or his first fight for sure. It was good for him to mature [after leaving the UFC] and to figure out that fighting is a pretty good gig."
Asked to pinpoint what went wrong, Lawler says there was never a specific reason.
"There was never this big 'Behind the Music' type of low point," said Lawler. "I don't spend too much time looking back anyway, just forward. All I ever wanted to do was keep fighting."
That he did. Lawler continued on his merry way. At times, he looked like a world beater, including an impressive performance in winning the Elite XC middleweight title from Murilo "Ninja" Rua in 2007, and in highlight-reel Strikeforce knockouts of Melvin Manhoef and Matt Lindland.
Other times? Well, there were losses to the likes of "Babalu" Sobral and Tim Kennedy. A loss in his final Strikeforce fight to Lorenz Larkin in 2012 didn't raise big expectations for his UFC return after Strikeforce folded, either.
But Lawler knew this was his last chance at the big-time. He left the gym he co-owns with Hughes in Illinois and joined one of the sport's premier camps, the American Top Team in South Florida.
"That made all the difference in the world," said Lawler. "I used to have to worry about being the guy in charge. Now I can just focus on my fight and have my coaches take care of the rest.
"I know you can't fight forever, and there's only so long you can do this," Lawler continued. "I don't fight for my legacy or for the glory or anything like that. The feedback from the fans is nice, don't get me wrong; it's a good feeling having them you on their side. But I'm motivated by making a good living for my family, and that's what made me get serious about this."
That attitude has shown both inside and outside the cage. Lawler has put himself in position for Comeback Fighter of the Year in 2013 by dropping vintage "Ruthless" bombs on both Josh Koscheck, who Lawler knocked out at UFC 157, and in beating a game Bobby Voelker, who Lawler polished off in a July fight.
Outside, Lawler, who used to be notorious for dodging fans and giving reporters one-word answers, has grasped that mixed martial artists who master the PR game and treat the fans right make more money than those who don't.
"The fact is, he's getting mature now," Hughes said. "He's seeing the bigger picture. He knows that doing the PR and stuff is not a big deal, and he's getting it done."
So Lawler heads to Las Vegas this week with an opportunity he never might have imagined. Back when the UFC was celebrating its 10th anniversary, Lawler was the golden child and a future champion. As the UFC celebrates its 20th anniversary, Lawler is back in the picture.
And with a win over the UFC's current welterweight golden child in MacDonald, Lawler could find his chance to prove the prognosticators right after all.
"This the fight I wanted," Lawler said. "I want to challenge myself. I don't want any easy fights. Rory's legit, Rory is going to bring it, and I plan on bringing it right back to him. He's a great fighter, but right now he's the guy who is in the way of my goals."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA.
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