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Robbie Lawler's long journey leads to shot at Georges St-Pierre's vacated UFC title

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

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Robbie Lawler is declared the winner after his welterweight bout during UFC 167. (USA TODAY Sports)

Only minutes after Georges St-Pierre had made a difficult-to-understand statement in the cage following a controversial victory over Johny Hendricks in their welterweight title bout at UFC 167 on Nov. 16 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Robbie Lawler spoke.

St-Pierre had yet to arrive at the post-fight news conference, and no one, not even UFC president Dana White, knew exactly what St-Pierre meant in his comments to Joe Rogan in the cage after his bout with Hendricks.

St-Pierre hinted that he might be walking away from the sport, but he wasn't particularly definitive. As the topic of St-Pierre's intentions were debated, Lawler suggested that he fight Hendricks for an interim title and that the winner fight St-Pierre when he was ready to fight.

It turns out that as good of a fighter as Lawler is, he's better as a prognosticator. His suggestion is almost exactly how it turned out.

The only thing he got wrong is that he won't be facing Hendricks for the interim title. After St-Pierre announced on Friday that he would take a sabbatical and vacate his belt, the UFC made Hendricks-Lawler the main event for UFC 171 on March 15 in Dallas for the full title.

"It's weird how that works sometimes," Lawler said, chuckling. "I just kind of knew it would happen."

Lawler was one of the hottest prospects of the early Zuffa Era of the UFC. Zuffa purchased the UFC in January 2001, and Lawler made his debut for the company as a 20-year-old amid much hype at UFC 37.

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Robbie Lawler punishes Rory MacDonald during UFC 167. (USA TODAY Sports)

Lawler and B.J. Penn, who was also on the UFC 37 card, were two of the young fighters expected to do great things. Penn fulfilled his greatness almost right away, but Lawler's journey to a UFC title bout was a lot longer, and more circuitous.

Things didn't work out as planned and Lawler never fulfilled the enormous potential he seemed to have. He began his UFC career 3-0, but then lost three of his next four and was out of a job.

He won a couple of minor titles, and scored some spectacular knockouts, but never quite seemed to get it all together. He signed with Strikeforce in 2009, but went just 3-5 over the next three years.

He was fun to watch, but he gave no indication that he'd ever contend for the UFC title.

But after the UFC absorbed Strikeforce, Lawler suddenly began to look like the fighter that he once was predicted to become. He violently knocked out Josh Koscheck at UFC 157, then was impressive in stopping Bobby Voelker in July.

That earned him a shot at Rory MacDonald, the latest in a line of outstanding young talents to sign with the UFC. Much of the pre-fight talk centered around whether MacDonald would fight St-Pierre for the title should both of them win. But punctuated by a late knockdown, Lawler won a split decision from MacDonald and was suddenly on the verge of a championship.

The UFC made it official when St-Pierre announced his sabbatical.

Despite all the years and more than a few losses, Lawler, now 31, never stopped believing. But it's rare for 20-year-olds to be ready to compete for a title, not only physically but mentally.

The ability was there all the time for Lawler, but it was a matter of everything coming together for him.

"Some people can come in [at a very young age without a lot of experience] and do great things, like a Jon Jones, but there aren't that many of those kinds of guys," Lawler said. "Someone like me, I had to go the hard route. I had to take all the ups and downs. I had to battle through them, keep coming back and asking for more. Even in fights I lost, I always felt I was better than that and so I knew I just had to keep working and that I'd prove it."

He never viewed himself as a journeyman or a gatekeeper, even when he would alternate wins and losses or lose a fight he felt he should have won.

White never lost faith in Lawler because of his exciting style, and said when Strikeforce was absorbed into the UFC, he never had any doubts about taking Lawler back despite Lawler's 3-5 mark in the preceding three years.

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Ring official Dan Miragliotta pushes away Robbie Lawler after he knocked out Bobby Voelker. (USA TODAY Sports)

White said he believed Lawler never cared much about winning a title in the past.

"When he came back to us, and he saw his window of opportunity closing, I think that got his attention," White said. "I'm not saying Robbie's going to be done in a year or two, but he's not 20 any more. When you get to be 30-plus, things change. Different things become important to you. At this point, it's kind of like an NBA player who plays his whole career without a ring. All of a sudden, that ring becomes important.

"Robbie's such a different person now. He's much more mature as a fighter and you're seeing that in him now."

Lawler was a training partner of Matt Hughes, now a UFC front office executive but for many years one of the greatest fighters in the sport. Lawler saw firsthand what it took to not only win at the highest level, but to handle all of the outside distractions that come with being in a major title fight.

There is more attention on the UFC than ever before, and Lawler is more ready now to deal with the outside forces that often impact a fighter's performance.

"Being around Matt was good for me, because I have seen it all and I know what I have to do," Lawler said. "I'm not too worried about it. I'll just concentrate on being ready for the fight as much as possible.

"The hype and all that doesn't bother me. When you have to wake up early for interviews, that is tough. Matt was an early riser, and so he could deal with that. I like to sleep in more, so having to wake up early to do interviews will be a huge factor for me. But I've been around and learned and I'm ready for it. I know what to expect."

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