LAS VEGAS – Not long after his near miss against Johny Hendricks in their welterweight title fight at UFC 171, Robbie Lawler did an unusual thing:
He began to plead with UFC president Dana White for another important fight.
White adores fighters who make it plain how much they love to fight.
Throughout the majority of his career, Lawler was the opposite of an eager beaver. He was a low-key, below-the-radar guy who didn't speak unless spoken to, and then didn't say much more than absolutely necessary.
But in the days and weeks following UFC 171, White saw a familiar number show up on his flip phone: Lawler's.
Just two months after his battle with Hendricks, White gave Lawler another big opportunity. He'll meet Jake Ellenberger on Saturday on the main card of UFC 173 at the MGM Grand Garden in a bout that will be important for positioning in the crowded welterweight landscape.
In the past, White would probably have looked elsewhere to fill the slot opposite Ellenberger because Lawler frequently appeared languid and indifferent.
"He was the anti-," White said of Lawler's attitude in the past. "But what a difference in him now. He's obviously older and smarter and more seasoned now. He's more mature in a lot of ways, as a person and as a fighter. When guys start to see the window of opportunity close, a lot of times they realize it's now or never and they try to seize it.
"Robbie Lawler, in my opinion, had an awakening where I think he said, 'You know what? I've been in this sport since I was 19. I should have been a world champion. I should be hailed as one of the best guys who's ever fought. I should be this and I should be that.' And you know what? I think he realized he could still be all that and his attitude is, 'I'm going to go get it now.' "
White has always been high on Lawler, and with good reason. He's got exceptionally heavy hands and quality wrestling skills.
But for much of his career, Lawler was an underachiever, a guy who was good enough to beat anyone but who often wound up short.
He won the middleweight title in Superbrawl, Icon Sports and EliteXC, promotions that no longer exist, but lost a bid for the Strikeforce middleweight title when he was submitted by Jacare Souza on Jan. 29, 2011.
Things turned for Lawler, though, when the UFC purchased Strikeforce and the UFC assumed his contract. He dropped to welterweight, which was his natural weight, and ran off a string of victories that led to the title fight against Hendricks.
In a 2013 that made him a legitimate Fighter of the Year candidate, Lawler knocked out Josh Koscheck in the first round, blew out Bobby Voelker in the second and then scored a decision over Rory MacDonald.
He was getting the opportunity to fight the best guys and was, finally it seemed, living up to his potential.
"It has to do with a lot of things," Lawler said of his late-career turnaround. "A lot of it had to do with the UFC taking over my contract from Strikeforce. That brought a lot of excitement because I was able to fight the best in the world on the biggest stage in the world.
"Moving to 170 [pounds] was huge, too. And moving to [American] Top Team, where all of those fighters and coaches have been sharpening my skills, was very important for me. It's been a case of everything coming together at the right time and me being ready for it."
Lawler battled Hendricks on even terms in their bout for the welterweight title that Georges St-Pierre vacated in December. Many believed he deserved the win and all agreed it was a tough, highly competitive fight.
After the bout, White rewarded Lawler with a new eight-fight contract. And not long after that, Lawler let it be known he'd love to get back quickly. When an opening arose on the UFC 173 card, Lawler volunteered to fill it.
That was the kind of attitude and response that White had for years hoped to see from Lawler. He wanted to see a guy with a chip on his shoulder, a guy with some burning desire inside to prove himself as the best.
Rather, most of the time he got a low-key guy who seemed indifferent.
This new version of Lawler, White said, is going to open a lot of eyes.
"People have talked about him for years and all of the talent he has," White said. "But this sport is so competitive that it takes more than just talent to win. He's finally come to realize that. However it happened, it happened and I couldn't be happier about it.
"He's an exciting fighter that fans like to see, and now he's a guy who is finally putting it all together. He's capable of beating anyone on a given night, and that's what we've all been waiting to see."
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