HONOLULU – The last most mixed martial arts fans heard from "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler, he was tagged as a can't-miss prospect who somehow did.
The Pat Miletich-trained fighter became a welterweight prodigy in winning his first seven career matches, the last three in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. But he was gone just as fast as he arrived, losing three of four matches and getting dropped from his contract in 2004
Now Lawler is finally getting the headline status long predicted for him. The current ICON Sport middleweight champion will face Murilo "Ninja" Rua for the latter's Elite Xtreme Combat middleweight title at the Blaisdell Center in Honolulu, the main event of a card that will air on Showtime.
"Mentally and emotionally, I am set," said Lawler, who weighed in at 184.9 on Friday. "This is going to be a great fight and I am totally prepared.''
Lawler appeared well on his way to UFC stardom when he quit on a match with Pete Spratt at UFC 42. Spratt peppered Lawler with leg kicks to the point he could no longer continue. Lawler returned to decision Chris Lytle, but then suffered back-to-back losses to Nick Diaz and Evan Tanner.
His career could have gone into a tailspin, but didn't. Since being dropped by the UFC, Lawler has won six of seven fights, with the bulk of his matches taking place in Hawaii, a long-time MMA hotbed. His most recent reign began on March 31, when he scored a brutal fourth-round TKO of Frank Trigg to claim the ICON title.
"I just like competing," said the 25-year-old Lawler, who recently left the Miletich camp in Iowa to open a school with Matt Hughes near St. Louis. "If it wasn't for mixed martial arts, I don't know what I'd be doing right now. I love competing and pushing myself to the limits, and going out there and performing."
What makes this main event particularly intriguing is that Lawler will square off with another fighter who hasn't quite lived up to expectations and is also looking to seize on his second chance in the spotlight.
Rua, the older brother of Y! Sports No. 2-ranked fighter Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, sports a career record of 14-7-1, but that record merely demonstrates the razor-thin margin between victory and defeat in the mixed martial arts.
The Brazilian Chute Boxe Academy standout, who has never been submitted in his career, has split-decision losses in the Pride Fighting Championship to both Dan Henderson and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Many felt Rua was the winner of the latter fight.
The 2005 loss to Jackson in 2005 kicked off a string of three losses in four fights. But "Ninja," like Lawler, has rebuilt his career, taking out Mark Weir and Alex Reed in Britain's Cage Rage and scoring a TKO win over Joey Villasenor in San Jose on June 22 to capture the Elite XC crown.
Like most Chute Boxers, Rua is a well-rounded, aggressive fighter who can beat you standing or on the ground. Lawler, meanwhile, is known for a borderline-crazed standup style. He's as likely to take you out with a knee as a big fist. Eleven of his 14 career wins have come by way of KO or TKO.
Can Lawler push the standup? If he does, will Rua look to stand and trade or will he try to take Lawler to the ground?
"It's definitely going to start on the feet and I think we're going to exchange," said Lawler (14-4). "He's not scared to exchange, but he'll be quick to take it to the ground if he thinks there's an opportunity and I'll be ready to defend him and keep it on our feet."
For his part, Rua says he doesn't care which way the fight goes. "Robbie is a very aggressive fighter, well prepared. He's ready to go," said Rua, who weighed in Friday at 184.1. "I am going to win on standup or on the ground; no matter, I'm going to be victorious."
"Ninja"-Lawler isn't the only fight of note on the show. The supremely talented and always controversial Diaz returns from a Nevada-mandated suspension to take on Mike Aina. The two will fight at 160 pounds.
Diaz seemed to have the MMA world in the palms of his hands in February, when he downed Pride lightweight champion Takanori Gomi in Las Vegas in one of those infamous non-title matches the Japanese promotion always seemed to find for their native star. The match will no doubt finish high in the list of best matches of 2007, and was Diaz's third straight victory.
Or it was, at least, until Diaz tested positive for marijuana after the fight, which ended up with the result of the fight changed to a no-contest and put Diaz on the shelf with a suspension.
"I really can't do anything about the way people think," said Diaz (14-6, plus the no-contest against Gomi). "Some may think I'm a bad guy, but I really am not. I am definitely not the monster some think I am. I don't want to say I'm misunderstood – all I am is a fighter who loves MMA and tries to keep it real. If you want me to be the bad guy, I can, but that's not really me."
Diaz faces a relative unknown in the Hawaiian Aina. A B.J. Penn-trained fighter, Aina knows that most will look at his nondescript 8-5-1 record and question if he belongs in the spotlight. But he also knows he can prove the naysayers wrong.
"This is a chance of a lifetime for me," said Aina, a banger with five TKOs among his eight wins. "Nick Diaz is a great fighter. This is my opportunity to show I'm a great fighter, too. I'm looking forward to a really good fight.''
Other matches of note on the card include Gina Carano putting her spotless 4-0 record on the line against Maryland's Tonya Evinger (4-2). Evinger got attention at the pre-fight press conference by saying "I'd like to make out with Gina, but I am here to knock her out. Either way she wants it, though, is fine with me." And underrated welterweight Jake Shields will put his seven-fight win streak on the line against crafty vet Renato Verrissimo. Shields' win streak includes victories over Dave Menne, Yushin Okami and Carlos Condit.