HONOLULU -- "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler reminded a national audience on Saturday just how he got his nickname.
Sensing his opponent, Murilo "Ninja" Rua, was fading, Lawler played the predator to Rua's prey in round 3 of his Elite XC title fight at the Blaisdell Center. Lawler exploded to victory, unleashing an onslaught of strikes to overwhelm Rua and take his title via TKO.
"After the second round, my corner told me that I needed to go out there and win a couple rounds," said Lawler. "I turned around and I said 'He isn't getting out of this round, I'm going to knock him out.'"
Lawler and Rua respected one another's games in the opening round. Lawler scored a quick takedown, but quickly scooted back to his feet in order to stay away from Rua's black-belt level jiu-jitsu. Rua wasn't afraid to stand with Lawler, but also looked to react more than engage.
Rua pushed the pace in round 2, initiating the bulk of the offense. Lawler spent much of the round in a defensive mode, countering Rua's punches and low kicks, and masterfully sprawling to avoid Rua's takedown attempts.
Though Rua appeared to win the round, he also appeared spent afterwards. Lawler had a look of extra intensity in his eyes as he exploded out of the blocks in round three with a big combo. Rua managed to escape the initial onslaught, but was visibly fading.
"You could see he was wearing out," said Lawler. "He fought a good second round, but I knew I was going to be able to come out and finish him."
Rua sparked his own downfall by hitting Lawler with a knee to the midsection. Lawler responded immediately with a furious right hand and chased after the rocked Rua. Lawler unleashed a flurry, with the most damaging blow being a hellacious right uppercut that knocked Rua (14-8-1) to the mat. Lawler pounced and hit seven uncontested right hammer fists, two lefts, and a left elbow before referee Mario Yamasaki called a stop to the match at 2:04 of the round.
Asked if he knew he had the fight won when he connected on the right uppercut, Lawler said, "I knew I had him when I stepped in the cage. I only know one way to fight and that's all out. I can't say I even think about one particular punch, I just know that I had my opening and I got the job done."
With the win, Lawler (15-4) added to a collection of gold that already included the ICON Sport middleweight crown. He has won seven of eight fights since he left the UFC in 2004, and scored the 12th KO/TKO win of his career.
Lawler said he didn't do much wrestling training leading up to the fight, a surprise given the fluidity of his takedown defense.
"He worked hardcore on his conditioning," said Matt Hughes, who cornered Lawler for the fight. "I had him out on my farm dragging tractor tires up hills. Then we'd get to the top of the hill and I'd have him hit the tire with a sledgehammer over and over. What you saw out there was an athlete who put in his hard work, and that showed by the time the third round rolled around."
The title victory came in the first major show for the H.I.T. Squad, the new gym outside St. Louis run by Hughes and Lawler. Lawler, however, made it a point to thank his and Hughes' original trainer, former UFC champ Pat Miletich.
"I want to think Pat Miletich for everything he's done for me," said Lawler. "I am where I am in this sport because of the guidance he gave me and I wouldn't be here without him."
Lawler did say, though, that he would give Hughes a razzing for getting the gold first. "I'm going to let him know I have a belt and he doesn't," said a laughing Lawler. "Now he's got to bring home the gold on Dec. 29 (when Hughes challenges Matt Serra for the UFC welterweight title.)."
Nick Diaz was also a winner on Saturday night, but his victory was less decisive than Lawler's. Diaz took a controversial split decision against hometown favorite Mike Aina.
Diaz took scores of 30-27 and 29-28, while Aina won by a count of 29-28 on one judge's scorecard. Y! Sports scored the fight 29-28 Aina. The judge who scored the match 30-27 Diaz was spotted chatting on his cell phone at one point during the fight and spent a chunk of round 1 with his back turned to the fight, engaging a woman sitting at the press table in a conversation.
Aina (8-6-1) was able to avoid Diaz's vaunted submission skill for much of the fight and turned it into a memorable standup slugfest. Diaz did twice manage to nearly trap his opponent, first at the end of the second round, then at the end of the third. But Aina managed to fend off Diaz both times, including fending off an attempted choke for most of the final minute of the fight.
Y! Sports gave Aina the first and second round and Diaz the third, but the second round was close enough to go either way.
"I didn't bring it all with me tonight," said Diaz (15-6 with one no-contest). It was real tough figuring out how to counter what he brought. When he caught me early I realized I was in for a tougher fight than I was expecting. He was a real strong fighter."
"I have to respect the decision of the judges," said Aina, who trains with BJ Penn. "I feel like I came out and I left everything out there for the fans and put a good show on for them. I knew I was in for a war fighting someone like Nick Diaz, and that's what it was."
In other matches of note:
Cesar Gracie-trained welterweight Jake Shields (19-4-1) scored his eighth consecutive win by taking out Hilo's Renato "Charuto" Verissimo by way of TKO at 4:00 of the first round. Verissimo (8-5) opened things up early with a trip, but Shields got back up and then got the better of the action in the clinch along the fence. Shields scored a takedown, then moved into the mount and rained down a flurry of lefts and rights before Yamasaki stopped the match.
Joey Villasenor took a close split decision win over Tokyo's Riki Fukuda. Two judges had the fight 29-28 Villasenor, while the other had it 29-28 Fukuda. Y! Sports scored it 29-28 Fukuda. Villasenor, who trains at Gerg Jackson's camp in Albuquerque, was taken to the hospital with an eye injury after the match.
ICON Sport lightweight champ Justin Buchholz (7-1) downed Ikaika Choy-Fu (1-2) after 1:35 of tremendous action. Buchholz, a Fairbanks, AK resident who trains in Honolulu, was rocked early by a big Choy-Fu right and ate a couple big bombs from the ground. But Buchholz regained his senses, hit a big knee from the Muay Thai clinch, and finished off his opponent with a series of lefts and rights.
Oahu's Elias De Los Reyes (2-0) pleased the island crowd by making quick work of Chico Cantiberos (2-4) in a lightweight opener. After a series of back-and-forth chain grappling, De Los Reyes, who took the fight on less than a week's notice, slapped on an armbar to score the submission at 52 seconds.
For more on Elite XC, including the latest on Gina Carano, go here.