Nearly 17 years after his professional debut, Robbie Lawler is trying to hold off the end yet again. In a career that has spanned the near-death and ensuing explosion of MMA, Lawler has authored more than one of his own resurrections after brief periods of doubt about his future. The latest came in July, when, coming off his first-round knockout loss to Tyron Woodley, he rebounded with a unanimous decision over Donald Cerrone.
At Saturday’s UFC on Fox 26, Lawler, who is somehow still just 35 years years old, faces Rafael dos Anjos in a bid for a rematch with Woodley.
Just 18 months ago, the two opponents were simultaneously champions in different divisions — Lawler at welterweight and dos Anjos at lightweight. That’s hardly the only similarity between the two. They are both southpaws. They both favor pressure styles. They both average around 3.5 significant strikes landed per minute, per FightMetric. They both have wins over their one common opponent, Cerrone.
Their paths to the top wildly diverged, however. While Lawler was anointed from the beginning as a future champion, dos Anjos clawed his way into prominence one win at a time.
The two meet in Winnipeg on Saturday with the same personal stakes. Lawler (ranked No. 2) and dos Anjos (ranked No. 4) seek to keep their names in the championship conversation in a division that recently grinded to a standstill.
From an action standpoint, this is the kind of fight to help the division break out of its funk. Let me lay a stunning statistic on you: Lawler has fought 30 times for major organizations (including the UFC, PRIDE, EliteXC and Strikeforce). That action spans 5 hours, 26 minutes and 36 seconds. In all that time, Lawler has never attempted a single submission.
I bring you this statistic as evidence that Lawler’s first, second and last plans involve bludgeoning his opponents until they can no longer stand. In all that time, is it possible that it’s never crossed his mind to throw up his legs for an armbar from the bottom or wrap up a rear naked choke when an opponent gives up his back? It’s just more evidence that Lawler’s “Ruthless” moniker fits him perfectly.
In the most current part of his career, Lawler (28-11, 1 NC) has adopted a philosophy of setting that kind of expectation from the opening bell.
In his most recent match with Cerrone, for instance, he swarmed right out of the gate with a barrage of kicks and punches, both from the clinch and from outside. He walked Cerrone down repeatedly, forcing him to fight off his back foot while Lawler loaded up with straights and hooks. It was an encapsulation of Lawler at his best, all pressure and power.
It’s a tack he’s taken no matter the stakes or his opponent’s strengths; he came out much the same way in his championship-winning performance against Johny Hendricks in December 2014, with a blistering first round.
Lawler is at his best when he’s pushing forward, bouncing and gliding on his feet, changing the level of his targets. Yet he doesn’t always do that. Against Cerrone, he targeted a respectable 25.6 percent of his significant strikes at areas below the head, according to FightMetric. In doing so, he gave Cerrone plenty to consider and adjust to.
But other times, he becomes a head-hunter. Against Rory MacDonald, for instance, 95.5 percent of his significant strike attempts were to the head. It eventually paid off as Lawler finished with a fifth-round TKO, but the late finish saved his reign; he trailed on all three judges’ scorecards heading into the final frame.
In dos Anjos (27-9), Lawler has found an opponent that will be more than willing to meet his aggression. At 155, dos Anjos was a champion but thus far at welterweight, he’s had two fights, defeating both Tarec Saffiedine and Neil Magny.
As previously mentioned, dos Anjos has a similar approach to fighting as Lawler does; however, his method of attack is quite different from Lawler. While Lawler is mostly a kickboxer, with a heavy emphasis on boxer, dos Anjos features much more variety. A fight that is instructive of his diversity was his stunning destruction of Anthony Pettis in capturing the UFC lightweight championship in March 2015.
In that fight, dos Anjos checked all the boxes. He had volume, throwing 233 strikes over the course of the fight. He featured variety, with 44 landed strikes to the head, 27 to the body and 19 to the legs. He changed the plane of the fight, taking Pettis down nine times. It was a tour de force of game planning, adjustments and execution.
At his best, dos Anjos is that kind of fighter, both unpredictable and unrelenting. In some ways, he has to be because he is not gifted with natural fight-ending power. Through his career, he has only five knockouts, but three of them have come since the start of 2014. He’s worked around that by valuing the compilation of strikes and their compounding effects.
Dos Anjos does like to walk opponents down and crowd them, and he’s just as comfortable working from close distance or going all the way into the clinch. But those two spots are his comfort zone. He likes to be inside or all-the-way inside. That is in perfect contrast to Lawler, who doesn’t mind firing off uppercuts and elbows from the clinch, but prefers to back his opponent up to the cage before unloading fire from striking distance.
There are a couple of techniques to look out for in this fight. For dos Anjos, it’s his wrestling entries. It’s unlikely that he plans to stand with Lawler for 25 minutes. At best, he takes the fight down—a tall order since Hendricks only took Lawler down on seven of 27 tries over two fights. At worst, dos Anjos will hope that forcing Lawler to expend energy defending these attempts slows him down late, which could well happen.
For Lawler, it’s the hook and kick to the body. When he defeated Hendricks—the only southpaw he’s fought in the last seven years—It was probably his most valuable tool. While he specifically decided to break Hendricks down from the base as a response to the then-champ’s longstanding weight-cutting issues, Lawler could use the same tactic here to slow dos Anjos’ advances while capitalizing on his own size advantage.
Lawler, at 5-foot-11 and with a 74-inch reach, has a three-inch height and four-inch advantage. That plays well with his favored strategies. dos Anjos will want to crowd him and obstruct his power. Whoever wins that fight within the fight has the upper hand.
There’s still plenty more to consider. Who can better carry the pace through five rounds? Who will be more comfortable in the rare southpaw vs. southpaw matchup? Can dos Anjos take the fight to the ground? Will Lawler finally try a submission?!
OK, the last one of those we probably know the answer to. Lawler won’t be brought to the ground, and that be a main cause of dos Anjos’ struggle. Lawler has the fight-changing power, and a few tastes of it will further make dos Anjos reluctant to get inside. That damage adds up and Lawler walks away with a unanimous decision.