Something changed at the end of the fourth round. Despite spending the previous two rounds of their welterweight title fight repeatedly staggering Robbie Lawler with head kicks, Rory MacDonald was ensnared by a sinister gaze as he attempted to reach his corner.
Unwilling, perhaps unable to look away, MacDonald locked eyes with the figure in front of him for an eternity, played out over the course of a few brief moments. He was standing before a bloodied and beaten man with a cleave in his lip reminiscent of an axe wound, but something was terribly wrong.
This wasn’t the same man. He was different. It was happening again.
Seven months earlier, at the beginning of the fifth round of their second bout, many felt that Johny Hendricks was ahead on the scorecards. As with their first encounter, Hendricks bullrushed Lawler to the fence, wrapped his arms around the challenger’s legs and grinded on the fresher man.
With the seconds ticking down, he forced the position, safe in the knowledge that Lawler’s offense was muted while his back was to the fence, as their previous meeting had shown.
With his eyes aimed squarely at the Octagon floor, the face of the man Hendricks so persistently clung to was not visible to him. Perhaps before he had realized it, something changed.
When Hendricks wrenched the vacant welterweight championship from Lawler’s grasp at UFC 171, Lawler’s demeanor was typical of the mild-mannered action fighter. A soft-spoken family man outside of the cage, the thrill of combat is Lawler’s driving force within the confines of steel; the flying of sweat and the dripping of blood from a panicked foe is Lawler’s ecstasy. Shots land flush on his chin, arms interlock and wrench his legs from underneath him, and he can’t restrain a grin.
For all of the brutality behind Lawler’s game, this sincere enjoyment is his motivator. In the final minutes of his first clash with Hendricks, Lawler’s joy was superseded by frustration and disappointment as he struggled to return to his feet, the Oklahoma wrestler bearing down on top of him. For a man who finds tranquility in violence, the feeling of powerlessness can lead to anger, annoyance, perhaps even sadness, and so it was for Lawler. For a short time.
The face of the man Hendricks struggled to control was still not visible to him in the final minute of that second bout, but something had definitely changed. Hendricks would feel that change before he heard it, and hear it before he saw it.
Hammerfists crashed into the champion’s skull as he continued to hold onto his opponent’s legs. Screams rang out as Hendricks’ body was repeatedly bludgeoned. They were not Hendricks’ screams. Someone was roaring, and slamming elbows repeatedly into his ribs.
Finally releasing his grip, Hendricks scrambled to his feet, turning to face the form which had punished his body so mercilessly. A left hook intercepted his adjustment, and then knees, uppercuts, a right cross. With twenty seconds left, Hendricks hurriedly ran from the fence, granting himself the comfort of open space, but as he raised his eyes to gauge his charging opponent, he finally caught sight of the face of the man who had been assaulting him.
The joy was gone, but so too was the frustration. All that was left of the Robbie Lawler he had known was malice, malevolence, and killing intent. This wasn’t the same man who had so easily faltered under Hendricks’ pressure in their last meeting. This was a stranger. As if a dark void had opened and replaced the mortal being in front of him with a demonic entity, terror flashed across Hendricks’ face. Fifteen seconds left, and his back was to the cage yet again. Frantically raising his hands to parry, clinch, whatever he could do to defend himself, blood streamed down the champion’s face as the stranger battered him along the fence.
He seemed to feel no fear and wish only to inflict pain. Destructive body kicks, left and right hooks forced a defensive shell. Retreating from the onslaught, the bell signaled the end of the round, and Hendricks turned swiftly away from the stranger, perhaps with a sense of relief. He never looked back, but had he done so, he would have seen the dead eyed, soulless stare of a creature stalking him across the Octagon, burning a hole in the back of his skull.
Like a monster chasing a child through restless dreams, it followed directly behind him, step by step. Hendricks had escaped, but he would leave his championship belt behind him that night.
Robbie Lawler, mortal man, plays a game defined by craft and subtlety. When he steps into the Octagon against Tyron Woodley at UFC 201, the battle lines will be drawn across three key areas: distance management, pocket exchanges, and rhythm. Woodley is welterweight’s most gifted athlete, and one of the most physically overwhelming men in the sport.
Originally an almost pure wrestler, Woodley has developed a crushing striking arsenal predicated on two key weapons: a right hand and a rear leg roundhouse kick. His unmatched explosive movement, power, hand speed and reflexes are the basis on which his technical game is built.
Though lacking in some fundamental areas, the ability to close or establish distance more quickly than anyone else in the division allows Woodley to take advantage of split-second opportunities to land his right hand, one of the most devastating in the sport, and catch advancing opponents with his right roundhouse kick to the body or the legs. Though out of action for 18 months, he showed clear progression in his most recent outing against Kelvin Gastelum, his then-recent camp switch to Roufusport under head coach Duke Roufus showing marked improvements in Woodley’s cage awareness and footwork.
With so much more time since his last appearance, Woodley’s growth is unpredictable, but we can expect to see continued progress in those areas.
The difference between the styles of the two men is most evident in their management of space; Lawler’s southpaw footwork is tight, crisp, and focused on maintaining precise spacing for neutral punching exchanges where he excels. Boxing sensibilities permeate his game. Woodley’s approach is more reminiscent of karate stylists like fellow welterweight Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, moving in and out of range with incredible speed to capitalise on small openings, taking himself out of the range of danger with solid defensive instincts.
Physicality is the foundation of Woodley’s game, and his unparalleled athleticism allows him to break rules which other fighters cannot break. Against Gastelum, Woodley repeatedly stunned Gastelum, also a physical specimen in his own right, with his right cross from unorthodox and even bizarre positions. The ability to close distance with such swiftness combined with incredible handspeed means that Woodley need only find a single opening for that right hand; inside angles, outside angles, even with Gastelum standing directly on his toes, his focus on the right hand and his willingness to throw it across strange arcs has proven to be a devastating threat. The proper angle for Woodley’s rear hand is whichever angle he believes will land, whether it be straight, looping, or even in a downward trajectory from above.
Despite their varying approaches to managing distance, both men are extremely adept at the manipulation of rhythm.
One of the great technical innovations in Lawler’s game has been his adaptive lead hand. A converted southpaw, Lawler is not a particularly high-volume striker, but is able to mask this with pawing jabs and masterful hand fighting which impair an opponent’s ability to apply volume. Lawler’s lead hand is a constant disruptor, forcing opponents to reset through smothering of their own lead hand, probing jabs, feints, and occasional right hooks. Woodley’s own distortion of rhythm is more unusual, stutter-stepping and faking entries to keep opponents on a hair trigger and dissuade offence through the dual-threat of his rear cross and his rear leg roundhouse kick.
Lawler has displayed a penchant for incredibly close contests during his title reign, with disputed decisions over Carlos Condit and Johny Hendricks, along with a come-from-behind fifth round TKO over the aforementioned Rory MacDonald, shattering MacDonald’s nose like a pane of glass. The numerous wars he has so cherished have given him an air of vulnerability, along with raising concerns over the effects of repeated wars on his durability.
Doubts over Lawler’s ability to continue absorbing such punishment are a key motivator in the closeness of the betting odds, which are close to even, and with good reason.
Woodley is a magnificent but flawed fighter with a tendency to slow as fights progress, and wilt under consistently-applied pressure. Robbie Lawler, however, is not a pressure fighter. He lacks the circular attack, the spacial denial and the imposing cage-cutting which has proven so troublesome for Woodley in the past. Though capable and willing to pressure, it’s not his natural predilection, and he tends to force the opponent onto the back foot only in bursts.
Lawler likes to operate in open space, his precise and measured footwork keeping him inside of punching range as often as possible. This is a style which Woodley, the burst artist, feasts upon in the early going. By using his speed to avoid prolonged exchanges and catch Lawler during his dynamic entries, any questions about Lawler’s durability are likely to be quickly answered. Avoiding the sickening power in that right hand entirely seems implausible, even for one of the sport’s finest boxers.
Tyron Woodley is a dangerous man facing an exposed, perhaps shop worn champion.
A swift and violent end to Lawler’s title reign would surprise no one who is familiar with Woodley’s body of work. However, despite this susceptibility, every man to stand across the Octagon from Robbie Lawler, UFC champion, has found himself facing a similar dilemma. In his last outing against Carlos Condit, a man with a limitless gastank who works at a furious pace, even Condit was unable to match the man who emerged in the fifth round, being repeatedly staggered and beaten across the cage by a man who many felt he had bested decisively for three of the previous four rounds. Baffling as it may be, this man has endured onslaught after onslaught from elite welterweights, only to finish the fight looking anything but defeated.
A man characterized by vulnerability who transcends himself to become an avatar of destruction, and a man defined by destruction who gradually wears down into a vulnerable shell.
When the cage door shuts and Tyron Woodley stands across from Robbie Lawler, he must attempt to obliterate the body of the champion while its inhabitant is still familiar to him.
(Image via MMAWeekly.com)