Robbie Lawler started 2014 with a loss to Johny Hendricks. He will close the year having exacted revenge on his tormentor and being finally crowned as UFC welterweight champion.

Lawler outgunned Hendricks in the main event of UFC 181 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center to win by split decision and capture his first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship. He won by the scores of 49-46, 48-47 and 47-48. Although the 49-46 scorecard of Glen Trowbridge elicited negative reactions, it was clear that Robbie Lawler was the one who came to fight for twenty five minutes and who wanted the title more.

A Long Journey

It has been twelve years since Robbie Lawler started his MMA journey as a 20 year old prodigy at the Miletich Fighting Systems in Bettendorf, Iowa. That journey has been long and often frustrating, with Lawler being unable to live up to lofty expectations. Two years ago, Lawler was at a crossroads after losing five of his last eight bouts. But after moving back to welterweight in 2013, Robbie Lawler found his ruthless persona once again.

Three consecutive wins that were punctuated by a career defining win over Rory MacDonald at UFC 167 put Lawler right back into title contention. But Hendricks halted that run last March when he pulled off a unanimous decision win over a game Lawler with a strong fifth round performance at UFC 171. But instead of folding, Lawler worked his way back to the number one ranking to get a second crack at Hendricks and the title.

Came Out Firing

Lawler came out of the gates firing. He tried to blitz the champion with powerful headshots that were backed up by vicious knees to the body. But after a minute, Hendricks withstood Lawler’s initial onslaught by turning to his wrestling background. The former NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion repeatedly backed up Lawler to the fence, eventually scoring his first takedown late in first round.

Lawler kept the pressure in the second round  but his output started to drop a bit. Meanwhile, Hendricks’ punching combinations were starting to find a home and he mixed them up with leg kicks. Lawler just stood right in front of Hendricks but it seemed that he was unable to fire his vaunted punches. A spectacular front kick from Lawler highlighted his round, but Hendricks ended the round trying to pull off a guillotine choke as time expired.

After Hendricks clearly won round three, Lawler became active after longtime mentor and UFC legend Pat Miletich pleaded him in between rounds to let his hands go. After sprawling on a single takedown attempt by Hendricks, Lawler landed hard shots to the head and body as Hendricks was content to turtle down until the end of round four.

The Ruthless One

Fighting with a sense of urgency, Lawler tried to press the action once again. But Hendricks tried to stall Lawler by repeatedly hanging on to him with single leg attempts. Lawler refused to end the fight on the mat. After Herb Dean broke the two at the fence for the second time in the round, Robbie Lawler came up with one final surge. With less than a minute left in the fight, he showed his ruthless side.

After pounding Hendricks’ who tried to pin him down, a screaming Lawler came out punching and kicking at Hendricks as time was winding down. He managed to hurt the champion with several blows and had him reeling back bloodied and bruised. As the bell ended the fight, Lawler followed Hendricks to his corner and gave him a ruthless staredown.

Although Hendricks seemed to protest the result when he left the cage immediately after the match, fight stats show that Lawler out landed Hendricks 208-149 in total strikes. 73 of those strikes were landed during Lawler’s big finishing kick in round five.

A Trilogy in the Making?

UFC President Dana White had previously announced that the winner of UFC 181 will defend the belt against #2 ranked contender Rory MacDonald. The Canadian contender earned his right to fight for the crown by defeating Tarec Saffiedine last October. But after the second close but exciting fight between Lawler and Hendricks, the MMA world is left asking for more. A third fight to settle the grudge should be one of the most anticipated fights of 2015.