SEATTLE – It's only been two fights, but it's hard to argue when Dana White talks about the old Robbie Lawler vs. the new Robbie Lawler.
Lawler (21-9 MMA, 6-3 UFC) on Saturday knocked out Bobby Voelker (24-10 MMA, 0-2 UFC) with a vicious head kick early in the second round at UFC on FOX 8 at KeyArena Seattle. It was just his second fight since returning to welterweight after a long run at middleweight.
But those two fights – the latter of which came on live national TV on FOX – have been impressive enough to already have folks talking about where he fits in in the welterweight title picture. Sure, at 5-5 in his past 10 – 3-5 in Strikeforce, including a 185-pound title fight loss to Ronaldo Souza in 2011 – few are saying he should be next in line.
But in taking out perennial contender Josh Koscheck in the first round in February in his return to the UFC after more than eight years away, and Saturday's highlight-reel KO of Voelker, Lawler now likely commands a fight against someone also clamoring to be next in line.
"I'm going to fight whoever they put in front of me, and I'm ready to go," Lawler said at Saturday's post-event news conference in Seattle. "I'll talk to Dana, talk to (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva and talk to my manager and figure out who I'm fighting next."
Before the news conference, the crew on the UFC's post-fight show on FUEL TV brought Lawler on and asked if he'd be interested in a fight with Rory MacDonald, who employed the most cautious approach he's shown yet in the UFC to beat Jake Ellenberger right after Lawler's exciting finish.
Lawler said he didn't watch MacDonald's win over Ellenberger, which was criticized by White after the card and was criticized by man of the more than 7,000 fans at KeyArena in the form of boos. But Lawler did say MacDonald's got skills.
"He's a stud," Lawler said. "He moves around really well. He's strategic for sure."
But when Chael Sonnen asked him if MacDonald could take a Lawler head kick, the Iowa resident, who trained at American Top Team for his latest win, was confident in his reply: "I don't think anyone can." When asked if he'd like to find out if MacDonald could take the kick, he said, "I wonder if he does."
Whatever has clicked for Lawler the past two fights, be it the drop from 185 to 170, be it changes in training camps and training methods, be it a sense of urgency as a fighter in his early 30s recognizing a career opportunity in his return to the UFC, the changes have been noticeable.
Lawler has 86 percent of his 21 career wins by knockout. And though going 3-5 in Strikeforce was not exactly setting the world on fire, his three wins all were memorable. In 2010, he was getting brutalized on the feet by Melvin Manhoef, then delivered a right hand that shut that punishment down and limped away with his hand raised. Later that year, he stopped Matt Lindland with a punch 50 seconds into the fight. In 2012, after back-to-back losses to Souza and Tim Kennedy, he stopped Adlan Amagov with a flying knee.
Exciting finishes has never been an issue for Lawler. But putting everything all together and going on a run in the past five years has been.
"Lawler has been a fun fighter since the day he walked into this organization," White said of Lawler, who debuted in the UFC at UFC 37 in 2002, going 4-3. "The difference between Robbie Lawler now and Robbie Lawler then is obviously he's older, more grown-up, and more importantly, his head is in the right place. Robbie in the old days was a completely different person. He was just like, 'Eh, I don't care.' He didn't care about anything. Now he cares. He's a completely different fighter. When I saw him on Thursday, he was already close to weight. He didn't have to cut a lot of weight like in the old days when he would fight. He's just mentally and physically a completely different person. So I'm happy for him. I'm happy to have him back, and he's always fun."
Just what that will translate to for the next challenge for Lawler, who spent years training with the Pat Miletich team in Iowa, remains to be seen. But it's pretty clear he has gotten people's attention.