“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains.” John Keats
UFC 189 was filled with special moments making it one of the greatest PPV’s in the UFC’s history. For many, it was the co-main event that was the most memorable. Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald came together to bring us one of those rare fights. The kind that made us fall in love with the sport. Sure, Conor McGregor winning the belt with the Irish cheering was great, but it will not resonate as deeply as the MacDonald and Lawler fight.
I will leave it to others to debate the fight’s place in history. For me, truly great fights like this one are works of art. They do what every great piece of art should do to its audience and that is make them feel something. They inspire us. A special fight captures our hearts, minds, guts and souls.
The fighters create a series of indelible moments that linger with us like our favorite songs. Throughout the next week we keep coming back to the way that Rory and Robbie stared at each other at the end of the fourth round.
It was movie moment that unfolded in front of us. As they finally moved back to their corners we already were turning to our friends watching with us. “Can you believe that!” Echoed in living rooms and bars around the world.
With the World Watching
With some of the most eyes to ever watch a UFC PPV, some of the prelim fighters seemed to squander or at least, waste their moments. This was one of those cards where every fighter on it had a chance to show the world who they are as fighter because of all of the work that McGregor put into promoting it.
With the MMA world watching them Robbie and Rory gave us everything they had on that night. They reached limits and depths of themselves that most of us are not willing to go. They endured more than all but a very few could have endured.
They left parts of themselves in the cage. It is what any great artist has to be willing to do. The great painters will decrepitude their bodies to paint their paintings. Along with the physical sacrifices, they also have to leave parts of their souls in their paintings if they want true greatness. It is what transforms a mere pop song to a timeless classic.
It was easy to see the blood they both spilled out on the canvas. The new brightness of their fresh red blood merged with the stains already on the canvas from the earlier fights. It was a bloody night in the octagon with the cut-men working frantically all night long.
The canvas would ultimately look like Dexter meets Nascar, but the blood on the canvas was not as compelling as the mask of it that covered Rory’s face.
Jabbing the jabber
It was ironic that in the first round of this fight it was Robbie who showcased, a stiff punishing jab. We are used to Tristar gym fighters using it but seeing it used against them. Rory most recently had showcased it against Jake Ellenberger and GSP used it most famously against Josh Koschek.
Before this fight that GSP jab-fest had been one of the most brutal examples of a punishing jab until this fight. Robbie used it to break Rory’s nose in the first round. He’d then continue to flatten it during the rest of the fight with that persistent jab.
The curse of potential
Besides the ability to stun an opponent with a stiff jab, both Robbie and Rory were once young phenoms though, separated by eight years.
Robbie made his UFC debut back in 2002 and from his second fight in he was knocking people out. The young Robbie was wild, sloppy but capable of stopping anybody. He had fun in and out of the octagon and it led to mixed results. A 3-0 start with two stoppages was quickly followed by a 1-3 stretch.
All three losses came via finishes. Two were submission and one was a brutal dismantling by Nick Diaz. In that fight, the power puncher was stopped by the technician. Robbie was submitted in the first round by Evan Tanner and then released by the UFC.
Then in 2009, Robbie starts his Strikeforce career which saw him go 3-5 mostly fighting at middleweight. The final fight for him in Strikeforce was a loss to Lorenz Larkin.
One thing to ponder is no other fighter has benefited more from Zuffa purchasing Strikeforce than Robbie. It is hard to imagine that a 3-5 record was going to get him another UFC offer but their purchase of Strikeforce included Robbie. It certainly has worked out well for both the UFC and Robbie. Since returning to the UFC he has gone 7-1 with four finishes and is now 2-1 in title fights.
It is one of more improbable careers of a UFC champion. While thirty-three years old is not ancient for a fighter it is a time when most fighters are declining. Especially when they start their careers early like Robbie. He has 36 careers fights and many of them have been battles like this one. Robbie’s title run at this point of his career is truly one of the great stories and turnarounds in the UFC.
Many thought the run would come to end against Rory who had been the heir-apparent to the welterweight crown since he made his UFC debut back in 2010 at the age of twenty years old. Rory was one of the new-breed of fighters who grew up watching the UFC and he was already a well-rounded fighter at this point.
Rory did nothing to slow the hype down with a quick first round submission win. His next fight was a loss but in it he gained tremendous respect. It reminded many of his mentor at Tristar, St-Pierre, who dominated Matt Hughes in their first fight only to make one mistake.
Rory dominated Carlos Condit for almost three rounds only to make one mistake and Condit finished him. Like his teammate St-Pierre, he learned the lesson and moved forward. Rory rattled off five straight wins leading him to a title-eliminator fight with Robbie.
After Rory dropped the SD he put together another little three fight win streak, and when Robbie captured the title it made perfect sense to match Rory up with him again.
Loose and fun versus the calm and stoic
The two walkouts could not have been more different. Rory came out calm and stoic which is how he does almost everything in the UFC. The calm stoicism belies the violence he is able to unleash inside of the octagon.
His music is also calm almost reflective and everything about his entrance says it is just another night in the octagon for him. At only twenty-five years old he was a veteran of 11 UFC fights going into UFC 189 and was now fighting for the title. At the same age Robbie was trying to rebuild his career at EliteXC and get back to the UFC.
Robbie’s entrance and music was much different from Rory’s. His was more upbeat and Robbie was singing and dancing to it as he made his way to the octagon. Robbie was loose, having fun and really taking in the whole moment. You got the feeling watching him that it would be great to walkout to anything like that in one’s life. The crowd watching, cheering and dancing along to your song as you prepare for battle.
The differences carried over to the introductions by Bruce Buffer. Rory moved around as Buffer went through his introduction. Rory seemed to tolerate it as a part of the process before the fight. He never really looked at Buffer and just stoically went about staying loose.
Then it was Robbie’s turn. Again, he soaked up the moment. First, the pacing Robbie pointed at Buffer as he started his introduction. Then, as Buffer is running through his statistics, Robbie took a look at the crowd. He started to slowly turn in a circle and raise his arms as the cheers grew louder.
Enjoying the journey and the fight
Robbie not only was feeding off of the energy of the crowd but he was feeding it, becoming a part of it, becoming a part of the moment itself. Robbie continued to turn for a couple more rotations before slowly walking backwards into his corner of the octagon. His arms raised and outstretched, he turned his face upwards and closed his eyes. Robbie was basking in the moment.
He realized that he was a part of something special and just wanted to enjoy it by experiencing all of it, each little moment. Watching Robbie in that moment you were watching someone enjoy the journey.
We all were in for something special. We just did not know how special. The first fight between them was a good fight but it did not set the world on fire. Rory is a technician, who like his mentor St-Pierre likes to control the fight. Robbie has more of the brawler in him. Early in his career he was a little wild but he has cleaned up his technique.
Robbie started this fight using his jab, gauging the distance and Rory’s reactions. The first round was close with Robbie doing the damage by busting up Rory’s nose with the jab. In the second round Robbie started to assert himself with the jab and his aggression. It continued into the third round until a head kick from Rory.
It looked at first glance that Robbie had blocked the kick, but then he wobbled. A goofy little grin came to his face and in that instance the fight had changed. Suddenly, Rory had Robbie in trouble and looked ready to fulfill his dream.
The problem with Robbie is that he is always dangerous. Rory cautiously applied the pressure and tried to finish the fight but he could not. The fourth round was also Rory’s with several exchanges between them and always Robbie’s jab seeking Rory’s nose.
Then the stare as they stood across from each other both bloodied we realized that this was an epic fight unfolding in front of us. Robbie the fighter had dragged Rory the technician down into a nasty dirty fight and it seemed like Rory liked it. He had gotten stronger during the third and fourth rounds despite his nose getting flatter and flatter. Most viewers had the fight even going into the fifth round.
In the fifth Robbie was in full Terminator mode. We had last seen this from him against Johny Hendricks to win the belt. Robbie would not be denied and finally another hard shot to Rory’s nose and eye forced him to clutch his face as he slowly sank down to the ground.
We will learn later that along with Rory’s badly broken nose he also suffered a broken foot. There were no questions about Rory’s heart going into this fight but we did not know the depths of it. We know now that his heart and will to win his greater than most, greater that what his body could itself could withstand.
Great art stays with you, it becomes a part of you
A great fight like this will linger with us like any great piece of art. Once you take it in fully it becomes a little part of you. In some ways inspiring you to push through your own struggles. At the same time it haunts you a little as you wonder about what it takes to endure something like that and be able to smile the next day while posting pictures online.
The fight was a classic and will become many fans favorite. It is one that can be watched and re-watched over and over. Knowing the end does not make it any less amazing.
The Red King still may one day rule over the UFC welterweights but, today Robbie is the champion continuing one of the most improbable title runs in the UFC’s history.