Lawler comes full circle at UFC 171

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Robbie Lawler was 20 years old when he made his UFC debut in May 2002.

Looking back on it now, he says the promotion wanted one thing from him back then that he wasn't ready to offer: a story.

The kid could fight -- or brawl, at least. His wild, haymaker-throwing style figured to be crowd-pleasing, and he had built-in notoriety as a member of Miletich Fighting Systems -- an Iowa-based camp that was considered the best in the U.S. at the time.

What he didn't have, he says, was a promotional hook. There wasn't much to him.

In his words, "I was just a young kid coming up, trying to fight."

Nearly 12 years later, Lawler (22-9) has a story. A few of them. After being released by the UFC in 2004, he fought for seven different organizations before eventually returning to the Octagon in 2013.

As a high school student in Bettendorf, Iowa, in the late 1990s, Lawler was around UFC royalty at MFS early in his career as he worked alongside several champions.

On Saturday, Lawler will attempt to join his former teammates (most of whom have retired by now) in UFC championship history when he meets Johny Hendricks for the vacant welterweight title at UFC 171 in Dallas.

"My story is the guy who came in and had a lot of talent but just didn't do as well as he should have," Lawler told ESPN.com. "The thing is that I just kept at it. Even when I wasn't winning, I believed there were great things in store for me."

That's a good enough start to Lawler's background, but it's far from the whole thing. And really, you're unlikely to ever get the whole thing from Lawler. As those close to him will attest, he's more of a closed book than an open one.

To understand the full Lawler narrative, you have to hear it from his adopted older brothers. 

Monte Cox, longtime manager: When I first met him, I was running a show at a small bar in Iowa. We were doing 'Tuesday night fights.' So, every Tuesday, we would put up a boxing ring and do some amateur MMA and boxing; headgear, big gloves, all of that. We'd get people to come in early, sign up and we'd pair them.

We had two guys that kept coming and were just killing everybody. My thing to those guys was, 'Look, you're killing my show. If you keep coming out and jacking everybody, then nobody else wants to get up there.' Those two guys were Robbie [Lawler] and Drew McFedries.

If guys in the crowd saw two guys up there fighting who weren't doing very well, they'd say, 'Yeah, I'll do that next week.' But then I'd get Robbie up there and everything would be going fine, fine, fine ... and then 'BLAM' -- some guy would be lying on his back, and we'd be dragging him out of there. I was like, 'Goddamn it, Rob. This has to quit.'

McFedries was the same way -- and he weighed 230 pounds.

Finally, after five to six weeks, I had had enough and put those two guys in together. They didn't know each other. Robbie was, oh, 18 at the time. Drew was a couple of years older. All I remember is that it was an amazing fight, and they each dropped each other. One of them was dropped in the first round, and then the other in the second. We called it a draw at the end -- and it was a legitimate draw. They got a standing ovation. It was incredible.

After that, I told them, 'You guys have graduated from my show. Go get some training and make some money.'

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