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.'

Matt Hughes, former UFC welterweight champion: I don't remember if he was still in high school or if he had graduated, but it was probably 1998 and we were practicing on the old racquetball courts that used to be Pat [Miletich's] gym. I was sparring with Robbie, and I couldn't hit this kid. I was throwing everything at him and he was dodging, weaving and hitting me.

It was one of those things where, here I am trying to be a professional fighter, and I'm sparring against some kid who is eating me up; when you were not having a good sparring day, you did not want to go against Robbie because that was his day. Several times I watched him spar big [former UFC heavyweight champion] Tim Sylvia, and Tim didn't know what to do with him. It was funny watching Robbie cut his angles on Tim. All Tim wanted to do was put Robbie in front of him, but [Robbie] was gone before Tim even threw a punch.

Jens Pulver, former UFC lightweight champion: He was basically my roomie when he graduated high school from the aspect that he was there all the time. He was like my adopted little brother. We used to play 'EA Sports College Football' in season mode. It was rotating, so we had to play against the computer until we met in the championship game. I'd play my game and go to sleep, and then I'd get a knock at 3 in the morning from Rob. ... 'Hey, you've got to play your games.' I'd be like, 'What?'

He used to have this thing for soda. I would call him 'Pop Can Willy,' because there would be cans everywhere. He was a youngster. I remember the first time he had to run the hill ... he took off like a bat out of hell. I mean, 'Whoosh!' ... he took off. I said to somebody, 'Man, how fast is this kid?' Then it turned out he jumped behind some concrete thing to take a rest halfway through.

He was my boy.

Pat Miletich, former UFC welterweight champion and Miletich Fighting Systems trainer: Rob was real young -- 17 or 18 years old. I think I had the [UFC welterweight] title. Matt [Hughes] was working his way up. One night, I didn't have a great training session -- let's put it that way. We were in the locker room afterward, and Matt was saying to me, 'Better keep looking over your shoulder, old man, because I'm coming for you.' I said, 'Oh yeah? Well, you better look over yours, because he's coming for you.' Rob was sitting right behind him, and Matt turned back to me and said, 'Yeah, good point.'

Jeremy Horn, former UFC light heavyweight title contender: Everybody could see it as soon as he fought. You could see his natural demeanor. A lot of guys would be terrified before a fight, and Robbie was just ready. He wasn't timid. He didn't go out there scared.

Cox: He had no fear. I remember when he was still an amateur, Jeremy Horn and some guys were watching video and Robbie goes, 'Who's that?' Jeremy says, 'This is Wanderlei Silva.' He watched him for about 10 seconds and goes, 'He's weak.'

That's how he was. They all go, 'Robbie, Wanderlei is literally eating people. He's crushing everyone in the world.' And Robbie says, 'He's weak,' and walks away.

Miletich: One fight that stands out to me was against Tiki Ghosn [UFC 40, November 2002]. Tiki said some things that made Rob pretty mad. He called him young and pretty. Rob was mad -- trust me. The whole team was mad.

Matt Hughes was actually on the card fighting after Robbie, so he was staying behind in the locker room, and as Rob was headed out, he stopped, leaned back into the room and said, 'I'll be back in about three minutes.'

"Lawler went out and destroyed Tiki. We came back and Matt looked at us and started laughing and said, 'Yeah, that was about three minutes.'

Horn: He's had some pretty good one-liners. When he fought Tiki, he was a young kid. He fought and trained hard, but he was just a kid. He goes, 'I'll be back in three minutes,' and oddly enough, he was. He was known for things like that.

One of his fights -- it was fairly early [in his career] -- they were doing the fighter meeting, and the promoter told everybody they were going to do a bonus for the guy who gets the best knockout. Robbie stands up, right in the middle of the fighter meeting, and goes, 'You can just write my name on that check right now.'

Cox: One fight he didn't win was when we were over in Hawaii fighting in Icon Sport against Jason Miller [in September 2006]. Robbie got him down and hit him so much it would have been stopped in every other state. But Robbie [eventually] punches himself out and loses by submission.

I remember he walks to the side of the ring, leans over the ropes and looks down at us and goes, 'Can you believe that? I just lost to a guy who hits like a girl.' And then he started just shaking his head.

Pulver: We'd sit there and stare at boxing videos -- Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Michael Moorer -- then we'd shadowbox. He loves the knockout. That was always the one thing about him is he hit like a ton of bricks.

I think it was tough for him to not want to focus on that because you throw one punch and the fight's over. It's like, 'OK, why don't I just do this every time?' We were fanatics about watching boxing. We all came from a wrestling background, so of course you want to learn striking.

Miletich: He loved hitting home runs. I'd say to him, 'Rob, in the gym when you spar, you're so technical. You're slick. You get out of the way of punches. You pick people apart in the gym, it's amazing. Then you go out and fight and start brawling. Where is the disconnect? What happens between the gym and the cage?' And he goes, 'I want to get a guy out of there.' I think with maturity he realized he didn't have to think that to put guys away.

Matt Pena, longtime boxing coach: One of my favorite moments was against Melvin Manhoef [Strikeforce: Miami, January 2010]. We're sitting in the lobby getting ready to go to the event, and all of a sudden, Manhoef is walking by mean-mugging us. And Robbie is not even there. He's acting like he wants to fight us. I was like, seriously? That's ridiculous. It really rubbed everyone the wrong way.

During the fight, Manhoef is picking away with leg kicks but he's keeping space, so Rob couldn't get comfortable throwing shots. We were like, 'Man, by now Manhoef is usually throwing combinations, he's not a guy who usually sits back.' Then I saw Rob twist his ankle and start limping. We didn't have a problem with losing, but when I saw he may have damaged his leg, I thought, 'Oh s---. This is not good.'

Cox: I didn't get to go to that fight because my wife and I were on vacation in Italy. We were in a hotel room, and it was about 4 in the morning. I was all over the Internet trying to find a feed.

I was worried about him getting seriously hurt. I thought his chance to win the fight was completely gone because Manhoef was doing so much damage. I went into, 'Oh my God, he's going to hurt him severely.' And then for him to win on a shot like that [Lawler knocked out Manhoef with a right hand], it was one of the most exciting comebacks I've ever been a part of.

Pena: I was training Matt [Hughes] at the end of his career, and when Matt lost to Georges St-Pierre [in November 2006 and December 2007], Robbie was helping me corner and I thought, 'Man. If only I could get this guy back in the UFC. Rob is the future.'

Rob has always been somebody who pushed Matt in the gym because he was seen as the younger brother. When we'd get Matt ready to fight, I could see how invested Rob was emotionally. When St-Pierre came through with an impressive victory, I literally looked over right afterwards and could see it in Rob's eyes. He was thinking the same thing I was -- that at some point in his career, he wanted to get in there.

Hughes: There were several times -- twice actually that I know of, that I fought and lost -- and Rob's walking backstage and gotten into fistfights with crowd members that are bad-mouthing me. I think one of them was after GSP in Sacramento [when Hughes fought him at UFC 65 in November 2006].

I didn't see it because I was already ahead of him in the locker room, and Robbie doesn't say anything, so he didn't say much about it. But he was fuming that I lost and someone said I sucked or something, and Robbie looked at him and said, 'You better knock it off.' The guy came at Robbie and Robbie hit him, and then got away. The cops were watching the whole thing, and the guy ended up getting tased. So, a drunk fan got hit by Robbie and tased in one night.

Cox: In Strikeforce, it was very frustrating for everybody because Robbie would go out and look great in the first three to four minutes of every fight and then just falter. He said it felt like he was breathing through a straw.

He went to several doctors and found it was a lung problem, and he was getting it from going out to Arizona to train with [Power MMA].

Miletich: For several years, Monte would have talks with Rob. 'Why don't you go back to 170 pounds where you belong, get yourself back in the UFC and win a world title?' He saw being at 185 pounds that long as a challenge. I think he liked the fact he could walk around at 192 pounds, miss one meal and make weight and fight guys who were cutting down from 230 pounds.

Nobody knows why he thought that. He was having problems with asthma and just couldn't do anything. I think he just liked the challenge. I think eventually as he got older and years of us saying things to him, he said, 'Maybe I should drop to 170 and make a run at this.'

Cox: I've never doubted him, but I have to tell you, there was a time in Strikeforce where he just wasn't able to put it together. You'd look back on the fights and he could have won every one of them but something would happen and you'd think, 'Is he just the unluckiest guy around?'

Then all of a sudden, something has changed. [In February 2013] when we took the [Josh] Koscheck fight, I asked him, 'Are you sure? He's a good wrestler.' He said, 'He can take me down but he can't keep me down, and eventually I'll hit him. And by gosh, that's about exactly what happened.'

Lawler: I never really cared about a belt. It's funny, because I just wanted to fight. It seems like every fight is for the belt -- some invisible belt. Every time, no matter what, you go all out and give it your best and try to win. But my mindset has changed. Obviously, this is a huge opportunity, and I'm excited to shine.

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