Robbie Lawler grew up in the company of killers. There’s little that hasn’t already been said about the men of the Miletich Fighting Systems. On any given night, there were five current or former UFC champions working out in the infamous Ultimate Fitness racquetball court. This meat grinder is what Robbie Lawler has called “normal” since before he was old enough to vote, smoke, or fight for his country.
Proud patriarch of this gym was Pat Miletich, a gritty Midwesterner whose blue-collar demeanor belied his cage dominance. Miletich was a man who seemed to win through sheer force of will. The more that fans or the UFC brass seemed to doubt his chances, the deeper that perceived injustice would stick on his craw. He pushed himself, and his fighters, to the brink during each and every training session so that the fight was always easier than the training. In Bettendorf, they were proud of the letters “MFS” on their back, and demanded the best from each other. These days, though, the fighters have evolved and moved on. Jeremy Horn started his own gym in Utah. Jens Pulver began training in Idaho. Tim Sylvia went home to Maine. Miletich himself has retired. Matt Hughes began the H.I.T. Squad in Illinois before also retiring.
Lawler, however, still had a journey ahead of him. He first followed Hughes to Illinois, then moved to Arizona to train with Ryan Bader, CB Dolloway, and the Power MMA team. When his career plateaued as a .500 fighter in Strikeforce’s middleweight division, he knew he needed to change it up, and moved one more time, to American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida. Since joining ATT and returning to the UFC with the Strikeforce merger, Robbie Lawler seems to have turned a corner and rocketed to a different level. He’s no longer sitting back, waiting for the perfect moment to unleash a single, thunderous left hand. He’s begun to use combinations again, moving fluidly, utilizing footwork, feinting, and mixing in takedowns. He found a gym that was able to harness the raw aggression and power he learned in Iowa and develop him into a more well-rounded mixed martial artist. With his new arsenal of weapons, Robbie has cemented himself in the upper echelons of the Welterweight division and is knocking on the door of another title shot against champion Johnny Hendricks.
But standing in his way is a specter of the past: a man who seems to be the spirit of Pat Miletich reborn. Matt Brown is as old school and blue collar as they come. He doesn’t look like top-tier athletes are “supposed” to look in our sport. He doesn’t train at a blue-chip gym. He isn’t courted by high-dollar sponsors. Matt Brown simply wins. Seven times in a row, he has won. Seven times in a row, he stepped into the Octagon, bit down on his mouthpiece, and refused to give the naysayers the satisfaction of seeing him lose. Seven times, he has channeled the welterweight division’s first champion, and triumphed through solid technique, grit, and force of will. As the main event approached in San Jose, it had the feeling of a throw-back fight. Amidst the bright lights, press conferences, interviews, pre-shows, and CG fighting robots, this lone fight was a time capsule. A glimpse into the past, back into those closed Wednesday night sparring sessions for the MFS Elite team. Yes, both men would be using skill and technique and strategy, but most importantly, they were going to fight each other.
For five rounds, they threw their best at each other. Lawler would begin to land shots, only to see Brown step back, reset, and come forward again swinging. Each round contained its own storyline, the momentum shifting back and forth from one minute to the next. Lawler’s hooks and uppercuts hammered away while Brown’s elbows and body kicks found their targets. An MMA fan couldn’t have asked for more: takedowns, clinches, scrambles, combinations, head kicks, body blows, and gut checks were all present in bountiful supply as the unstoppable Lawler battled the immovable Brown. After 25 minutes, the dust cleared and both men shared an exhausted, bloodied, smiling embrace. The fans were on their feet cheering, and the judges ruled in favor of Robbie Lawler. He had stepped into the cage against the reincarnation of his old mentor, waged war, and stepped out the victor.