IT IS REMARKABLE, GIVEN his all-or-nothing fighting style, that the reign of Robbie Lawler lasted as long as it did. That isn’t to say that Lawler lacks ability, of course, but probability dictates that it is only a matter of time until a reckless fighter such as Lawler comes off second best. And Lawler, it bears noting, has come within a hair of that on multiple occasions—against Rory McDonald and Jake Ellenberger among others—which is a testament to his heart, if not to his strategy.
The consequence of all this is that I cannot say I was surprised to see him lose in spectacular fashion at UFC 201 to Tyron Woodley. It was over, as they say, almost as soon as it began. Woodley delivered a right hand to Lawler’s chin that was almost as perfect as you can deliver one and followed it up with a barrage of punches to the fallen champion two minutes and twelve seconds into the first round. It was the fastest finish in UFC welterweight title history.
Lawler’s loss exposes the inherent weakness of the throwback, stand-up-and-bang style, or at least reminds us that any champion serious about retaining their belt must become a thinking fighter. After Georges St-Pierre lost to Matt Serra in the first round at UFC 69, he reconsidered his fighting strategy and style, and later returned as a more cerebral fighter––one that promptly went on a twelve-run winning streak.
But it is also means another champion has fallen. In 2016, Luke Rockhold has been replaced by Michael Bisping; Fabricio Werdum has been supplanted by Stipe Miocic; Rafael dos Anjos has been dethroned by Eddie Alvarez; T.J. Dillashaw has been ousted by Dominick Cruz; and Holly Holm has been unseated by Miesha Tate, who was then herself usurped by Amanda Nunes. Only Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Daniel Cormier have held onto their titles this year, and in the latter case that is only due to the out-of-cage indiscretions of Jon Jones.
There is the argument that this revolving door of champions is an exciting element of the sport: if anyone—even a champion—can lose, the argument runs, then no fight is a foregone conclusion, and thus every fight is exciting. It is a valid claim, but only to a point. When championship fighting descends into a game of pass the parcel, there is a problem, because though the fan wants action, he or she also wants to see personalities, and to have heroes to rally behind. See how the darling of the UFC Ronda Rousey’s popularity fell through the floor when she was knocked out cold by Holly Holm. Sport is competition, but it is theatre too, and it is the UFC’s understanding of this fact that has led it to have the near-monopoly it holds on mixed martial arts today.
It takes time to characterise a champion enough to appeal to the casual fan and to permit the UFC to gain the exposure it needs in the mainstream sporting world. Let us hope, then, that some of the current crop of belt-holders hang onto their gold for a little while.