Article

Rob to Ruthless - A Coaching Journey

Robert Glenn Lawler.

It’s Rob or Robbie to those who know him, it’s the current UFC welterweight champion to those who oppose him, and for the fans who have had the pleasure to watch him fight these past 14 years - it’s “Ruthless.”

Arguably, no mixed martial artist has embodied their given moniker better than Lawler. With an overall pro record of 26-10 with 1 NC, the Ruthless one owns an incredible 20 career knockouts and each one needs to be seen to be believed. And they are not simply wins. They are individual, brutal brush strokes to a decade-plus long masterpiece that culminated at UFC 189 as Lawler defended his title by delivering one of the greatest performances in Octagon history, scoring a fifth-round TKO of Rory MacDonald.

Most have dubbed this 7-1 resurgence in the UFC – which included winning and defending the welterweight strap - as a comeback, but it’s really been a long, ongoing process of self discovery. Lawler has experienced success and failure, varying weight classes, a multitude of organizations, changes in scenery, marriage, fatherhood, injuries and, finally, maturity with gold around his waist. Simply put, Lawler’s life story is that of a fighter.

 Robbie Lawler holds an open training session for media and fans at the SAP Center on July 24, 2014 in San Jose, CA. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)Luckily, Lawler has not had to walk this hard path alone, as he has had many great people by his side. From the coaches that have been with him since the very beginning at Miletich Fighting Systems to those who will help prepare him for the future at American Top Team, Lawler’s tale is theirs as much as his own.

“When I first got him, he was wild,” striking coach Matt Pena said. “He wanted to go out there and go balls to the wall until something broke. And it worked for a while and was exciting as hell for a lot of those first fights. In terms of his natural ability, it was off the charts. Guys were afraid of him. These were world-class fighters at the time and he was just a kid. I had a lot of confidence that I could teach him how to manage an entire fight, but he had an ability to fight already. We covered some techniques, we covered angles, taught him rhythms and taught him how to break people down instead of going straight at them. And you saw great results in that.”

The bridge that connects those early days to these championship ones was Lawler’s steadfast striking coach Pena, who retired from MMA coaching following the victory at UFC 189. Cornering Lawler for his last 26 pro bouts, Pena grew up in his grandfather Alvino Pena’s legendary Davenport Boxing Club, learning the “sweet science” with an emphasis on hard work and grinding fundamentals. Another famed fighting Iowan who took pugilist lessons under Alvino was eventual UFC Hall of Famer Pat Miletich, who would go on to start his own world renowned gym, Miletich Fighting Systems, in Bettendorf, which is where Pena and Lawler would first meet.

“When I was about 11 years old, Pat Miletich was one of my teammates [at the Davenport Boxing Club],” Pena said. “That’s how I first met Pat. My grandfather was a boxing purist. When the UFC and the MMA stuff started coming about years later, Pat would send guys down and when the guys would say they were there because of MMA, my grandfather would tell them, ‘You get that crazy fighting s**t out of my gym’. Eventually, I saw what Pat and these guys were doing. Soon as I saw them - you could tell by their ears - I would try to head them off. I would coach them while I was at my grandfather’s gym. Eventually, guys like Spencer Fisher wanted me to come over to Miletich’s to watch sparring. Once I was over, Pat asked me to stay on and continue helping those guys.”

In the early 2000s, the stand-up game in the sport was far from refined and Pena believed he could have an immediate impact teaching MMA fighters, mostly tough guys Robbie Lawler kicks Jake Ellenberger in their welterweight bout during the UFC 173 event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 24, 2014 in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)with wrestling backgrounds, how to properly throw hands. The Davenport Boxing Club had been home to amateur, world and Olympic boxing champions, which was what drew Miletich to train there years earlier. Bringing him on board was a no-brainer for Miletich, who knew Pena’s credentials and needed the help in training a litany of talented fighters, but it took some time before the then 22-year-old Lawler would warm up to Pena.

“I know Spencer was one of the first and then I started working with Matt Hughes,” Pena said. “It was definitely the work I had done with Spencer that first caught Robbie’s eye. Robbie was a pretty young kid. He had just got his walking papers from the UFC. He would always sit on the side of the mats just watching. He’s not the type of guy who would come up to you and have conversations with you. He was just sitting off watching and kind of inspecting. After he saw the work I was doing with Spencer and some other guys like Tim Sylvia, he finally asked me to start coaching him.”

***

Robbie Lawler reacts to his victory over Johny Hendricks in their UFC welterweight championship bout during the UFC 181 event inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center on December 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)While Pena was making his transition from US Marine to the new coach at Miletich’s, Lawler was a young veteran of the no nonsense gym, having started out there when he was only 16. Born in San Diego and moved to Bettendorf when he was 10, Lawler was a fight fan at an early age and would begin to really show off his athletic gifts in high school wrestling and football. With Bettendorf not being the biggest town, Miletich knew of Lawler from his abilities on the mats and the field prior to the fateful phone call from a friend, which would bring “The Croatian Sensation” and “Ruthless” together.

“At the time, I had the UFC title, and my old wrestling coach - who helped me a lot when I was younger - called me up and said, ‘Hey, I got this young man over here at the school. He’s a sophomore in high school. He’s having a little bit of trouble at home. He needs some direction. Maybe hanging out with you and your guys might help him out in terms of focus,’” Miletich remembered. “One of my friends who I used to wrestle with, who became kind of [Lawler’s] mentor and who still is in his corner for fights - Wayne Hogenson - brought him over. They came down to the gym, we watched sparring, he ran ‘the hill’ with the team, and that was the start.”

During the off-seasons of wrestling and football, Lawler trained at Miletich’s alongside some of the UFC’s best and brightest, like eventual UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes and the UFC’s inaugural lightweight champion Jens Pulver. “He could pretty much knock anybody out if he hit them solid - that was from age 17 on,” Miletich said of Lawler, who would officially join the team after graduating high school and would make his pro debut a year later. “He was totally different in the gym than he was in fights. What you see Rob doing now in fights was what he was doing in the gym back then. I think he finally understood the gravity of the situation now and got to work and started wrecking people.”

In his first year as a pro at 19 years old, Lawler would score four straight first-round knockouts before signing with UFC. The blitz would continue as he made his Octagon debut at UFC 37 and would go on to dispatch his first three opponents with a unanimous decision and two knockouts inside six months. His first hiccup happened at UFC 42 against Pete Spratt, when Lawler suffered a hip injury and took his first loss, but he would rebound with a unanimous decision over Chris Lytle at the end of 2003. The next year, Lawler would get knocked out by Nick Diaz and then move up in weight and lose to eventual UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner.

“It was a good opportunity to catch a young guy who was willing to learn and learning to try and grow again,” Pena said of working with Lawler after he was cut by the UFC. “Robbie has always been more of a visual learner instead of an auditory learner. He’s a guy who has to learn from experience and practice as opposed to what he’s told, so it was a little bit of a process at first. It was through time and experience and showing him things.”

One of those lessons Lawler learned through experience was life as a middleweight versus life as a welterweight, which lasted for the next seven years. Robbie Lawler holds an open workout session for media inside the Hollywood Theatre at the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino on November 13, 2013 in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Outside of the UFC and prior to signing with Strikeforce, Lawler redefined his knockout artistry at 185 pounds with a multitude of highlight reel finishes while winning belts in organizations like ICON and EliteXC. Specifically, he became a big draw in Hawaii, defeating its native son Falaniko Vitale twice by knockout, delivering a major KO win over PRIDE veteran Murilo “Ninja” Rua and scoring one of the most hellacious striking stoppages one will ever see against UFC veteran Frank Trigg. There was even the unforgettable PRIDE cameo where Lawler kicked off the great Japanese MMA brand’s US debut with a 22-second flying knee KO of Joey Villasenor.

Around this time in 2007, Lawler would amicably part ways with Miletich Fighting Systems to start a gym with Hughes, Pena and coach Marc Fiore called H.I.T. Squad. “Going from MFS to the HIT Squad, I think it showed Robbie he’s not just the young kid on the team anymore,” Pena said of the Illinois gym that lasted for four years. “Even though [Lawler] didn’t want that role, he knew that it was an opportunity for him to lead by example, which is something that he still does today down at American Top Team. He’ll offer advice if it’s solicited, but, mainly, he’s a guy who is going to go into a gym and set an example. He’s going to let everyone know what it’s going to take for you to prepare yourself for these kinds of battles.”

From 2009 until his return to the UFC in 2013, Lawler fought eight times under the Strikeforce banner with varying results, usually, against larger competition. While half of his career losses came during this stretch, Lawler’s toughness still translated against heavier fighters as he battled to decisions against Renato Sobral and Tim Kennedy, and even tangled with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza for the Strikeforce middleweight belt. As for his trademark punching power and grace under fire, it was never more evident than Lawler’s one-shot KO of Melvin Manhoef after suffering a barrage of leg kicks from the K-1 kickboxer.

 Robbie Lawler punches Josh Koscheck in their welterweight bout during UFC 157 at Honda Center on February 23, 2013 in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)As the H.I.T. Squad came to a close, Lawler would join Ryan Bader, C.B. Dollaway and Aaron Simpson at Power MMA. Coach Pena would join Lawler in Arizona not only because of friendship and a working bond, but because of Pena’s belief that his friend would one day be the best welterweight in the world. Those who saw Lawler in the gym, like Pena and Miletich, knew what Lawler was truly capable of. Even more so, they knew his dedication to fighting had not faded because it had been and always would be his life.

“One thing that’s easy to teach other people is Rob’s approach to fighting as a lifestyle,” Pena said. “Some people confuse that lifestyle with going into camp, then fighting, then getting fat, then trimming the weight back off, then going into the next camp. That’s not Rob. It never has been. He doesn’t put dairy into his body. He doesn’t put certain flour into his body. His eating habits. Every now and then you might catch him eating a cookie. Some cookies might be a weakness of his. You don’t see him getting trashed, going out and getting drunk. He loves being in shape. He loves working out. He loves eating well. He loves how it makes his body feel. People say, ‘How’s he going to keep doing this at 31 and 32?’ But I knew he didn’t have the miles. He doesn’t put on 30 pounds and get overweight and have to cut that weight off during camp. His approach to fighting as a lifestyle is something I preach to all the fighters and people I work with.”

***

At the end of 2012 to his Octagon return in February 2013, a lot of necessary changes were made in Lawler’s life, which all came together perfectly to help orchestrate his Knockout of the Night win over Josh Koscheck at UFC 157. Finally, Lawler dropped to welterweight, had an undiagnosed asthma problem solved and, last and definitely not least, he joined American Top Team. The switch to the Florida MMA factory was reminiscent to MFS’ glory days, with a large roster of fighters to spar and eager coaches ready to help Lawler achieve his championship goals, especially former Oklahoma State University and US Olympic wrestling coach Kami Barzini.  

“We started merging with [Lawler’s then-manager] Monte Cox’s people a few months before that and whoever Monte sent to us we trained and I always asked him, ‘Where’s Robbie Lawler punches Lorenz Larkin during their middleweight bout at the Strikeforce event at the Rose Garden on July 14, 2012 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Esther Lin/Forza LLC/Zuffa LLC)Robbie?’” Barzini said. “He was training in Arizona and then he went back to Iowa, but then he came. I was lucky and thankful that he listened. He committed to it. He came down. He’s a piece of work, but he’s a lot better now. We trained for three weeks for the Koscheck fight and he looked like that. I would be like, ‘Hey man, you gave us three weeks and you looked like that. Next time, you give us three months and you’ll see.’ And he’d go, ‘Well, let me think about that. I don’t like leaving my family.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it’s going to pay off.’ The fight after that he gave me six weeks. A couple of fights later, he told me he was looking for a house down here. I knew it was just going to get greater from there.”

As a member of Dan Lambert’s pride and joy, ATT, Lawler formed a quick connection with Barzini, who Pena described as the “glue” that brings everything together. Originally, Barzini came to ATT at their request to help Thiago Alves’s wrestling for his bout with Hughes at UFC 85. Fight after fight, the former top-ranked Iranian wrestler was brought back to help Alves, eventually leading Lambert to make Barzini an offer to be a full-time coach. From there, Barzini’s experience with world-class athletes, plus his unbridled love for fighting, bloomed.

“I always loved fighting,” Barzini said. “I was a knucklehead, going around picking fights with kids on the street. I was a fighter before I was wrestler. I always got a lot of DQs in my matches, not because I was an a**hole or anything, but I was just rough. I was boxed up in wrestling. My intensity wasn’t really allowed in wrestling. In wrestling, it’s different. There’s so many ways you can beat somebody in martial arts and not in a wrestling match. I’m grateful everything started with wrestling, but I don’t think wrestling was enough for my own spirit. I just got tangled up. I love fighting. I think I have since the day I knew who I was.”

Another new piece to Lawler’s puzzle is Muay Thai coach Vitelmo “Katel” Kubis. The protégé of Brazilian Muay Thai Master Fabio Noguchi - the first Muay Thai coach of former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva - has competed and trained all over the world in Muay Thai, boxing and MMA. With a 61-4 Muay Thai record and an 8-4-1 pro MMA record, Katel is taking over for Pena after the pair worked side-by-side with Lawler for these past few fights. It would only take a minute or two of watching Kubis’ aggressive, attacking style to know he would be a perfect fit for Ruthless.

Robbie Lawler knees Johny Hendricks in their UFC welterweight championship bout at UFC 171 inside American Airlines Center on March 15, 2014 in Dallas, TX. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)“Everybody who has practiced and fought MMA knows who Robbie Lawler is,” Kubis said. “My thoughts were that he was born to fight. He has everything that you can't teach: heart, chin and power. He has a lot of training and fighting experience and this makes him a full package. Everything is about goals and attitude, and to apply what he does during the training. ATT's wrestling coach Kami Barzini was the person who told me to start working with him, and after that, we just keep getting closer and stronger. Not just as a fighter, but personally too. I believe that with this connection that we have, we don't need to talk too much, because when we look at each other we already know what it means. I was forged mentally to fight and he was forged in the same way. ‘Fight’ it means fight! It doesn't matter if forward, backward, side to side, but let's fight!”

Fight is exactly what Lawler has been doing with eight Octagon appearances in a little over two years, half of those bouts making their way at least into the fifth round. And in each of these clashes, Lawler has been in the driver’s seat, steering these fights to take place almost entirely where he wants them. These are action-packed fights garnering KO finishes and 100+ significant strikes landed, but they are at Lawler’s pace and range. It’s the kid who was eating up world champs in Miletich’s room now doing it on the biggest stage inside the Octagon as an adult.

“We always talked about ‘mental pressure,’” Pena said. “It’s the way you position yourself on a fighter. A lot of times, if me and you are squaring up and you know I’m a threat and I’m in striking distance, you can’t relax, you can’t recover, you can’t breathe. Once he learned how to manage that mental pressure he puts on a fighter... that’s why he’s stalking, that’s why he never lets a fighter recover or get away and relax for a second. Not press him, but within that period where there’s always a threat - that’s draining to people. Once he really learned how to figure that out, it was huge. Even if you were coming at me, you’re stressed out. You’ll see people pressing him and he’s ok with it because he knows you’re mentally stressed because you’re looking to engage. The second you want that half a second break, he’s going to step up right into your face and bring it to you. That’s what it is to manage a fight.”

There’s that word again, fight. That is really what it boils down to when talking to Katel, Barzini or Pena about these eight UFC scraps they have worked together with Lawler on. Whether it’s the TKO of Jake Ellenberger, the Fight of the Night over Matt Brown, the 2014 Fight of the Year against Johny Hendricks or the UFC 181 rematch against Hendricks where Lawler won the belt, all of them are real deal fights in the purest sense of the word and Ruthless shines in all of them.

But there’s just something special about the combination of Lawler and Rory MacDonald inside the Octagon.

“I see the revolution of MMA by a true fighter,” Barzini said. “An old school fighter who everyone thought was just another tough guy in the division, but he’s put it all together by being around the right people, the right training partners, and the right environment. He’s truly showing MMA fans and the MMA world, this guy can truly compete and he’s only going to get better. That’s what his goal is. Everybody thought Rob was just a tough brawler, a guy who could knock people out. But what people forgot was that this guy could fight. Now, everybody saw it between that fourth and fifth round [at UFC 189 against MacDonald] when he spit that blood out. How many people could do that and stand there and give that impression to everyone that ‘I’m here all night long’? ‘I’m bringing it. How much more do you have? Because I don’t care. I’m not going anywhere.’ That’s just something you don’t train for. You don’t get it. It’s just in every cell of that guy’s body. He’s a scary guy.”

Beyond Fight of the Night or Fight of the Year, something revelatory happened in that July rematch between Lawler and MacDonald with the UFC welterweight gold on the line.Robbie Lawler  punches Rory MacDonald in their UFC welterweight title fight during the UFC 189 event inside MGM Grand Garden Arena on July 11, 2015 in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC) God bless interim UFC featherweight champ Conor McGregor for bringing all the those international eyes to the event because the Ruthless one got to steal the show with the world watching. Neither Lawler or MacDonald are the kind to talk trash, but there was absolutely no need for it, as their first encounter at UFC 167 set the stage. It was in the third round then that Lawler scored the knockdown to take the judges’ scorecards, which laid the groundwork for their inevitable and phenomenal rematch.

“When the second fight came around, we already knew what we were going to do,” Pena said. “We already knew what the second adjustment was. It was to get in his face. To keep the pressure on him. But we were going to get in his face and use angles to maximize the southpaw advantage against the righty advantage. There were things that Rory started to figure out, but by then the damage was done. It was almost three rounds into it before he had his first bit of success. I don’t know how the judges saw it, but I saw it as a one-way traffic until he got clipped with that kick. I think Rory did a great job trying to finish at the end of that round and at the beginning of the fourth round, but then he got clipped and he forgot where he was and what he was doing. Then Robbie finished it up with the goals he had set up from the beginning.”

Lawler and MacDonald stood in the center of the Octagon and tested each other for weakness until the final moment. “It was MMA history, it was one-on-one history, it was like ESPN Classic history years from now,” said Barzini, who can look back as a fan, but in the moment he was dialed in as a coach. “Focus on the opponent and keep pressure on him and get the job done. We executed it except for a couple of scenarios where we should not have taken so much damage, but I guess it was just supposed to happen like that. We trained every minute to put Rory or anyone else in there away.”

***

If there ever was a fight to go out on, Lawler couldn’t have given Pena a better goodbye gift than UFC 189. After working with five UFC champions and helping three of them achieve those belts, Pena is calling it a career for MMA - unless Lawler ever needs him to prepare for Georges St-Pierre - and is returning to his grandfather’s sport of  Robbie Lawler reacts to his victory over Rory MacDonald in their UFC welterweight title fight during the UFC 189 event inside MGM Grand Garden Arena on July 11, 2015 in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)boxing. His goals are lofty ones, as Pena would like to “satisfy my family’s legacy” by coaching a world champion and an Olympic champion in boxing, with DeRae Crane as his latest charge. Of course, Pena is just happy actually seeing what he’s always believed - Lawler as the UFC welterweight champion.  

“I don’t know how to put it into words how good it feels to not to be crazy,” Pena laughs. “I could have sworn I knew what the hell I was talking about. But you get so many people that are picking against you and talking against you after all these years. But to see him continue to grow, not just as a fighter, but this career - it’s Robbie’s life. To see him grow, he’s grown just as much outside of the cage as he has inside the cage. Nothing but love and respect for Rob. I hope the UFC realizes what a gift they have. I know a lot of fans out there, including myself, have been waiting for a fighting champion and not just a person who wins fights and wins decisions, but a guy who goes out there and fights and is the champion. That’s Robbie Lawler.”

“I think Robbie is one of the most humble individuals who is willing to learn,” Barzini said. “He is truly an artist. He just truly is a modern samurai. He’s real. It’s not in a movie or in a book. This guy is a modern samurai, a true warrior. He’s a great student of art, he’s humble. Great heart, willing to share his knowledge to other fighters. It was always in him, but he didn’t put it out there. It’s just going to be great. Everybody is going to love watching him fight. The Ruthlessness is going to continue. It’s just going to get worse.”

In many ways right now, it's just the beginning for Lawler, but if you want the short version of Rob, Robbie or Ruthless’ 14 years as a fighter, then no one can sum it up like Miletich.

”He’s a quiet guy, he’s a good man, he does his talking in the cage,” Miletich said. “He’s a good person who finally climbed the mountain.”

 

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