LA MIRADA, Calif. – Year-round drug testing. Lawsuits. Run-ins with the law. Contract squabbles. Fight fallouts. Television contracts. Corporate fighter uniforms.
Somewhere along the way, the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the sport of mixed martial arts grew into a giant business. And with it came the headaches of the modern-day sports big leagues.
The reasons most people tuned into MMA in the first place was the excitement of watching two competitors give their all in one of sport’s most grueling proving grounds. That seems to have given way to necessary, but at times ugly and boring aspects of the business, which slowly started draining the fun out of the festivities.
Saturday night, though, fans will have the opportunity to see a fight which promises to be a good old-fashioned, down-and-dirty barnburner, when former UFC welterweight champion “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler meets popular “Cowboy” Donald Cerrone in a highly anticipated main-card bout at UFC 214 at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
Lawler (27-11, 1 NC) was half of the Fight of the Year in three consecutive years: a narrow decision loss to Johny Hendricks at UFC 171 in 2014; a fifth-round finish of Rory MacDonald at UFC 189 in 2015, which some consider the greatest MMA fight of all-time; and a split decision victory over Carlos Condit at UFC 195 in 2016.
Cerrone (32-8, 1 NC), for his part, has never held major gold. But he’s a 12-time UFC post-fight bonus winner, and was the first to earn awards in all four categories (Fight, Submission, Knockout and Performance) at least once. Throw in the six post-fight bonuses he earned during his WEC stint prior to joining the UFC, and the 18 combined are a record for the promotions owned by former UFC parent company Zuffa.
Lawler and Cerrone — who have 45 combined finishes among their 59 combined career wins — are expected to put on a throwback to a time when most fans simply cared about seeing an exciting scrap. And they both know it.
“I’m always just going to go out there and be me. When I fight, the fans enjoy it,” Lawler said. “I don’t control anything other than Saturday night, so I need to go out there and beat somebody up.”
Cerrone, whose JacksonWink MMA teammate in Albuquerque, N.M., Jon Jones, challenges Daniel Cormier in Saturday night’s main event, believes he and his opponent have the ability to steal the show.
“This is a big one, I’m proud to be on the card,” Cerrone said. “Beside the Cormier-Jones rematch, ours is a fighters’ fight. If I was a fan, I’d be, ‘I’m tuning in to that. These two guys are meeting in the middle.’ You know that’s how it’s going to end up.”
The bout’s also been an elusive one. It was announced for UFC 205 in New York last November, but the fight was pulled almost as soon as it was announced. Lawler, who had been knocked out by Tyron Woodley last July 30 to lose the welterweight belt, reconsidered the notion of making a fast return. It was then slated for UFC 213 earlier this month, but a combination of a staph infection and groin injury by Cerrone caused the bout to be pushed back.
But the fight’s finally on, and while the competitors plainly admire one another in a “game recognize game” manner, both fighters have concerns coming into the matchup.
In Lawler’s case, some have questioned whether a fighter like Cerrone was the best matchup for his first fight back after his grueling clip in which he went through so many Fight of the Year-caliber wars.
Cerrone, who would tie Michael Bisping’s record of 20 career UFC victories if he defeats Lawler, is looking to shake off a bad knockout loss to Jorge Masvidal in Denver in January, which was his first loss since jumping up to welterweight.
“I mean, I don’t care but I do, you know?” Cerrone said. “I need to win this fight if I’m going to get back into the picture to get the biggest fights and make the most money. But right now I’m not too worried about that. Right now I’m looking forward to giving it and I know Robbie’s going to bring it.”
Lawler brings another concern into the bout, as his mentor and former teammate, UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, was nearly killed in a car crash last month in Illinois, as his car was rammed by a coal train on the passenger side.
“Yeah, it’s been hard,” Lawler said. “He’s usually here with us right by our side, hanging out, making sure I’m alright. It is what it is. He’s doing better, but that’s something his family should talk about and let the media know through their outlets, not mine.”
But Hughes’ condition is improving, as he’s out of a coma. Hughes, like Lawler and Cerrone, was known for an exciting style. If Lawler wants to honor his friend, the best thing he can do is go out and throw down the way both the fans and Cerrone expect.
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