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Big Stakes for Lawler and Covington at UFC on ESPN 5

July 29, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Colby Covington Robbie Lawler UFC on ESPN 5

Typically, the UFC attempts to match its top contenders against other top contenders. It puts them in an easy win-win situation: the winner can go on to a title fight, and the loser will take a step back for the moment.

Similarly, the UFC likes booking two fighters coming off losses against one another. It virtually ensures—the rare draw or no contest aside—that one gets back on the right track. That was the idea when they slated Robbie Lawler to fight Tyron Woodley. Lawler has lost three of his last four, with the loss in that fight four bouts ago coming against Woodley. Woodley rode high after that fight as the welterweight champion, but then he stepped against Kamaru Usman in his last fight, and Usman made Woodley, 37, look like his prime left him years ago.

Then Woodley went down with a hand injury, and sometimes when plans change, you have to go against the formula to salvage them. Lawler’s date was pushed back a month and his dance partner was changed to Colby Covington, a 31-year-old in his prime riding a six-fight win streak. Last year Covington won the interim UFC welterweight title, which promptly became meaningless when the UFC stripped him because he couldn’t make a fight on a certain date.

Covington is the rightful number one contender at welterweight. Lawler, 37, had been looking at a few wins before he could get back to that spot. Now he has an opportunity to take the fast track.

It’s been a rough few years for Lawler, but nobody is willing to declare his career dead. It seemed he was headed on that path seven years ago, when a decisive loss to Lorenz Larkin capped a 3-5 run from 2009-2012. He looked to be back at the mid-level and fading. Then he emerged as a surprise UFC welterweight contender before winning the title at the end of 2014, a mere 12 years after being tapped as one of the promotion’s future superstars.

Lawler’s recent run of misfortune begins with fortune. He fought closely with Carlos Condit in the type of tough, grueling contest you’d expect from a Robbie Lawler title fight. It was a match that could have gone either way and sparked debates about where the imbalance begins when considering volume of strikes against more powerful, yet far fewer, strikes. Lawler’s fortune was that two judges that night favored his heavier blows, but neither fighter has been quite the same since that night. I find it unlikely that it was that specific fight alone that caused Lawler and Condit to fall to varying degrees, but it combined with their other wars to take just enough out of them to become noticeable.

Woodley’s one punch knockout win over Lawler followed. Lawler waited a year to return, beating Donald Cerrone in a close but clear decision. At the end of the 2017, he faced Rafael dos Anjos in a bid to get back into the immediate title mix. Lawler tore his ACL and meniscus in the fight, although he was already behind by that point.

It took until this past March for Lawler to return, when he lost in very controversial fashion to Ben Askren. The referee believed Lawler had gone unconscious in a bulldog choke and stopped the fight, but it did not appear that he lost consciousness.

If Lawler is going to make another run, the time is now. He has such power, ferocity, and gameness that despite recent troubles he can’t be counted out, but this is a young man’s game. Older fighters have succeeded and won championships in higher weight classes, but nobody at welterweight or below has won a UFC title past the age of 36. With that in mind, Lawler’s opportunity against Covington is a gift because it can get him where he wants to be faster than alternative routes.

Covington would likely be preparing for a title fight right now if not for apparent injuries to champion Kamaru Usman. Despite his recent success and the gold he briefly wore last year, Covington still has something to prove. The two most recent fighters he beat—Demian Maia and Rafael dos Anjos—each suffered more one-sided losses in follow-up bouts. Dos Anjos lost again this month to rising contender Leon Edwards. It’s silly to rely much on MMA math, but it’s been more than a year since we’ve seen Covington compete, and there are several top welterweights to prove himself against. This game moves fast, and when a fighter is out for a while, it gives others a chance to pass him.

Saturday is Covington’s first chance in more than a year to make a statement in the cage. Considering the recent success of Jorge Masvidal, a ho-hum performance might not cut it when it comes to advancing to a title fight.

Every fight matters in some way, but Saturday’s is particularly significant for both Lawler and Covington.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.