Prior to his UFC return, Lawler went 3-5 under the Strikeforce banner, competing mostly at middleweight, while turning in performances where the joy for competing and the thrill of testing himself against another elite competitor just wasn’t there.
The same can be said of the four-fight stretch that preceded his UFC 266 bout opposite Nick Diaz last September, as Lawler landed on the wrong side of the results in each of those fights, getting out-hustled for the duration in three of those four contests. The passion again seemed to have waned, but stepping in there with his old rival Diaz evidently lit a fire in the former welterweight titleholder.
“I think it’s that he was a big name,” Lawler said, reflecting on what propelled him to have his best performance in several years last fall, where he collected a third-round stoppage win over the returning fan favorite. “I think I was picked to kind of be Nick’s coming out party and I wasn’t really having it.
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“He’s a big name and my training partners did a great job of getting me ready for the fight. I didn’t do too much work — I did the perfect amount of work so that my body recovered and it ended well for me that night.”
Those training partners and the environment he’s in are a big piece of the puzzle as well.
Lawler is one of the veteran leaders of the team at Sanford MMA, the South Florida outpost where tenured standouts like Michael Chandler, Gilbert Burns, and Derek Brunson share the mats with emerging talents including Brendan Allen, Andre Fialho, and Ian Garry.
The long-time competitor has taken up a mentorship role with many of the young fighters, looking to pay it forward years after being the eager youngster in a room full of established, championship-level talents.
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“Being around these up-and-comers, these guys that are pushing themselves to be the best, that definitely helps me,” said Lawler, who cut his teeth as a member of the Miletich Fighting Systems crew in Bettendorf, Iowa that included UFC titleholders Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, and Tim Sylvia. “Seeing young, hungry guys getting after it, I’m trying to give as much as possible to those guys because at one point in time I was the young kid trying to figure it out, trying to get where I am today. I feel like it’s an obligation and something I want to do, giving back to these young fighters trying to do great things.