On the day in late March when Robbie Lawler signed an eight-fight extension to his contract, UFC president Dana White was pacing animatedly around his office.
Lawler was coming off a tough defeat to Johny Hendricks a few weeks earlier in a bout for the vacant UFC welterweight title. Though he'd lost that bout, Lawler had grabbed White's attention.
Getting Lawler's name on a long contract extension pleased White to no end. He kept ranting excitedly about all of the great potential fights that could come during the long contract.
In that regard, little had changed with the UFC welterweight contender. Expectations had always been high.
Somehow, though, this was different.
It wasn't as if White thought Lawler would be good. This time, he knew it. He'd seen it with his eyes. Lawler had harnessed his prodigious physical gifts and packaged them together with the help of the staff at the American Top Team in Florida, where he'd developed into one of the most fearsome 170-pounders in the world.
Lawler had turned professional as an 18-year-old with oodles of talent, and expectations to match. He was just 20 and not yet physically mature when he made his UFC debut.
White had enormous expectations for him, as he did for B.J. Penn, a lightweight who was 22 when he debuted a year earlier.
Penn made it to the top, becoming a two-division champion, one of the most popular fighters in the world and a legend among fighters.
Lawler had never come close to the type of high-level achievements Penn had, but White never gave up on him. Despite all the odds, White continued to believe that sooner or later, Lawler would put it all together.
He had done so, albeit in a losing effort, in a back-and-forth match against Hendricks on March 15 at UFC 171 in Dallas.
But if there were any doubts that Lawler had finally harnessed that enormous talent he'd long possessed, they were eased in May when he routed the tough Jake Ellenberger.
Ellenberger is a high-level wrestler and an extremely hard puncher, but Lawler controlled the fight from start to finish until he stopped the Nebraskan in the third round of a one-sided beatdown.
That fight earned Lawler a bout Saturday against Matt Brown, a rags-to-riches success story himself, at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., with a welterweight title shot on the line.
The bout against Ellenberger was magnificent in every way, but Lawler is hardly the type to boast.
But he conceded that he put on the kind of performance in the victory over Ellenberger that many had expected for years.
"That fight was a really good showing for me," Lawler said. "Ellenberger is a really good opponent and I was sharp that night. [The American] Top Team did a lot building me up for the Hendricks fight and we just pushed right into the Ellenberger fight. I was better that day than I ever was in my career and that's what's going to happen again [against Brown]."
He's getting no easy win on Saturday. Brown has won seven fights in a row, including six by finish, as he's slowly but surely taken the UFC by storm.
In many ways, Brown is the polar opposite of Lawler. He's the guy who came up from the very bottom, without the expectations and without much fanfare. He had a heroin addiction and nearly died following an overdose.
Even as he began to put together some impressive wins, the doubters remained. Brown used that energy to fuel himself to within a win of a title shot.
Lawler's confidence, though, is not rooted in ignorance. He fully knows what he's up against and, though they're not friends and don't really know each other, Lawler said he's watched Brown's rise from afar and has been impressed.
"I like his story and I like the kind of fighter he is," Lawler said. "I like that he just brings it at all times and looks to beat people up. He doesn't back down from anyone and it's an awesome story. I really like what he brings to the table."
This, though, is a different man from the young buck who wanted so badly to fulfill all the expectations and never could quite do so.
He's been around the top level of the sport for more than 12 years now and he's at peace with who he is, all of the expectations and what he can do.
He's learned how to train properly and he's gotten with a camp that he says is perfect for him. It's the right time, he said, to finally have it all together.
"I've had some big fights and hopefully with some luck and good fortune, I'll have a lot more," Lawler said. "I'm not too worried about external expectations or putting on a show or anything else. Fight of the Night, that's nice, but I am not even thinking like that.
"The one thing I've learned is how to prepare and be my best. All I want to do is be the best fighter in the building that night and if I am, I'm sure I'll be fine."
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