Officially on a two-fight skid, former champion Robbie Lawler has received one more crack at a top fighter, and this one might be the last without another serious run through the ranks (one which, given the length of his career, seems extremely unlikely).
While his loss to Ben Askren really shouldn’t have been one, and his performance in that fight seemed to suggest that he still had something to offer, Lawler’s prior losses to dos Anjos and Woodley would entail him being shut out of the elite if he comes up short in Newark. It’s unlikely that Lawler gets a title shot given the strength of the division, but if he’s to make a final push towards getting that belt back, this is the time.
For Colby Covington, Lawler is one of the most obviously dangerous stay-busy fights in the history of MMA. After winning an extremely close decision (one that probably should’ve gone the other way) for the interim title over Rafael dos Anjos in June of 2018, Covington needed some time on the sidelines; in the meantime, Kamaru Usman absolutely devastated Tyron Woodley to claim the world championship.
In many people’s eyes, Usman’s shot at Woodley should have been Covington’s, and in a welterweight division that has found multiple new top contenders in Covington’s absence (Leon Edwards after his actually justifiable win over dos Anjos, as well as Jorge Masvidal after his sensational knockouts over Darren Till and Ben Askren), Covington needs to make a statement in Newark to get his spot back.
Colby Covington’s rise wasn’t all that slow, but it was still somewhat unexpected. While (in retrospect) Demian Maia was an obviously favorable style matchup for him, the narrative going in was a lot more about Maia (the former title contender who needed to get back on the horse) than about him, and the rise of former lightweight king Rafael dos Anjos was a lot more attention-grabbing than Covington’s (at the time) five-win streak over mostly solid but unremarkable names. With his interim title and his campaign in the media, Covington has managed to get some attention, and has built a head of steam towards a shot at the welterweight crown; a win over Robbie Lawler would be a stellar addition to a resume that already features one all-time great.
Covington is at his base a wrestler, and a quite good one; while he’s fairly small for welterweight, Covington’s wrestling benefits from his workrate and his relentlessness (a theme throughout his game as a whole) as a top player and as a takedown artist. The essential Covington game was displayed best in his fight against Max Griffin; Griffin found some success holding Covington off on the ground early, sweeping him with a kimura and retaining guard fairly well in round 1, but he faded hard and Covington poured on the volume to finish him from a crosswrist ride.
Covington is a decently versatile wrestler (can work off shots and out of the clinch, the latter mostly on display against Rafael dos Anjos) and can take submissions if they’re there (as it was against Jonathan Meunier, for example), but he isn’t a defined submission-wrestler; in most of his fights, Covington’s wrestling is just as a measure to control and exhaust his opponent, pouring on volume once they’re willing to concede the bottom.
Like his wrestling, Covington’s striking benefits most from just pure workrate; while plenty of fighters have used pace as a weapon on the feet, very few have managed it while being as poorly-schooled a striker as Covington. To his credit, Covington has better instincts as a striker than he’s given credit for; he can be seen jabbing in to cover distance at times, and his leaping flurries connect decently well with his clinch entries and takedown attempts.
However, Covington’s game on the feet is mostly limited to chasing his opponent backwards with overhands and a fairly committed leg kicking game (which proved damaging against Demian Maia, but wasn’t set up in any real way). What makes it viable is his pace and his toughness; Covington has seemed extremely difficult to get backing up, even with the cleanest of hits, and his pace and his volume broke Demian Maia more than anything else.
That said, Covington’s reckless approach has shown holes in his fights against elite competition; while his striking is a serviceable vehicle to back his opponent up and start wrestling, it isn’t as refined as the pressure game of champion Kamaru Usman. Covington isn’t particularly good defensively, and his approach being reliant on pace means that he’s there to be hit nearly all the time; both Maia (before he gassed) and dos Anjos had decent success in the boxing when they were able to find space, with dos Anjos in particular hitting the body well and landing counters as Covington barreled forward late.
Dos Anjos also beat Covington in the clinch; while Covington is a strong wrestler on the fence, he had trouble with dos Anjos’ collar-tie game and took a great deal of clean strikes as a result. He had the durability to afford it, but it’s worth watching out for in Newark against a genuinely big hitter at 170.
Despite being on a two-fight skid, Robbie Lawler’s stock has arguably not dropped a bit as a result; in fact, compared to his position following his quick loss to Tyron Woodley and his worryingly narrow win over Donald Cerrone, Lawler’s last two fights may have increased the respect that the promotion and the public have for him.
Lawler’s toughness in the face of a debilitating knee injury sustained against Rafael dos Anjos was inspiring, and his performance against Ben Askren only ended with an L on his record due to several grave referee errors; while he doesn’t really deserve the shot at the top contender, Lawler is held in such high esteem that he’s still gotten the opportunity to prove that he’s an elite presence. If Lawler can make the most of it, he will once again be in the title scene, and his legacy will only be bolstered further with the scalp of a young and proven contender.
The thoughtfulness and polish of Lawler’s game (in his prime, at least) has always been understated, probably due to many of his fights ending up as wars in the pocket; however, Lawler’s skill in-close rigs those situations in his favor, and his best showings feature some of the most skilled boxing that welterweight (and MMA as a whole) has ever seen.
Lawler’s most iconic showing at this point is likely his rematch against Rory MacDonald, which turned out to be a decent showcase for Lawler’s best skills; against an orthodox who relies heavily on the jab, Lawler’s southpaw stance and consistent hand-fighting posed serious problems, and Lawler’s own jab (better tuned towards open-stance matchups than MacDonald’s, especially since he was winning the hand-fight) set up his excellent straight left hand.
Lawler’s showings against Johny Hendricks showed his skills against an opponent in the same stance, where his jab and his defense in the pocket took on more prominence; while he mostly fought at range against MacDonald to lace him with straights, the Hendricks fight was fought largely in the tightest of spaces, and Hendricks found a great deal of trouble cleanly landing on Lawler (whose active lead-hand worked to block and parry strikes) without getting countered. Lawler has proven adept in every range, and is enough of a hitter that his opponents can’t generally fight in the pocket with him for long.
Lawler is exceedingly dangerous given his fight, and avoiding his fight has grown more dangerous as his career has progressed; while he can still be stalled out by wrestlers at times (the final part of the first Hendricks fight and much of the second one, for instance), Lawler has developed solid anti-wrestling in general, and holding him down has proven far from easy.
Lawler’s issues in recent fights (the Askren fight aside) has been largely with high workrates; while Lawler has shown the ability to work at a blistering pace for 5 rounds in the past, his break rounds have grown more and more obvious as his career has gone on (for example, totally conceding round 2 against Cerrone), and Rafael dos Anjos just cleanly outworked Lawler for the entire 25 minutes (even the near-15 in which Lawler was uninjured).
That isn’t to say it’s easy to lay a pace on Lawler, considering his imposing counterpunching; for example, Matt Brown was convinced to be careful against Lawler with the very first right hook that he landed five seconds in. However, as his career has gone on, Lawler has become more of a blitzer than one who consistently lays down volume, and this has largely been to his detriment. Whether he can get away with it against Covington is yet to be seen.
Prediction and Capping
It’s a fairly close fight, but Lawler’s declined form makes the fight difficult on him; while he’ll almost certainly have the more potent moments and probably deal more damage overall, Covington’s consistently high pace is something that has generally caused Lawler a good deal of trouble (especially on the judges’ scorecards).
It isn’t the refined sort of workrate that dos Anjos put on him, and Covington isn’t a particularly damaging presence if he can be kept from having his way on top (so Lawler’s break rounds likely won’t be catastrophic in terms of taking punishment if he stays as defensively poised as he usually is), but he’ll be playing with fire if Covington can consistently push the pace and win rounds on activity. Covington’s active kicking game could also turn out to be a problem for Lawler, considering the issues he had with Carlos Condit’s kicks at range; while Covington isn’t the most refined leg-kicker (and Lawler did check a few from dos Anjos, who’s better at them), he’s certainly an enthusiastic one, and that might make it a consistently winning tactic that needles and wears at Lawler over 5 rounds.
Lawler’s path to victory in the fight, in that sense, is simple (if not necessarily easy): slow Covington’s pace down. There are indications that suggest that Lawler is more equipped to do that than dos Anjos or Maia, since neither is a particularly big hitter (where Lawler is) and Lawler is a very sound counterpuncher who also could deal more singularly damaging blows in the clinch; however, it’s far from a guarantee that Covington is convinced to hang back (when Maia and dos Anjos never really seemed to come close), where Lawler’s periods of inactivity have been clear in many of his protracted fights since his title win. Covington likely takes some shots, but if he can survive the bursts, the fight is his to win.
Prediction: Covington via UD. This writer caps Covington at -180.