LAS VEGAS — Robbie Lawler, UFC welterweight champion of the world, decided to do a little shopping after Thursday’s pre-fight press conference at the MGM Grand.
A round of leisurely shopping is not what you might expect from a man about to defend his title on arguably the largest UFC event of the year, or from a man about to face a young, hungry opponent in Rory MacDonald.
Fight week generally brings out a different side of fighters, because they are hungry and they are angry that they are hungry. They’re irritable and edgy after endless rounds of media obligations. Put simply, they are not much fun to be around.
But not Lawler. No, sir. This is a man unaffected by circumstance. Lawler once fell asleep during a press conference in the old Strikeforce days, an act that almost immediately turned him into a legend. And though he is not sleeping on this bright and sunny Thursday in Vegas, it is clear that Lawler is a man who doesn’t fret about things in the way others do.
His weight on point, Lawler strolls to the Adidas store next to the MGM Grand, the location of Saturday’s fights. He is an Adidas-sponsored athlete, and he is remaining one despite the installation of the UFC’s new uniform policy that sees every single fighter on the roster required to wear Reebok during fight week events.
I ask Lawler if the uniform policy affects him and if it’s a bit of a hassle to wear clothing from a company that does not sponsor him. In typical Lawler fashion, he shrugs his shoulders.
“It’s just clothes,” he says.
Lawler has been around the sport longer than most; his professional career began in 2000, which is a different way of saying that he’s seen it all. And he has seen mixed martial arts grow from an underground type of thing all the way to its current status, with uniforms and blue-chip sponsors and a fan convention that draws thousands from around the globe during the hottest months of the Vegas summer.
Through it all, he remains Robbie Lawler: calm and demure. Not even the extra attention that comes with winning a UFC championship—the pinnacle of perhaps the greatest comeback story in mixed martial arts history—fazes him.
“I take it all in stride,” he says. “I know what the sport is. It’s a business, too.”
When it comes to the business side of things, there is perhaps no bigger fight on the horizon than UFC 189, thanks mostly to the antics of Conor McGregor, who faces Chad Mendes in the main event. During the press conference, McGregor and Mendes sparred verbally, while Lawler occasionally broke a smile.
“I was entertained,” he says. “I would have rather slept in, though.”
Lawler says he thinks the pay-per-view will break UFC records, though, perhaps not the ultimate record set by UFC 100 six years ago. He says he thinks the show will maybe do 1.4 million buys, and he’s happy to be a part of such a big thing.
Lawler browses through the racks of clothes and shoes, pulling out things that catch his eyes. As an Adidas athlete, he is allowed to pick out anything he wants in the store. For free. Which feels a whole lot to me, the bystander, like Lawler won one of those old contests where Toys R Us would give the winner 15 minutes to stuff everything they could into a shopping cart.
At first, he shops in peace. But slowly, fans begin to recognize him, and word trickles out that the champ is doing a little shopping. He is interrupted for autographs and photos slowly at first, and then a steady stream begins to build. An Irish fan requests that he sign an Irish flag. A group of men fresh from the pool crowd around him for a photo. A family of four, not recognizing him at first, doubles back to seek a photo of their own.
Through it all, his demeanor never changes. His weight is on point for tomorrow’s weigh-ins, and he carries himself like someone who doesn’t have a worry in the world. And perhaps that is the secret to Lawler‘s longevity. In a sport where the athletes can place so much stress on themselves to perform at the highest level, Lawler just exists.
He is who he has always been, and neither people nor fame nor circumstance will change that.
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