“You are figuring him out.”
So said head coach, Firas Zahabi as his charge, Rory MacDonald sat swollen and bloodied upon his stool ahead of the fourth round. MacDonald's stoic, often gawky face was nearly unrecognizable. Beaten into an undefined slab of meat and cartilage by the champion, Robbie Lawler. That last round had been what he needed so desperately, a break in the champion's lines. MacDonald left the stool and made his way to the center of the cage with new vigor, but not that of a man who saw a glimmer of hope. That of a carnivore who had punctured the skin and tasted blood.
The terms of engagement had been the same as in their first meeting, but the dynamic was something completely removed. There was no cautious, awkward pawing with sudden bursts of action to steal rounds. This time, MacDonald knew what he was doing.
Southpaws have historically been detested by promoters and fans because of the unattractive matches they produce against orthodox fighters. The lead hands clash, the jabs bounce off each other or hit the inside of the opponent's lead glove. It is aesthetically displeasing and it doesn't lend itself to the kind of lively dodging, diving, shifting and trading fights which fight-goers clamor to see.
The usual procedure taught in the gym in the event of a southpaw versus orthodox engagement is for the fighter to cover his opponent's lead hand with his own, then to step to the outside of his opponent's lead foot and drive in a rear handed straight. Gene Tunney famously insisted that he would have no trouble with a southpaw, as it just made his straight right all the easier to land. That is why so many are reduced timidity by this match up, rather than firing warning shots across the bow in the form of the jab, the two are trading cannon volleys with the power hand. Yet when it is contested well, this match becomes as much a game of liar's dice as it is a fist fight.
A fighter might step out to his left or right side to produce an angle on his straight jab which circumvents the opponent's lead hand. Or he might drag that lead hand out of the way and fire a short jab straight from on top of his opponent's glove. Or he might drag the opponent's hand in, knowing that the opponent will attempt to return it to an on guard position, and fire the jab straight up the inside. The 'crossed swords' of the southpaw versus orthodox clash becomes a fencing match.
The difference between a parried jab and one connected inside the arm is about an inch of movement from the opponent.
But while MacDonald had learned to meet Lawler in the handfight, Lawler had redefined himself. The looping power puncher had scraped out the first bout by denying MacDonald's jab for minutes at a time, giving him a glimmer of hope to land one, and then countering with heavy hooking blows. But on this night Lawler was punching straight. What's more, Lawler was moving like he never had before. There was a bounce and glide to his movement where before he had been plodding forward until he caught whiff of an opening, and then he would throw himself forward with reckless abandon.
Nowhere was this more noticeable than when Lawler chained together a series of feints and jabs, and then a sequence of one-twos in the second round. Slapping and dragging MacDonald's lead guard about and flicking jabs up the inside or around his forearms. After a few good connections, Lawler dropped his lead hand to deny MacDonald a chance to resume control, before springing in with a flicking jab into a left straight. The southpaw's crackling one-two landed with force and crumpled MacDonald's nose across the front of his head as if he had just skidded down a city block on his face.
“Control his hand!” shouted both corners time and time again.
From the moment he began connecting his left straights in the second round, the champion seemed to be taking control. When asked how he always beat his opponents to the punch, the lightweight boxing genius, Joe Gans would state that “straight hitting gets boxers' plums”. Watching Lawler bait and feint MacDonald into a frenzy and then punish him from for every over or under reaction, I recalled the words used to describe Gans: “a marvel of speed and science”.
As Lawler danced and darted across the canvas it was all too easy to forget how clumsy and one-dimensional the welterweight champion was just three or four years before. Almost ready to be forgotten after a failed trip up to middleweight, his power was always there but it was producing diminishing returns on each outing. Then the news surfaced that for the previous few years Lawler had been refusing to spar.
Lawler's return to sparring unsurprisingly coincided with an increase in technical and strategic savvy. Suddenly the whirling dervish was more calculated, he was tying opponents into knots with feints and drawing them onto beautiful, thoughtful counters.
From the first round to the third round of Lawler versus MacDonald II, the champion was getting the better of MacDonald not with his vaunted power or speed, but with the wiles which he developed through drawing the same reactions from a dozen sparring partners.
Yet at the end of round three, MacDonald found his moment. Throughout the bout he had been throwing an awkward kick with the ball of his foot into Lawler's midsection. Often there was no hip behind it, and it didn't seem to bother Lawler tremendously. But it planted the expectation. Suddenly as MacDonald tossed up a high round kick, he caught Lawler in the moment. Lawler's guarding forearm, far too close to his head, crumpled into his neck as soon as the kick connected.
Lawler stumbled and MacDonald saw his moment. Following Lawler to the cage wall, MacDonald desperately sought to take advantage of Lawler's momentary loss of wits. With twenty seconds left, MacDonald lashed out with punches and kicks, jumped into knee strikes, kicked high and low, and pushed Lawler around, hoping to find those few good strikes necessary to seize the title for himself. As the klaxon sounded to end the round, Lawler walked back to his corner attempting to laugh off the most dangerous moment of his short title reign. MacDonald was met by Zahabi.
“You are figuring him out. I want you to circle, breathe, and finish him.”
MacDonald went out for the fourth round with blood flowing from every orifice on his head, down two rounds to one, but still—for this moment at least—at an advantage. Fighters don't get tears in their eyes, or a pout on their face when they're hurt. It's a subtle thing, the drop off in offense, the change in behavior.
Lawler didn't throw a punch for the opening five seconds of the round. He could lie to the fans, he could even deceive himself perhaps, but MacDonald was having none of it. The man touted as The Ruthless One suddenly found himself on the tail end of a shellacking along the fence just as the clock had helped him escape in the previous round.
Perhaps it was the elbows, perhaps it was simply in a grinding exchange, but Lawler's upper lip was torn asunder and began to bleed profusely. Each time he moved from the fence, MacDonald drove him back there and bounced his head around with elbows strikes. The two had completed their role reversal: Lawler had been winning the clinical exchanges, and now desperately wanted to get away from the inside fight with MacDonald.
Finally, MacDonald let up. In the fourth round he couldn't afford to be throwing offense for little reward. Lawler was able to return to distance, and there he stayed for the next minute or so. It was only with two minutes left in the round that Lawler began to connect his counter punches against a slowing MacDonald. The challenger seemed to be short on ideas as he lunged in after elbows and ate right hooks, but repeatedly returned to the high kick, hoping for just one more solid connection. MacDonald's last kick of the round coincided with the horn and as he he returned to his stance, Lawler spat a mouthful of blood to the mat in another kidological attempt to trivialize the damage he was receiving.
Champion and challenger locked gazes around the referee as he moved to intervene, both streaming with claret, making for one of the most memorable scenes in this sport's short history.
Much is made of 'the art of fighting', but it's far from a perfect science. The manly art of self defense isn't really so much about self preservation as it is about survival and reprisal. A competitor can fight an excellent, strategic fight, win, and come out with a more severe injury than his opponent. This game is one of trying to adapt to and make the best of chaos.
For this reason, some fighters develop this fetish for budo or the 'way of the warrior'. Often, this leads to brilliant fighters throwing away their careers to prove they've got guts. In fact, there are men who have lost or come close to losing fights which have no business causing them trouble just because they let their machismo get the better of them.
But no matter how much we can despair at the silliness of it all, there is something stirred deep in the vast majority of us when we witness a battle of wills for stakes as high as a world championship. One of the reasons that combat sports produce such sincere emotion in fans is that the sacrifices and pain endured by the competitor is that of being physically assaulted. I have seen plenty of men beaten to death, I am outspoken against referees who even come close to letting that happen, and I have no desire to see another ring fatality. And yet... there is something about seeing how willing two men are to lay down their health and livelihood while taking a hellacious beating which appeals to a more basic instinct in me.
As Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald moved towards each other to begin the fifth round, both looked to be in agony but each had a spring in his step. The pace was suddenly as high as in the second round as the two circled and pawed. Suddenly, MacDonald stumbled. He had jabbed at Lawler and Lawler had slipped to the elbow side and split it with his straight left. The classic southpaw counter punch and among the most dangerous in the game.
Suddenly it was a chase. Lawler landed a one-two. And another left hand. MacDonald reached to jab again, and again Lawler slipped and landed the left straight on MacDonald's shattered nose. MacDonald went into slow motion as he crumbled to the mat, clearly in blinding pain, and Lawler moved in to swarm for the finish.
As we all rejoiced and said to our companions “What a fight!”, Robbie Lawler went berserk, running around the cage in celebration. The gash in his lip seemed to open as wide as his mouth each time he roared. On one of the most memorable fight cards of the year, this fight had taken the cake. It was the kind of fight you're lucky to see once every three or four years and even as we joked about it, no-one expected that the main event to follow could live up to this.
And then, amid all of that, there was the reminder of guilt. It went largely missed due to the camera angle, and the tendency to focus on the winner. The same is true when you are live in the arena, the victor grows to become a titan, and the defeated fighter suddenly shrinks down and disappears. But directly behind the champion, as he ran around the ring in jubilation, was MacDonald, collapsing again as he sat up in front of the doctor.
The great tragedy of this story is not that MacDonald performed out of his skin and was unable to take the title, or that imbeciles on the internet are accusing him of quitting because he didn't fall to the floor unconscious in the manner they were most familiar with, or even that MacDonald has likely done himself some significant long term damage. The real tragedy, and the thing which every fight fan has to try to come to grips with each time he watches a terrific war with a brutal and uncomfortable ending, is that this is exactly the kind of fight we all wish we could watch every weekend.
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