HONOLULU, Sept. 15 -- There's little mystery when it comes to Robbie Lawler (Pictures); anyone who's seen the 25-year-old Iowan fight knows he is gifted with one-strike finishing power.
And so it shouldn't come as a shock that he set up a finish of Murilo Rua (Pictures) with a neat right straight followed expertly by a vicious same-handed uppercut.
If you're looking for something noteworthy about Lawler's EliteXC middleweight title-winning performance Saturday in front of an excited group of fans at the Blaisdell Arena it was the path he took to victory.
In the opening period of the five-round title fight, "Ninja" Rua stalked the ICON Sport champion while keeping out of range of Lawler's heavy hands.
Kicks to the inside and outside of Lawler's legs prompted viewers with long memories to recall the southpaw's terrible 2003 performance against Pete Spratt (Pictures), when he took several hard kicks to his right leg before retiring with an injury.
"I was really young back then," Lawler said. "I had the talent. I had the skills. But I just couldn't put everything together."
Not only was Lawler "Ruthless" in the cage tonight, he appeared wiser, which showed as the contest progressed.
"I just wanted to press him and make my shots count," said Lawler, now 15-4. "I didn't want to lunge out like he was, get overextended. I just picked my shots."
A round into the fight -- which headlined a Showtime-televised EliteXC card that featured the first co-promotion between former rival Hawaiian organizations ICON Sport and Rumble World Entertainment -- Lawler had yet to unleash his hands.
That soon changed.
With "Ninja" kicking less and Lawler scoring more, it was clear that the Brazilian had ceded whatever control he might have seized after the first period.
For Lawler, that simply signaled the inevitable: "I knew I was going to knock him out. I'm not being cocky. I've just improved my game a lot."
Opening the third round with a swift kick to the body followed by a cracking left to the Brazilian's jaw, Lawler's now-disciplined power striking game had taken hold.
With Rua (14-8-1) unable to damage Lawler's lead leg or threaten with any type of power-punching, the UFC veteran felt comfortable both stalking and standing in the pocket.
Eventually, a lead left followed by a solid punch with the opposite hand led perfectly into an uppercut from the right side, all of which resulted in "Ninja" going down. Lawler unloaded with huge punches before referee Mario Yamasaki finally put a stop to the contest at 2:04 of the third.
"I told my corner after the second round that I was going to knock him out," Lawler recalled. "Even when he landed, I punched back and knew I was hurting him."
Afterwards Rua, who stopped Joey Villasenor (Pictures) in June to capture the vacant EliteXC title, pointed to poor strategy as a significant factor for the loss.
Though his man had won, former UFC champ Matt Hughes (Pictures) charged into the cage, where he got into Yamasaki's face and berated the official for letting the fight continue the way it had.
"I fought a smart and controlled fight, and kept my distance," Lawler said. "But that is how I fight these days."
Dedicating tonight's title win to his longtime coach Pat Miletich (Pictures), Lawler recognized those that put him in position to capture the belt. Now, he said, his focus will shift towards a new gym he's opened with Hughes in Illinois, and the goal of helping the former UFC welterweight champion regain the title.
After that, Lawler is expected to return to Hawaii and ICON Sport, where he's expected to fight Kala Kolohe Hose (Pictures).
Returning to action for the first time since serving a six-month suspension mandated by the Nevada State Athletic Commission after testing positive for marijuana, Nick Diaz (Pictures) survived ring rust and a hungry opponent to capture a tight split decision win.
Two judges at ringside, including one sitting in front of the media who was inexplicably chatting on his cell phone during the fight, saw it 29-28 for Diaz (an initial scorecard reading of 30-27 for Diaz was incorrect, said ICON Sport's Patrick Freitas) while a third judge saw it two rounds to one for the underdog Mike Aina (Pictures).
Sherdog.com saw it 29-28 for Aina, who took advantage of a slow start from the Stockton, Calif. fan favorite to notch the opening period.
In the second Diaz (15-6-0, 1 no-decision) again chose to fight at a plodding pace by throwing what appeared to be half-hearted punches in Aina's direction.
Aina countered a lazy kick with a big right hand that dropped Diaz to the canvas. As the period came to a close, Diaz recovered to put Aina (8-6-1) on the floor and take his back.
The Californian, who wore a cut above his right eye, finally awoke in the third. A takedown saw Diaz take Aina's back with more than enough time to find a submission. However the newlywed, with B.J. Penn (Pictures) in his corner, survived until the final bell.
"I know I could have fought better," Diaz said. "I feel good, but I am really disappointed in the way I performed. I should have started a lot faster because Aina fought me with everything he had."
Gina Carano (Pictures), the so-called face of women's mixed martial arts, took a big step forward Saturday, enduring a difficult weight cut and a tough opponent to notch her first submission victory.
The 140-pound striker was put down on the canvas hard in the opening moments of the fight, and faced an attack on her neck from Tonya Evinger (Pictures). But Carano showed her guts by avoiding the choke and sweeping to half-guard, where she finally found relief.
"When she got me down, I knew I couldn't freak and had to keep my composure," said Carano, who remained unbeaten in five fights. "After reversing her, I considered standing up. But I've been practicing working on top, so I just went through with it.''
Billed as a quality grappler, Evinger (4-3) made the rudimentary error of giving up her back. Even though Carano's a relative newcomer to the submission game, the Las Vegan, who fought with her parents in attendance, knew exactly what to do after sinking in hooks and securing back-control.
The rear-naked choke surprised no one more than Carano, who rejoiced by running around the cage.
Middleweights Joey Villasenor (Pictures) and Riki Fukuda (Pictures) fought wonderfully en route to a split decision that elicited a mixed reaction from the Blaisdell Arena crowd.
After 15 minutes during which both absorbed powerful attacks, judges at ringside saw it two rounds to one for the veteran New Mexican, who scored with a counter left hook and a mean high kick throughout the bout.
Sherdog.com narrowly scored the contest 29-28 for the Japanese southpaw, but considering how close the exchanges were, it's difficult to argue against the official decision.
Both men had their moments.
Fukuda's best weapons came in the form of a lead left and a digging kick that plowed into Villasenor's midsection on several occasions. The Japanese fighter, representing Killer Bee, took down but failed to control Villasenor, who reversed once to his feet and another time to the top position.
After an opening period that saw Villasenor, who last entered the cage to fight Murilo Rua (Pictures) for the EliteXC 185-pound title, hurt Fukuda with a left hook, the middle period was almost too close to call.
Villasenor slammed Fukuda's head off the cage fencing with a left hook, and later connected with a high kick to his foe's stout jaw. The Japanese fighter responded by coming forward and connecting with a sharp kick attacking Villasenor's liver.
In the third both connected: Villasenor with a left hook and a right high kick; Fukuda with consecutive left hands.
Villasenor negated a Fukuda takedown by reversing to the top, and action slowed as the fight came to a close.
With Phil Baroni (Pictures) screaming instructions from the corner, Fukuda attempted to come forward but he was not aggressive or effective enough for the judges.
"I am happy and very relieved,'' said the 24-6-0 Villasenor, who was taken to a nearby hospital for precautionary reasons. "I think I showed what I am about: tough and gritty. This is very important for me to win and prove to myself that I am one of the best middleweights in the world."
Fukuda (8-3) said he could not argue the decision.
"I don't know if I was nervous with this being the first major fight I've had in the United States, but I won't make any excuses," the Japanese fighter said. "I could have pressured him more. I would love to fight him again."
For many Hawaiian fans, last year's Rumble on the Rock 175-pound tournament felt incomplete because Hilo's Renato Verissimo (Pictures) came up short in his bid to win.
San Francisco's Jake Shields (Pictures) took the tournament with a decision win over Carlos Condit (Pictures), and tonight the Top 10-ranked welterweight quieted any doubters who said Verissimo (7-5) would have been the antidote to the 2006 tournament victory.
Shields countered an early takedown by standing and working in the clinch, where he out-muscled B.J. Penn (Pictures)'s jiu-jitsu coach to the floor.
The grapplers engaged in a technical display on the mat, with Shields battling to pass the guard and the Brazilian working to deny that.
Eventually, Shields shifted his hips effectively enough to smoothly pass to the mount position.
It didn't take long before Shields, now 19-4-1, postured up and delivered over 60 unanswered punches and elbows. All Verissimo could do was turn to his side and cover before referee Mario Yamasaki, hovering closely by during the torrent of strikes, moved in to separate the fighters at 4:00 of round one.
The win, said Shields and EliteXC promoter Gary Shaw, likely put the grappler in line to fight for the unfilled welterweight title belt.