When Renato Sobral beat Robbie Lawler in the main event of Strikeforce “Los Angeles” on June 16, 2010, it was considered a mild upset. More surprising than the simple fact of his victory, however, was the way in which he had pulled it off. Known foremost for his grappling, “Babalu” had always been a willing and aggressive, but hittable, striker; to a certain subset of fans, he would always be the guy who got posterized twice by Chuck Liddell in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Those defensive vulnerabilities on the feet seemed to portend a brutal knockout for the Brazilian, but instead he plied a patient, kick-heavy and defensively sound kickboxing game to take at least two of three rounds.
Without taking anything away from Sobral’s performance—he absolutely won the fight that night, and it is a major feather in one of MMA's most underrated caps—in hindsight, it’s easy to point to Strikeforce “Los Angeles” as the low point of Lawler’s career. The man once seen as the ultra-violent future of the UFC welterweight division had just taken, and lost, a 195-pound catchweight fight against a former heavyweight. If not for a sensational Hail Mary knockout of Melvin Manhoef after getting his leg sawed off for most of a round in his previous outing, he would have been on the first three-fight skid of his career. It felt cruel to say at the time—and sounds hilariously absurd today, in light of his subsequent career arc—but at age 28, Lawler looked for all the world like a washed-up fighter, or at least one who had hit his peak some time ago.
Of course, rumors of Lawler’s professional demise were premature to say the least, and his greatest achievements still lay ahead of him. While he would remain mired at middleweight for several more fights, including losses to Ronaldo Souza and Tim Kennedy in Strikeforce, Lawler’s discovery that he had asthma, and that it could be mitigated by training in warmer, more humid conditions, changed everything. After relocating to Florida and finding himself able to do cardio training in a way he had not in years, Lawler dropped back down to welterweight just as the UFC absorbed Strikeforce, bringing the “Ruthless” one back into the fold. History was about to be made.