Robbie Lawler was already a man of few words.
But for more than two years after he lost his Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title belt to Tyron Woodley in a July 2016 bout, he became a man of no words.
“Me and him didn’t talk for two years. No eye contact, nothing,” said Woodley, by far the bigger talker of the two.
“We just got to the point a few months ago where for the first time since we fought, we spoke. We were laughing, cracking jokes.
“And then a few weeks later, it was announced we were fighting each other again.”
That’s the nature of the business, both realize, and a great opportunity — for the fighters and for local mixed martial arts fans.
The rematch is slated for June 29 at Target Center. Tickets go on sale Friday morning; in advance of that, both men were at Mall of America on Thursday to promote the UFC bout, which will be shown on ESPN and headlines a strong overall card.
The angle of redemption and revenge is overused (and often overblown) in fighting sports, but it’s relevant in this case even if there’s a mutual respect and even friendliness between Lawler and Woodley.
Though it’s not a title bout, Lawler gets a chance to face the fighter who took away his belt. Woodley’s description of how he imagines Lawler might feel about the first-round knockout three years ago is vivid.
“You took my belt. I was champion of the world. I was making the money, all the opportunities, going to all the cool parties,” Woodley said, putting himself in Lawler’s shoes before shifting back. “I took his belt. He wants it back.”
Said Lawler: “It’s a big opportunity. He’s a former world champion. He beat me to take my championship. I get to try to redeem myself three years later.
“… When it’s time to fight I’m going to try to tear him up and beat his butt.”
Woodley successfully defended the belt multiple times but lost it to Kamaru Usman in March. As Lawler noted, both are former champions now.
“That word ‘former’ doesn’t sound good to either one of us,” Woodley said. “I mean it’s a show of respect for what we did in the past, but when you say former champion, that’s never going to be OK with me. That never sounds good.”
Woodley’s disappointment is fresher, but time is of the essence for the fighters, who both turned 37 recently. Lawler has been fighting professionally since 2001 — or roughly half his life. He learned taekwondo at an early age, became a fan of boxing and then took up wrestling when he moved to Iowa at age 10.
“At age 16, I met some UFC champions and I was like: Hold on, this is everything I’ve been doing my whole life rolled into one,” Lawler said.
Woodley, a former All-America college wrestler at Missouri, turned pro a decade ago in MMA.
The long and winding path for both fighters intersected once. And it will again next month — with few words likely to pass between then and now.
“This is a moment of legacy for both of us. I don’t see me or Robbie talking much you-know-what in the buildup,” Woodley said. “This is a fight that doesn’t need to be sold.”