It ended with a satisfying, albeit controversial, decision win over the same foe.
Lawler (25-10) claimed the UFC welterweight championship Saturday night, edging defending champion Hendricks via split decision at UFC 181 inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Judge Sal D'Amato scored it 48-47 for Hendricks, while judge Marcos Rosales had it 48-47 for Lawler. Judge Glenn Trowbridge had the bout 49-46 for Lawler.
ESPN.com scored the 170-pound title fight 48-47 in favor of Hendricks.
It was a fitting win for the 32-year-old Lawler, as it appeared several times in the fight he simply wasn't living up to his massive potential. That's been an ongoing story in Lawler's career, ever since he was pegged a teenage prodigy at Miletich Fighting Systems in Bettendorf, Iowa.
"Really amazing journey," Lawler said. "There are a lot of guys behind me. Thanks to the fans. This wasn't easy."
Now fighting out of American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, Lawler came out on fire in the opening moments. He got on Hendricks with knees to the body and flurries to the head, but Hendricks took the shots well and eventually circled out of harm's way.
Hendricks (16-3), who fought Lawler with an injured right biceps in March, turned to his wrestling early. He drove Lawler into the fence repeatedly, dropping on one single leg takedown after another. He scored a takedown in the first round but didn't do much with it.
In the second and third rounds, Lawler's output dropped off significantly. He stood in front of Hendricks with loaded fists, but couldn't seem to pull the trigger. Hendricks, meanwhile, started to open up. He started combinations with the right hook and straight left and found a frequent home for his leg kicks.
At the end of the second round, Hendricks took Lawler down and hopped on a guillotine attempt. The choke looked tight but Hendricks ran out of time.
With his longtime mentor Pat Miletich pleading for him to let his hands go, Lawler grew a little more active in the fourth round. Hendricks, perhaps tiring from the wrestling effort, continued to push him against the fence, but his attempts to take him down grew less and less explosive.
At the end of the frame, Lawler sprawled on a Hendricks single leg and threw a series of hard punches to Hendricks' body as he was content to turtle and wait for the end of the round. The unanswered sequence, which lasted about 15 seconds, drew a loud response from the crowd.
"[Going into the final round] I thought I needed to get in his face and force him to fight," Lawler said. "That's what my corner told me to do and that's how we fight in the UFC. That's how we fight championship fights. I wanted to fight. I wanted to keep fighting him as long as it took. I wanted to win the title."
Lawler came out with a slight sense of urgency in the last round, but he still struggled to really let his hands go. The round consisted mostly of Hendricks hanging onto Lawler in a single leg attempt but not taking him down. Referee Herb Dean broke up the action near the fence twice in the final three minutes.
With less than a minute remaining, Lawler woke up in a big way. He threw kicks and punches to the body that sent Hendricks reeling backward. He pursued him around the cage, screaming at times as he threw, to finish the fight.
As the result was read, Hendricks left the cage quickly and didn't offer immediate thoughts. Cageside stats had Lawler outland Hendricks in total strikes 208-to-149. According to the stats, 73 of Lawler's total strikes landed came in the fifth round.
The UFC had previously announced the winner of the bout would face Canadian welterweight Rory MacDonald next. MacDonald (18-2) is coming off a third-round TKO over Tarec Saffiedine in October. He trains out of Tristar Gym in Montreal, the home of former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
"I thought it was a great fight, I scored it Robbie three rounds to two," MacDonald said. "I'm very excited to fight him next, I'll be very focused and I'll be ready. I've been hearing that the fight will be in Canada and that'd be great if it was. I'd love it if it were in British Columbia, but I'd be happy with anywhere up there."