Robbie Lawler retained his Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight belt Saturday by the slimmest of margins, a difference so slight even he barely accepted it.
"There were two winners tonight," Lawler told the MGM Grand crowd that watched his dramatic split-decision victory over challenger Carlos Condit at UFC 195. "Let's do it again."
The fight was decided by Lawler winning a thrilling fifth round on all three judges' scorecards, giving him the victory by scores of 48-47 (Derek Cleary), 47-48 (Tony Weeks) and 48-47 (Chris Lee).
After staging the 2014 UFC fight of the year against Johny Hendricks and last year's version against Rory MacDonald, Lawler set the bar high for 2016 with a spirited rally.
Lawler, 33, fought with the urgency of someone who needed a knockout in the fifth and final round, shrugging off the frustration that Condit subjected him to most of the night with kicks, elbows and a reach advantage.
A hard right-handed punch by Lawler (27-10) backed up Condit with about two minutes remaining in the fifth, followed by a left hand that forced the challenger to cover before being subjected to an avalanche of blows that sent Condit reeling so severely that referee John McCarthy looked on closely as if considering a stoppage.
The attack caused Lawler to pause because of punching fatigue.
With fans on their feet for the final minute, Lawler couldn't finish Condit, and at the bell, both men were so gassed out they turned to hang both of their arms over the top pad of the cage before the scores were read.
"Carlos is so tough. He's been through this for a long time.… He was everything everyone said he was," Lawler said. "He was tough as hell, technical as hell and he's in shape."
Condit (30-9) won the first and fourth round on all three scorecards, fighting calmly and precisely, staying busier and displaying two knees, four punches and a kick during one sequence in the fourth.
"Use my distance and stay at kicking range, don't waste too much energy fighting inside, use elbows," Condit said of the plan he executed until the fifth. "I really did feel like I won. I didn't finish it and it went to the scorecard, so that's how it goes."
Lawler, in his second successful title defense, knocked down Condit with a hard right hand delivered upward to the chin in the second round.
In the third, the judges were split, with Cleary and Lee giving the nod to the champion, who landed a defining right elbow to the face and absorbed a lesser elbow and right hand from Condit.
"I felt I had three rounds in the bag," Condit said of his thoughts as he headed to the fifth. "It was close."
Condit was previously the interim welterweight champion, but then he lost to Georges St-Pierre three years ago for the official belt.
He said he was "knocked up a little bit" as Lawler battered him in the fifth, leaving Condit with two swollen eyes. He expressed appreciation for Lawler's heart.
"To fight a warrior like this, I'm blessed to do what I do for a living," Condit said.
In the co-main event, heavyweight Stipe Miocic put himself at the front of the line to fight the winner of the Feb. 6 title fight between champion Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez by scoring a first-round technical knockout of former champion Andrei Arlovski.
Miocic (14-2) needed only 54 seconds to finish Arlovski, belting him with a right-handed punch to the left side of the head before dropping him with a second right to the face.
With Arlovski down, Miocic bent over and landed five more left-handed blows, bringing in referee Herb Dean to call it off.
The low-key Miocic excitedly charged toward UFC President Dana White on the opposite side of the octagon and screamed for the opportunity to fight the Werdum-Velasquez winner.
Told by UFC analyst Joe Rogan that he would if not struck by a meteor, Ohio's Miocic said, "With my luck, I probably would."
Also, Riverside welterweight Lorenz Larkin lost a tight split decision to Russia's Albert Tumenov, with each judge scoring the fight 29-28.