LAS VEGAS — Robbie Lawler defended his UFC welterweight belt with a bruising split-decision victory over Carlos Condit at UFC 195 on Saturday night.
Lawler (27-10) was awarded the narrow decision after an outstanding five-round brawl at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Condit (30-9) landed 120 more strikes and wobbled the champion multiple times, but Lawler’s power did enough damage to win three rounds on two judges’ scorecards.
Lawler and Condit established a lofty benchmark for the best fight of 2016 with their thrilling, draining slugfest. Both fighters landed huge strikes and big knockdowns, yet both bounced up and kept fighting into a brutal fifth round in which they struggled to lift their arms for punches or defence.
At the final bell, the fighters stood side-by-side with their arms on the cage in mutual exhaustion and respect.
"There was two winners tonight, and let's do it again," Lawler said after the decision.
Earlier, Stipe Miocic stopped Andrei Arlovski with punches 54 seconds into the first round, likely earning a heavyweight title shot with a victory in the UFC's traditional New Year's week show in its hometown.
Condit appeared to be disappointed, but not surprised, after losing for the fourth time in six fights despite landing 198 strikes to 78 for the champion.
"I thought there was a good chance I was ahead," Condit said. "I knew he was going to come out guns-a-blazing. You have to come out and fight. I wasn't hurt neurologically, but I was roughed up a little bit. I thought I had three rounds in the bag, but that happens."
But the main event was exciting from the first round, with Condit briefly sending Lawler reeling across the canvas with a few early punches. Lawler knocked Condit flat on his back with a huge right hand in the second, but Condit recovered on the ground.
Lawler landed a big elbow in the third, but Condit racked up more total strikes. Condit connected in the fourth with a short left hand and a right behind Lawler's ear, wobbling the champion enough to unload on him before the bell.
The fifth round was a flat-out brawl, with both fighters landing enormous shots and drawing blood.
"Carlos is just so tough," Lawler said. "Every time he fights, he proves people wrong. Hats off to him. He's tough and technical as hell, and he's in shape."
UFC 195 kicked off the new year after a tumultuous, successful 2015 in which seven of the UFC's 10 champions lost their belts, including Ronda Rousey, Jose Aldo and Jon Jones.
Lawler was among those who hung on to his title, winning a similarly grueling decision over Rory MacDonald in his only fight of 2015. Lawler's matchup with Condit further underlined his reputation as a tenacious veteran willing to do anything to preserve the title that he finally won 12 years after his first UFC fight.
Condit had done just about everything in MMA aside from winning an undisputed UFC belt. The 13-year veteran pro held the interim UFC title in 2012 before losing the belt to Georges St. Pierre, who described the New Mexico wrestler as his toughest opponent.
Before the main event, Miocic likely earned a shot at the UFC heavyweight belt with an opening-minute victory. The 6-foot-4 firefighter from the Cleveland suburbs has won five of six fights despite enduring winter travel delays on his way to Vegas this week.
Miocic ended it abruptly when he caught Arlovski with a short right hand to the chin and another against the cage moments later, sending the veteran Arlovski defenceless to his knees.
Miocic celebrated his victory by running across the cage to UFC executives Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta, yelling at them to "Give me my shot! Come on!"
The 33-year-old Miocic is likely to be the next contender for the heavyweight belt, which will be on the line in champion Fabricio Werdum's rematch with former champ Cain Velasquez next month at UFC 196 in this same Las Vegas cage.
Los Angeles-area featherweight Brian Ortega remained unbeaten with an impressive third-round submission of Brazilian veteran Diego Brandao in a triangle choke. Michael McDonald returned from a two-year injury absence and finished the preliminary card with a submission victory over Masanori Kanehara.