Thanks to UFC matchmaker Joe Silva's expertise, the lineup for Saturday's UFC 154 event from Montreal, Canada, has been well received by fans even though its breadth is a bit lacking in top-ranked stars.
Or perhaps it's because it's nucleus is so sturdy from a rankings standpoint. The duplex of spotlight match ups feature the upper-end of the world welterweight totem pole, as champion Georges St. Pierre (longtime #1 welterweight) meets interim champion Carlos Condit (ranked #2) in the headliner and the 3rd-ranked welterweight, Johny Hendricks, squares off with #4 welterweight Martin Kampmann in the co-main.
Carrying in unparalleled wrestling credentials, Johny Hendricks (13-1) was a 4-time All-American and a 2-time national wrestling champion at the D1 level (Oklahoma State University). The bearded southpaw is once beaten in MMA; a 2010 decision loss to Rick Story, who is a recent victim of Kampmann's. After making a name for himself in the WEC, Hendricks put himself on the map by shellacking Amir Sadollah by 1st-round TKO in his Octagon debut. He continued his roll with a trio of wins (Ricardo Funch, T.J. Grant, Charlie Brenneman) before Story stopped him in his tracks with a feisty decision win.
Undeterred, Hendricks picked up another pair of wins (T.J. Waldburger, Mike Pierce) before he launched himself into elite company with a 12-second KO of perennial #2 welterweight Jon Fitch. His last outing was a razor-thin split decision over Josh Koscheck that I scored for Hendricks, but was close enough to go either way.
Xtreme Couture's Martin Kampmann (20-5) has been far less consistent. After Nate Marquardt blasted him out of the middleweight class, Kampmann revived his career at 170-pounds with a TKO over Alexandre Barros and the same type of coin-flip, split decision over Condit that Hendricks earned over Koscheck and Pierce, i.e. there was no clear winner but the judges insistence to force a 10-9 round winner prevents the deeply dreaded outcome of a draw by substituting a random, controversial winner instead.
(On that topic, really, Hendricks' loss to Story was nowhere close to definitive either, and I had no sense that one fighter clearly out-performed the other in each of the aforementioned close decisions.)
Kampmann got caught against the fence amidst a torrent of Paul Daley's killer Muay Thai but rebounded from that TKO defeat with a strong surge that was accented by a marked improvement in his wrestling. He laced up Jacob Volkmann with a modified guillotine in the 1st round and, shockingly, totally overpowered Paulo Thiago with good ol' fashioned wrestling in a one-sided decision.
He would fall again by controversial split decision, twice, this time to standout grappler Jake Shields at UFC 121 and then to Diego Sanchez in a bout that perfectly defined how much takedown defense is ignored and raw aggression is misinterpreted as "effective" aggression. Stuck on a 2-fight slide, Kampmann would go on to notch the 3-straight wins that elevated him into this pivotal contender match with Hendricks: he out-hustled Story to a unanimous vote, pulled out an amazing, come-from-behind, Hail Mary guillotine on Thiago Alves in the 3rd round and became the first fighter to finish Jake Ellenberger with strikes courtesy of a perfectly timed knee.
After struggling to find his niche, I think Kampmann has finally found himself as a fighter. The former Danish Muay Thai champion has settled into an extremely precise and rangy set of hands, a deceivingly rugged clinch game with excellent striking and takedown defense and a deadly submission grappling acumen that I feel is his biggest strength. He's been criticized in the past for a lack of power on the feet, but he's the type of fundamental wizard who drenches his opponent with a high-volume of technical strikes that gradually show their effectiveness rather than being a one-shot juggernaut.
Hendricks fits the latter category, as his fearsome striking is propelled by raw power and blistering quickness, and accounts for 7 of his 13 stoppages. While his wrestling credentials would imply an unstoppable force with takedowns, top-shelf welterweights have been able to withstand them. However, Hendricks has grown quite comfortable in transitioning between striking and wrestling. He stays poised and on balance when shrinking the gap and confuses opponents by switching back and forth from head-cleaving boxing and high-level takedown attempts.
Submission wise, while Hendricks hasn't pursued many offensive submissions -- as his wrestling and thunderous hands have been sufficient -- he has shown some knowledge of BJJ technique in escaping submission attempts and using position to his advantage.
Free Movement/Striking Phase
I think it's pretty clear that Kampmann owns this category from out on the fringe just as much as Hendricks owns the close-range aspects. In fact, range will dictate this bout heavily, as Kampmann will be perfectly content to bounce on his toes and plug in laser-straight punches in open space and Hendricks will be right in his element at contact range, where he can hurl short punches, constrain Kampmann with clinch control and threaten with takedowns.
While Kampmann is clearly the more polished striker, Hendricks excels at forcing a phone-booth brawl, which has been an area that's caused Kampmann serious trouble in the past. Since this is a southpaw vs. orthodox stance fight, the chess match for the outside lead-foot position will be a critical factor.
This would be a landslide for Hendricks were it not for Kampmann's recent career-defining performances -- namely his crushing finish of Ellenberger. Kampmann's become adept at stuffing in an underhook and widening out his base to stay upright during takedown attempts in the clinch. He was pretty average in this department when he first arrived in the UFC, he reached new heights mid-way through his welterweight stint and his finish of Ellenberger was a strong statement that he could do much more than just defend.
Still, that only balances things out more and I still give Hendricks the edge while clinching, mostly on account of his sturdy wrestling technique and ability to stifle with control.
Normally, wrestling and takedown prowess would have a major influence on this category, but Hendricks has consistently pursued his takedowns from the clinch rather than rifling for singles and doubles from outside. That increases the emphasis on submission skill, which is where Kampmann has really shined. While he's had to work out plenty of kinks in his striking, Kampmann's submission grappling has always been silky smooth and highly effective.
As he bolstered his defensive wrestling, he's also started to threaten with a lot more submissions from the clinch, to escape if he is eventually taken down or in scrambles and transitions when his opponent is in pursuit and intent on tying him up.
Hendricks is no amateur with submissions but most of that prowess stems from his wrestling dominance, and I'm not sure his top-side ground-and-pound is enough to compensate for Kampmann's slick technique.
On paper and from every angle, this is a tough fight to call. Hendricks seems to have the steadily driving style to bully Kampmann in the clinch and batter him with in-fighting, along with the quickness and agility to penetrate into the pocket. Kampmann has survived almost solely on implementing the kind of evasive counter-punching and sprawl-and-brawl strategy he'll need to beat Hendricks, though he's yet to encounter a wrestler as accomplished.
The betting lines reflect the bout's competitiveness with Hendricks creeping ahead in the -130 to -150 range. I do agree with that assessment and have Hendricks winning a close decision as long as he respects Kampmann's precision and power on the feet and his submission ability in the clinch and scrambles.
My Prediction: Johny Hendricks by decision.