When we last left our heroes...Under normal circumstances, a champion vacates their title with the loser of the title fight coming back to take on an opponent who left the UFC after going 1-3 in his last four all the way back in 2004 would be an awful narrative to use to hype up a main event. These are not normal circumstances.
The "loser" of said title fight gave what many agree was Georges St. Pierre's stiffest test, and probably deserved the decision (I disagree: Hendricks got punished for taking round 5 off, which turned out to be a monumental error). The challenger is on a 3 fight winning streak in the UFC, and his previous victim was Rory MacDonald; a fighter many felt was a title contender at the time, and who remains in the mix.
And then there's the fantastic clash of styles. Is there any possible way for this fight to be boring? It would take an unusual set of circumstances to come together to make that happen.
Hendricks is an interesting case because the 'aww shucks' southern boy charm he once had appears to be waning among fans. Between his interesting behavior, and confusion of what exactly WADA and VADA do before the GSP fight, missing weight on Friday, and his 75% rule for title fights...fans have found reasons to dislike him.
Regardless, this won't have any bearing on the fight, as he'll look to be improving on his 15-2 record.
For the 22-9 (1 NC) Lawler, nothing about him has changed. That is what's so confounding about his presence here in the UFC. Who would have guessed the kid who got quickly submitted by Evan Tanner (may his memory continue to inspire) would battle his way back into the shank tark[/Gus Johnson] that is the UFC WW division?
He's an interesting case study in defying not only expectations, but common sense. He's like the Toronto Maple Leafs of MMA (have I used this silly obscure analogy before?); neither fancy stats nor logic seem to play a factor in his continued success.
Can Lawler actually be the WW champ now that Hendricks officially made weight?
Here's how our own Kid Nate, Dallas Winston and Connor Ruebusch see the fight going:
What both men can do: Hendricks would normally be part of the faceless mass organism known as "wrestlopithacus boxus", but his face melting, incisor shattering power has allowed him to avoid welterweight extinction.
Connor has talked extensively about the unique manner in which Hendricks uses movement to maximize both momentum and accuracy to land his patented left hand. It's an odd looking punch, but it's an all-in strike. In addition, he's developed the unique ability to double, and triple up on it. Who needs combinations? In addition, he has a mean knee to the thigh. It's the kind of strike that looks low impact to us (well, the lesser of us), but that grows more important as the bout becomes an attrition war.
When you look at Hendricks' wrestling, he doesn't stand out as its applied to MMA. Which is sort of strange, since it paid dividends against GSP, but seemed to falter against Rick Story, Josh Koscheck, and Mike Pierce. Part of it is by design; Hendricks wants to swing. But the other part likely has to do with his uncertainty about how he wants to transition. Fighters who transition well are generally fighters with an appetite for submissions, and Hendricks isn't interesting in submitting opponents.
As for Lawler, there's obviously something to be said for the fact that he's managed to stay relevant. One obvious change is his takedown defense. The other change is more subtle; maturity. Lawler is much more patient. He's still aggressive, but it's calculated aggression. He still has an evil left hand, but he throws it with more set up; lots of leg kicks for example. A habit that served him well against MacDonald.
What both men can't do: Defensively, this is a fascinating match. Hendricks has never been punished for throwing his left with too much momentum because he hasn't had the opportunity to fight a real striking specialist. I know Kampmann and Condit are on his resume, but they didn't pose the singular threat that a well time punch from Lawler poses. And Lawler is not the kind of fighter who will do much backing up in the middle of an exchange.
In addition, Hendricks is often in terrible position to defend himself. Not only does he always have his left cocked, but he backs up when he's pressured and instead of quickly shooting in for a takedown, sometimes lingers on the feet longer than he should because he's still head hunting. Condit landed a number of knees on Johny because Hendricks would back pedal. Lawler has a ridiculous flying knee that he'd be wise to flash out. from time to time...especially as the fight winds down if he's behind on the scorecards.
Hendricks can still get the fight on the ground however. Lawler is pretty good about bouncing up and getting back to his feet so if Lawler wins, he has to win early. Nonetheless, Hendricks can always decide to just avoid the striking for the majority of the fight. There's a real possibility that the fight turns into a clinch war.
I really am leaning towards Lawler. If this were a three round fight. Which leads me to my next point.
X-Factor: Cardio. And this can go both ways actually. Lawler has only been passed three rounds once. That was in 2007, not two minutes into the 4th round against Frank Trigg. He's been involved in fights where he seemed to fade down the stretch. Even Rory managed to surge late. Conversely, what about Hendricks' weight cut?
Hendricks looked fine going five full rounds against GSP, but he also more or less stood around in the final round, smiling over his handy work. When you combine blood, sweat, and tears with desperation, even the hardest men can break. Still, I'd expect Hendricks to secure takedowns late in the fight to win a comfortable decision. The real question will be, can Lawler steal enough of the early rounds to earn himself the win?
In-Fight Soundtrack: If only Hendricks and his great dwarven beard could come out to this...
Prediction: Johny Hendricks by Decision.