Anticipation is a big part of MMA. The mere possibility of a memorable brawl, particularly one that intensifies into an epic and unforgettable see-saw battle, is what magnetizes new fans and keeps the hardcores tuned in. Ironically, the fighters who depart the cage with both a fresh loss and the appearance of having been stuffed down and chewed up in a meat-grinder on account of a valiant charge in defeat receive the phenomenon of a classic slug-fest as a sort of salve for their innumerable wounds.
This sort of chaotic, edge of your seat, see-saw barn-burner transpired in the main event of last Saturday's UFC 171 pay-per-view blockbuster. After a few decision-heavy cards, UFC 171 flat-out delivered and the headliner was the icing on the cake. The absence of longtime alpha-welterweight and pound-for-pound notable Georges St. Pierre alone put a compelling spin on the Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler fight. Yet beyond the inevitability of crowning a new king for the recently vacated championship, the brash and confident styles of both men promised a liberal degree of sportsmanlike violence.
Going into the bout, Lawler, who first debuted in the UFC a shocking twelve years ago at UFC 37, was being praised for the combination of technical finesse and raw brutality that differentiates his boxing venom. Hendricks, a substantial favorite after dropping a controversial decision to St. Pierre in his last outing, was seen as a more simplified package consisting of ultra-elite wrestling credentials and one of the most thunderous left hands in the game. The theory was that Hendricks would barge forward and either smash with left hands or overpower Lawler with takedowns, while Lawler was expected to use angles and circling to avoid Hendricks' wheelhouse and plug his concrete-laden hands into any open holes.
Well ... all of those things did happen, but they far from encapsulate the amazing spectacle, which now belongs somewhere on the list of best UFC title fights of all time.
This was a fight, in every conceivable sense of the word. For 25 straight minutes, Hendricks and Lawler unloaded weapons of mass destruction on each other. Hendricks unveiled a newfound grasp of head movement, combination punching and composure, and he blended his striking and takedown attempts fluidly. He also not only premiered a willingness and ability to throw kicks but changed the complexion of the fight by cracking at Lawler's lead leg with snapping low kicks.
Perhaps surprised that he was being out-gunned with his own brand of swordplay, Lawler didn't get a feel for Hendricks' diverse striking attack until the third. The battle-hardened vet regained ground quickly by anticipating and defending Hendricks' takedowns while finding the mark more often with his hands, which connected with increasing heft and frequency.
Rounds 4 and 5 played out as all-out martial arts warfare. Lawler would clobber Hendricks with an outpouring of heaters and Hendricks would dig in and return fire with tightly uncorked combinations or explosive takedowns. The only time the pace slowed to one that didn't overwhelm the human psyche was in the end-half of the 5th after Hendricks secured a takedown, but this time succeeded in keeping Lawler trapped on the ground by controlling his hips and maintaining pressure against the fence. Many saw this as what tilted the final round in Hendricks' favor.
When the dust settled, Johny Hendricks earned the unanimous decision win (48-47 x 3) and became the new UFC welterweight champion in the process. The scrap also broke a striking record for UFC title fights.
What was the high point of the fight?
To be as detailed and specific as possible, the part between the very beginning of the first round and the very end of the last round was the high point. There was nothing boring, uneventful or unsatisfying about any portion of this fight.
Where do they go from here?
Hendricks will have the usual suspects at the top end of the welterweight class to reckon with. The division is revivified sans GSP and Tyron Woodley, Hector Lombard or Rory MacDonald make up the consensus choices. Woodley's defeat of Carlos Condit puts "The Natural Born Killer" and his hopes of rematching Hendricks on hold for the moment.
When he first broke out in the sport, Robbie Lawler was pegged as either a future champion or all-around great. Regardless of what happens, Lawler, after a long and circuitous journey, unarguably cemented the "all-around great" part of that prophecy. Considering how close this match was, the future champion aspect is indeed quite attainable for "Ruthless." Additionally, he's still somewhat of a fresh face in the retooled division which means viable and exciting match ups are aplenty.
In fact, there are no opponents in the top 10, 15 or 20 that sound terrible for Lawler. But there a few that sound pretty damn good: Lawler vs. Hector Lombard, Condit, Jake Ellenberger, Matt Brown and/or Tarec Saffiedine, anyone?