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UFC 181: Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler II - Toe to Toe Preview

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Phil and David take an in depth preview at the WW title fight between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler in their much anticipated rematch this week in Las Vegas.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Match Up

Welterweight (170 lbs)

Johny Hendricks
16-2 Overall/11-2 in the UFC
Odds: -201

Robbie Lawler
24-10 overall/9-5 in the UFC
Odds: +200

History / Introduction

Phil: Johny Hendricks was an awesome wrestler who went on to be a solid, high-end welterweight fighter at Mark Laimon's Team Takedown. Some time after Hendricks had a close decision loss to fellow welterweight Rick Story, Stephen Wright joined the Team Takedown crew. The transformation the new striking coach wrought was similar to that achieved by Bang Ludwig at Alpha Male, as Hendricks's development picked up and accelerated... and accelerated.

He took one of the most brutally difficult paths in the modern UFC to get to his title shot (Pierce, Koscheck, Fitch, Kampmann, Condit), fought the legendary GSP to an incredibly contentious decision loss, and then returned to claim the vacant strap with his barn-burner win over Robbie Lawler. Robbie has changed himself from a talented, brawler of a journeyman into one of the most ferociously skilled and physically intimidating fighters in the division, and now returns after two straight top-10 wins.

David: It's weird how similar the two championship fights are in that all four men are not genuine symbols of potential, and white collar pugilism. Except for Pettis, their careers have been molded by blue collar attrition.

Can I still be pissed about Hendricks' aggressively mistaken VADA/WADA comments? Ugh.

Phil: Don't remind me. I don't know whether it was deliberately obfuscatory or just incorrect, but it was one of the more depressing elements around the GSP-Hendricks fight.

It's the top of one of the best cards of the year, it's the followup to perhaps the best fight of the year... where's the hype?

Phil: MMA fans spend a lot of time decrying pageantry. There's still this idea that the purity of combat will shine through, that selling the fight isn't what's really important, it's the visceral and technical quality of two people going head-to-head and putting everything on the line that sells it to us. It's not really true. Even for the most hardcore fans, there needs to be some kind of human interest, some kind of rivalry or bad blood. These two are mostly quiet dudes who just go out there and do their thing, who respect one another and are going to fight their asses off. So I think a lot of us are jazzed for the fight, but there isn't the heart-in-the-mouth anticipation that you might expect.

But that's fine, because objectively, we know that the fight will probably be just that good anyway. We can watch with a kind of scientific, objective belief that once this thing starts rolling, it's going to be the kind of thrilling violence that drags you in and doesn't let go. No fight is guaranteed fireworks (Condit-Diaz, for example). But this fight is awful close.

David: This will sound nuts, wrong, and stupid but not necessarily in that order, but for me part of the lack of hype comes from the expectation that Lawler just doesn't have the odds on his side. He's older, and surely he can't keep up this pace? Not that Hendricks is all that much older, but this bout feels too much to me like watching your favorite home team sports franchise and knowing they're gonna lose big because of inevitability. Flat out, I'm rooting for Lawler. Something about his stoic, not self aware, seemingly frattish but Zen personality fascinates me. Conversely, I'm averse to arrogance in "excuse me ma'am" clothing. I didn't think much of how Hendricks handled the GSP loss, nevermind the situation leading up to the fight.

I realize this is all unprofessional, and it seems like I'm just hating on Hendricks because of his personality. The Bill Cosby principle undercuts whatever thesis I might argue about which sports celebrity seems more genuine, and interesting. But this fight feels a lot like the Benson Henderson vs. Frankie Edgar title bout: great fight in and of itself, and it's for the title no less, but you suspect deep down that they are merely keeping the gold warm.

A close fight, two ever-evolving fighters who became better than we ever thought they could- where do they want it, and how does it go?

Phil: The first bout was great in so many ways. The two men tested each other cleverly and early. Fighting is partially about squeezing the potential to hurt the other person from their actions, and part of this involves knowing at what level of skill they're fighting. If someone goes up against someone who only throws telegraphed overhand rights (this is MMA after all), he can confidently step into it and throw throw strong if risky counters like crosses or uppercuts from the weak side. Bite down and throw them as hard as possible and the fight may well be over.

However, a more skilled opponent may bait this kind of response with a feint. Therefore, much of an early fight becomes about not just learning an opponent's strengths or timing, but at what level of technique they are fighting, how deep their guesses and their set-ups go. Lawler must almost certainly have been surprised to find himself finding a very skilled and clever striker, and one who fought in a surprisingly similar way to himself. Pawing jabs, hand-fighting, head movement, and subtle variances in speed and power. The fight quickly became about maneuvering the other man, and Hendricks was able to throw more short, light combinations to cause Lawler to shift his upper body out of the way. He'd then throw more to move Lawler still further, and effectively corner Lawler atop his own legs, at the limits of his movement, and then crack him with a left or a leg kick. This is the kind of trench-warfare, infighting equivalent of the old tactic of forcing an opponent to take a step back and then kicking his trailing leg.

Later in the fight, Lawler had gotten Hendricks' timing down. He was responding in the middle of combinations rather than seeing them through to the end. He also started landing a few clean leg kicks of his own which Hendricks, entirely focused on the boxing and his opponent's upper body, did not respond to. Hendricks was only able to take the fight back in the last frame, with an incredible surge of will and heart where he rocked Lawler and took him down.

Historically Hendricks has struggled with both kicks and combination punching, from his fight with GSP all the way back to his contentious decision win over TJ Grant. Whether Lawler can get his kicks going is one of the main stories of this fight, because conceding this area to Hendricks the first time round was disastrous. The other part of the story is "Bigg Rigg's" clinch fighting and takedowns.

David: Now that I'm done slandering both guys, the matchup of styles couldn't be more interesting. I feel like we're finally reaching that stage where we no longer have to refer to fighters in barely coherent archetypes.

It's like referring to Die Hard as a thriller instead of calling it a classic of Reagan era heroism violently turned into a classic piece of fiction put on celluloid.

Lawler's game has fundamentally changed, and it's taken me awhile to see it despite paying lipservice to his progression in my other previews. He's a little like the Scott Neidermayer of MMA: gracefully aging into something a little different, but just as dangerous. Gone are the days of wild hooks thrown randomly, or violently cutting Tiki Ghosn into a coma. His game is to stay active without being aggressive, whereas before he was simply aggressive. His ground game is also the inverse of Melvin Guillard who counters grappling exchanges by panicking. Lawler has that "appears to panic" quality to his counter grappling, but he panics effectively because his fundamentals are sound. He knows when he needs to shuffle, scoot, or stay.

As for Hendricks he's figured out a way to turn wrestling into what works functionally as a strike. Not are his punches masked by takedowns, and takedown feints, but so are his knees. And he's utterly comfortable racking up damage in the clinch.

Insight from past fights?

Phil: Aside from the obvious, which we've covered above, I think Lawler's fight with Ellenberger was interesting. If Lawler is someone who adapts then watching him against a training partner (someone who he felt he knew, and already had the timing down for) was a scary experience, because he completely ran Ellenberger over and made him look like a child fighting against a man in plate armour. Most interestingly, he threw head kicks immediately, straight off the bat.

David: Interesting. Personally I think it's important to simply watch their best bout. Both men had opportunities to really take over the fight but were too busy being locked into a game of kill the other guy with your fists. Lawler looked like he could have taken over with his kicks, Hendricks, perhaps might have had the upper hand earlier with more commitment to those brutal knees. Both guys will benefit with a varied dedication to some sort of sustained body attack. It'll be crucial given the power both men have, and their willingness to endure when durability will cost you a liver, or your consciousness.

X-Factors

Phil: I suppose we have to take Hendricks' injured bicep into account. It was hurt before the last title fight, and tore badly over the course of the contest. However... I don't really put much stock into MMA injuries. The better fighter normally wins anyway, and there have been so many fights where I've seen where an injury has been given as the excuse. Machida's "bone spur" hand against Shogun; Cain's injured knee against JDS; Silva's rib against Sonnen. Mostly they just exacerbate technical or tactical flaws: Cain fought a bad fight against JDS the first time, Silva was always weak against wrestling, and Machida got knocked out in the rematch anyway.

I think Hendricks winning is a huge possibility, and he is a deserved favourite who has shown incredible improvement in almost every phase of the game. I'm just not convinced that he's been hiding an elite MMA takedown game. If he has, it seems a strange coincidence that he's only been able to display it thus far against Carlos Condit, a man who (much as I love him) has the takedown defense of a drunken flamingo.

David: I don't know. Doesn't this all depend on whether or not Hendricks is only throwing his punches at 75% power? If he decides to only increase his power to 85%, at what point does the willful suppression of Hendricks' power by Hendricks himself become a 100% achilles heel?

Prognostication

Phil: Whatever happens, this fight should be amazing. It may end quick, it may end late. My pick hinges on three things: that Lawler has "learned" Hendricks to a degree from the first fight; that Hendricks has not taken another great leap in ability; and that I am not completely talking out of my ass when I discount the effect of the torn bicep.

In all of these things, I could be very, very wrong. However, I will take the upset: Robbie Lawler by TKO, round 2

David: Oh snap. Ya know...the first fight was so great that it seemed like the type of fight contenders don't recover from. Lawler is presumably in the twilight of his career, but this was his second wind. He came within minutes of winning the title despite a UFC career that goes all the way back to 2002, never within inches of sniffing a title shot. And here it all was.

He could have been a broken man after that. Instead he put on two stellar, patient, technical bouts against Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown. Lawler wasn't discouraged. He wants this. And he's gonna take it from Hendricks. One cruel hook at a time. Robbie Lawler by TKO, round 3.