UFC 181's clash between Lawler and Hendricks may not quite have lived up to its superb predecessor, but it remains an excellent clash, and is still one of the best welterweight title fights in history. Like the last two bouts for the 170 lb belt, it was not without its controversy. I cannot be the only person who assumed as they heard the words "49-46" that Hendricks was going to retain.
Let's discount the 49-46 as dreadful judging, however, and focus on the more realistic debate. The first round is by most reckonings (mine included) Lawler's, due to the massive flurry of offense landed by "Ruthless" early. Control by Hendricks and a few late combinations didn't change that. 2 and 3 were easy Hendricks rounds, as he displayed beautiful combination kickboxing and kept Lawler largely on the back foot throughout. The fifth went to Lawler for his late surge.
So, the key round is the fourth. When looking through it, I thought I'd do what others have in the past and give a close breakdown of all the exchanges in the fight. What I decided to do differently was to add a colour code for each of the fighters: Hendricks in the red corner, Lawler in the blue. So, when Lawler lands offence, the harder it is, the "bluer" it is. When Hendricks lands, it's "redder."
Sound confusing? Check it out below, and it might make a bit more sense.
|Significant Hendricks offense: clean power shots|
|Strong Hendricks offense: clean jabs, leg kicks, grazing power shots|
|Weak Hendricks offense: connected shots with little power, takedowns|
|Weak Lawler offense: connected shots with little power, takedowns|
|Strong Lawler offense: clean jabs, leg kicks, grazing power shots|
|Significant Lawler offense: clean power shots|
||right jab by Lawler|
||clean left hand by Lawler|
||missed Lawler flurry|
||grazing right hook, ducked left hand by Hendricks,|
||blocked knee by Hendricks|
||whiff jab, leg kick by Hendricks|
||left hand over the top by Hendricks|
||very grazing right hook, right jab as Hendricks circles out|
||whiffed jab, inside leg kick by Hendricks|
||missed right uppercut, left hand over the top by Hendricks, takedown attempt drives Lawler against the cage|
||left elbow by Lawler|
||short right hand with little on it by Lawler as he's held against the cage by Hendricks|
||Herb breaks it up|
||grazing right jab for Lawler|
||grazing uppercut, missed overhand, missed knee by Hendricks|
||Hendricks whiffs (? difficult to tell) a right hook, the two men trade jabs, Lawler lands slightly more cleanly|
||clean right hook, grazing left cross, clean inside leg kick by Hendricks|
||Hendricks whiffs on the hook, jab combination as he circles|
||they trade rights, Hendricks appears to land more cleanly despite looking like he came off worse|
||missed right hand from Lawler, grazing head kick|
||knee to the body by Lawler, Hendricks lands a left hand as they exit the clinch|
||hard right jab, then a grazing left hand by Hendricks|
||grazing jab by Lawler|
||whiffed jab, inside leg kick by Hendricks|
||whiffed 1-2 by Lawler|
||whiffed jab, whiffed uppercut by Hendricks|
||jab by Hendricks|
||pawing open slap, soft jab, missed left hand by Hendricks|
||whiffed jab, inside leg kick by Hendricks|
||whiffed right hook and overhand by Hendricks, grazing left uppercut by Lawler|
||whiffed right hook, grazing jab by Hendricks countered by left hand from Lawler|
||whiffed jab by Hendricks, left hand by Lawler|
||inside leg kick by Hendricks|
||whiff right hook, right jab by Hendricks|
||grazing left hand, left high kick by Lawler|
||missed right hook, left straight by Hendricks|
||takedown by Hendricks|
||Lawler stands up, lands a open slap to Hendricks's neck on the exit|
||jab by Hendricks|
||missed jab, left to the body by Lawler|
||jab by Hendricks, jab to the shoulder, ducks the returning left cross by Lawler|
||Hendricks whiff right hook, grazing jab|
||outside leg kick by Hendricks, right cross, missed overhand, counter jab by Lawler|
||jab by Lawler|
||grazing jab by Lawler, takedown attempt by Hendricks. Hendricks holds onto single leg near the cage|
||soft right hand by Lawler|
||two right hands to the head from Lawler as he sprawls|
||two rights to the body from Lawler|
||Hendricks drives forwards|
||grazing right elbow elbow from Lawler|
||three right elbows by Lawler|
||left hand under the armpit, right elbow|
||right elbow by Lawler at the clapper|
||two soft rights under the armpit, blocked left hand by Lawler|
||right elbow by Lawler|
|4?||blocked left, missed right by Lawler|
|2?||left under the armpit, big right elbow by Lawler|
|1?||two big rights under the armpit as the horn sounds by Lawler|
So, what can we tell? Well, the early part is largely Hendricks, and the majority of the clean offence went to the champion. However, Lawler was constantly 'punctuating' Hendricks's offense with his own attacks. Conversely, towards the end of the fight, Lawler has an entire block where the only offense landed belongs to him. However, I still remain slightly unconvinced that the round belongs to Lawler. Having watched it several times, I am still very unsure of who I would give that round to, and might well score it a draw.
Others have noted how this fight is in some ways a reflection of Lawler and Hendricks's first bout: Hendricks came out of the gate fast in their first contest, then Lawler took over the middle frames, then Hendricks surged right at the end. This time, Lawler came out quickly, Hendricks took over in the middle, and then Lawler surged at the end.
Something else that is mirrored which has been mentioned slightly less is the controversial title fight between GSP and Hendricks. As in Lawler-Hendricks II, whether the fight was won or lost can essentially be broken down to how much a collection of blows from a single uncommon position was weighted. In this case, it was the attacks from Robbie while he was sprawled atop Hendricks, and in the case of the GSP-Hendricks fight, it was Hendricks's barrage of elbows to the side of GSP's head as GSP worked for a takedown.
Determining this is... hard. These positions are very difficult to call- it's tricky to really tell how much leverage the fighter is getting into their strikes and how cleanly the strikes are landing. Are they worth more than a standing strike? Less? More than a jab? Less than a straight? Unfortunately for Johny Hendricks, he has now ended up on both sides of the "strikes from a weird position" equation, and both times worked against him.
However, there is at least something to learn from this.
Beware the single leg
If you look at the position which Lawler ended the round in, it just instinctively doesn't look good for Hendricks:
While Lawler may not be landing incredibly effective offense (and even on multiple replays, it is very hard to tell how effective those strikes actually were), it LOOKS awful. It's a supplicatory position where the fighter on bottom has their face down towards the mat, and they are curled up almost foetal. As Lawler started to really unload towards the end, you started to think: is Hendricks severely hurt here? Why isn't he getting out of there? Then, when the bell sounded, Hendricks popped back up and walked off to his corner.
Something similar happened in Urijah Faber's controversial stoppage loss to Renan Barao. "The California Kid" got dropped by the champion, and then started working for a single leg. Barao threw some hammerfists and looked up at the ref, who promptly called off the fight.
Referees are there to stop unnecessary damage. Judges are there to award effective offense. With the level of fighter increasing all the time, and close decisions being ever more common, it is simply a fact that there are going to be cases where what "looks" effective is going to mean more than what "is" effective. Therefore, moving forward, if I were a coach, I would be sure to tell my fighters: do not stay on the floor holding on to single legs. You might be working, you might not be taking damage, but it looks terrible, and that could really come back to bite you.
The calculator and "mental explosiveness"
Why were the Hendricks and Lawler fights like this anyway? Why did they keep going back and forth? Some have mentioned commitment to body work, or weight cutting, but my personal theories are in the mental states of the two fighters.
Robert Glen Lawler's mentality appears to hinge on calculation and enjoyment. He is someone who goes in there and has a blast just figuring out his opponent, how to solve the puzzle presented by their technique and physicality, and he's almost always fiending on some way to get them. There have traditionally been two ways to really shut him down: make the fight "not fun" any more (by smothering him with relentless grappling) and to overload him with variety (as Lorenz Larkin did).
Hendricks capitalized on both of these tendencies beautifully: Lawler came out early, confident he had Hendricks figured out, and put it on him. "Bigg Rigg" then slowed the pace, and put Lawler into exactly the kind of long, painful grappling match that Lawler has always hated. Then, Hendricks would start overloading the mental arithmetic which Robbie's style runs on with gorgeous multi-level punch-kick combinations, and as it has so many times in the past, Lawler's volume dropped calamitously and he froze up.
What of Hendricks? I had a lot of trouble trying to figure Hendricks out when previewing this event. He's someone who constantly shows clear technical improvement, yet struggles at times against almost every single opponent. He doesn't look physically tired, and nor do his moments of weakness consistently come at the end of fights, so I don't think it's a gas tank issue.
In the end, my theory for Johny Hendricks is that he is "mentally explosive": in the high pressure, unbelievably wearing environment of a cage fight, he has these incredible surges of brilliance, where he thinks quickly, throws rapid fire combinations, keeps an incredible mental pace. However, he also seems to mentally exhaust himself, and has spots where he needs respite to recharge his batteries- his volume drops, and his defence becomes far more porous. This, I think, is why he's had such competitive fights against strikers as skilled as Robbie Lawler, GSP and Condit, and as... not skilled as Josh Koscheck, and why there is always, always that point where he just seems to not be there.
This time, it appeared to be around the third and fourth, where he just started monotonously charging into takedown attempts, despite his obvious advantage in volume striking. Lawler slowly began realizing he could land strikes in this position, and that he could fight Hendricks off, and the fight began to become fun for him again... and the Lawler mental calculator started ticking over.
This is, oddly enough, why I don't put all that much credence in the idea that it's a given that Lawler would have won the fight if it carried on. I think the way that the mentalities of the fighters interact, the ebb and flow of Hendricks's genius and the steady puzzle-solving enjoyment of Lawler, mean that they will always be shifting from moment to moment, from round to round.
A great champion
So, whether justly or unjustly, Hendricks loses his belt. There have been a few people who have been a little smug about his loss, remarking on how he gave it away, or how he didn't come to fight. This seems enormously unfair to me. "Bigg Rigg" has been one of the most consistently thrilling fighters in the modern UFC: he gave us no less than three back-to-back, first ballot "Fight of the Year" contenders when he fought Carlos Condit, GSP and Robbie Lawler, something which I don't believe anyone else has achieved, or even come close to achieving. He had what is probably the hardest path anyone in the modern UFC has taken to the belt (with the possible exception of Junior Dos Santos).
In an only slightly different world, he may have just made his second title defense. Instead, he goes back to the drawing board. So, while many seem justifiably thrilled to see the long-lost prodigal son of the MMA world finally realize his full potential, let's also take a moment to remember how undeniably awesome Johny Hendricks's time at the top has been.