Monday, March 17, 2014

Hendricks Wins the Title - Barely

An amazing sporting spectacle occurred in Dallas on Saturday night, and in the end, the hometown boy left with the championship belt that has been his driving force in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  Johny Hendricks outlasted, by a margin no wider than one of the hairs from his impressive beard, Robbie Lawler for the welterweight title in front of a sold out American Airlines Center.

I certainly do not count myself as a member of the MMA media ranks, but much more a fan of the sport for almost a decade now and someone who has certainly given the UFC and Dana White way too much money over the years for Saturday night entertainment via pay per views.  Therefore I do not consider myself a student of the nuances of the sport or someone who can draw on personal experiences from my accounts in the octagon.  I simply love a war between two men who will not back down.

And that is why Hendricks v Lawler was so fantastic.  These two men were set on this collision course after Hendricks bid for the title against Georges St Pierre ended in controversy back in November, and over the next several months there were predictions about what sort of fight these two combatants  would produce.  They were both fearless and fought a style that was anything but cautious.  They would stand and trade, looking for the knockout and risking their own well-being to do so.  Could that type of fight last 25 minutes without a KO?

They pounded each other to very limits, and to prove it, no title fight in the history of the UFC had so many significant strikes landed.  158 for Hendricks, 150 for Lawler combining for 308 overall in what was an absolute war.

Johny rode the momentum of the hometown packed house early in the battle, seeming to control the fight with his pace and power, and feeling like he would take out Lawler eventually by finding a home for that giant left that has become his trademark.  But, the veteran Lawler was not shaken by the punches.  In fact, at times, he responded with the defiant smiles and rolling of the eyes that seemed to be the theme of his evening when it came to dealing with Hendricks punishment.

That made novices like me wonder about Johny's difficulty on Friday to make weight, as he required a 2nd weigh in to hit 170.  This, of course, results in some significant loss in energy and perhaps depleted strength on fight night in some cases, so if the punches looked like they lacked in the normal power, it seemed easy to make the deduction.

The first two rounds looked like Hendricks had won them both, including a sequence or two in the 2nd where Johny appeared to have Lawler in a spot where the fight could end at any moment, having rocked him with a combination that seemed to indicate that Lawler could fall.   But, as any good story, there was a bit of an unexpected twist when Lawler started realizing that Johny was not hurting him and he then turned the fight on its ear with a surge of his own.

This surge, to put it mildly, left Hendricks looking as susceptible to punishment as he has looked in many fights.  His eye was opened up with blood pouring down his face in the 4th and certainly affecting his vision.  He was getting rocked on a regular basis and looked like he was in deep trouble on several occasions in Rounds 3 and 4.  In fact, just surviving Round 3 was a bit of an accomplishment as the entire fight swung to Robbie Lawler in an instant when he had Hendricks stumbling and ready to go.  Johny survived the flurry and got back to his corner at the bell.

In retrospect, seeing the judges scorecards, everyone seemed to have the fight scored he same way.  Each fighter had 2 rounds in the bag, and this, the championship belt, would go to whoever could shake off the massive punishment they have endured and last 5 more minutes to get the edge.  It was going to be a 48-47 fight, barring a stoppage - which was certainly a possibility the way these two guys were trading huge shots -

The Hendricks corner was riveting during that minute between rounds, where everything they had worked for was riding on the line.  Mark Laimon is Hendrick's coach and corner man, and the UFC microphones caught the one-sided conversation as Laimon was yelling at his bloodied fighter:  "Hey Johny, look at me Johny!  Listen to me.  He only comes strong for the 1st minute, after that, he is fading.  I need you to be super focused - with Johny-vision on.  And don't get hit with s--- and if you do, you got to clinch.  This is it!  This is it!  You have to win this round right F---ing now and take it to him.  You need this round!"

It was coming down to 5 minutes and both guys were exhausted.  Talk about what every fight fan wants to see.  Two guys digging as deep as they can go to outlast their stubborn opponent.  Sports would be so much easier if the opponents would give in and step aside for the crowd to get what they want.

This is why they call it the championship round, because if you can find that last drop of endurance, that may be the tiniest sliver of difference that will make one guy the champ and the other a guy who got close once.

Lawler started just as Laimon said.  He comes on strong early and looks like early in the first part of the 5 minute round that he is going to close the deal.  Half way through the final round, you would say the belt was being prepped for Lawler's waist.  But, Hendricks answered a few times with punches that found their spot and kept the activity level high.  Both fighters looked like the fuel gauges were on empty, but Hendricks finally decided to go to the wrestling takedown - once his specialty, but now on the shelf with his striking so solid - and get Lawler down in the final minute, and tried to end the fight from an advantageous spot on top of Lawler.

The final bell rang and from there, it was minutes of tension before the announcement.  The judges all scored the fight the same way, 48-47, to the new welterweight champion, Johny Hendricks.

Let's be clear - he won, and should be congratulated for his late surge to win.  But, let's also admit that if the judges would have given the fight to Lawler, it would have been a righteous verdict.  It was that close of a fight, in which it felt neither man lost - but one left with the belt.

If Hendricks has a rematch with Lawler or a date with someone like Nick Diaz, Tyron Woodley, or Hector Lombard - all in Dallas - Saturday night, 2 winning their fights and the 3rd (Diaz) just yapping as usual - his reign will begin with plenty of people trying to make it a short one.  Also, GSP will be back and when that happens, both parties would enjoy a dance for some large audiences and paychecks.

But, for now, Johny can allow some time to celebrate and heal.  He was in a war on Saturday night, and earned his championship.

Those in attendance were rewarded with an amazing spectacle that won't soon be forgotten.

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