The former Oklahoma St. All-American has made a convincing case for a shot at George St-Pierre’s welterweight crown over his last few fights, taking out welterweight mainstays in Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, and Martin Kampmann.
However, after the champion reportedly asked for a fight against a far less deserving opponent in Diaz, Hendricks must earn yet another high profile win before he gets his first crack at UFC gold.
To do that, Hendricks is going to have to take out another fighter looking for respect at 170 pounds, Jake Ellenberger.
Ellenberger was approaching a title shot of his own earlier this year, having dispatched high-profile opponents in Jake Shields and Diego Sanchez during an impressive six-fight UFC winning streak.
Unfortunately for “The Juggernaut”, he ended up on the wrong side of a Martin Kampmann knockout before he was able to earn a shot at GSP and the welterweight title, and he needs a big win in order to get him back in the mix.
This is an incredible fight between two of the top welterweights on the planet in the midst of their respective primes, and whomever comes out on top at UFC 158 in Montreal is going to have a good chance to get the next title shot at 170.
Both Hendricks and Ellenberger come from impressive wrestling backgrounds, but the casual fan wouldn’t know it at the rate these two have been knocking people out.
It’s not unusual to see strong wrestlers develop some knockout power as their striking improves, but the raw ability these two have to finish a fight with a single punch is going to make this bout interesting.
Hendricks may have the most devastating punch in all of MMA with the power left hand that he used to take out Fitch and Kampmann, as the way fighters have been hitting the mat as soon as he touches them makes him such an interesting contender to GSP.
However, when “Bigg Rigg” hasn’t been able to land one of his trademark punches, he hasn’t exactly dominated his opponents in the striking department. His close decisions against Josh Koscheck and Mike Pierce prove that it isn’t career suicide to stand and trade with Hendricks on the feet.
Ellenberger has a pretty similar resume on paper, having earned over half of his UFC wins by knockout or TKO, but his tendency to go for the kill on the feet has left him open for counters in the past. Moreover, unlike Hendricks, he has been put away with strikes inside the Octagon.
A more cautious and cerebral Ellenberger showed up in his last fight against Jay Hieron, but “The Juggernaut” may have been a bit too hesitant to let his hands go completely, making for one of the least impressive performances in his UFC career.
Both men have plenty of talent on the feet, and I can see either one of these guys ending this fight in a split second if they land a big enough shot. Overall, however, Ellenberger is a bit more technical and his fight against Hieron proved that he can stay composed and keep himself out of trouble when he needs to.
Edge: Jake Ellenberger
On paper, Hendricks is the far superior wrestler.
A four-time collegiate All-American and two-time NCAA champion, Hendricks is one of the most decorated wrestlers competing in MMA today. Furthermore, since he has recently decided to mix it up on the feet more often than the mat, he’s used that wrestling in reverse to keep the fight upright.
We haven’t seen Hendricks completely dominate a fight with his wrestling in quite some time, but the pedigree is still there. If he wanted to turn this into a wrestling match, he would probably have an advantage.
Even though “Bigg Rigg” has proven to be near impossible to get to the mat, his fights against fellow wrestlers Koscheck and Pierce proved that, while his wrestling skills are good, he can be shut down if he tries to take the fight to the mat.
That could bode well for Ellenberger, who may not have the wrestling resume that Hendricks owns, but has proven to be a pretty good grappler in his own right.
There have been a few scary moments against guys like Carlos Condit and Carlos Eduardo Rocha where “The Juggernaut” has been close to being finished by submission, but no one has been able to take Ellenberger to the mat and hold him there. Consequently, it’s not likely that Hendricks will attempt to turn this into a grappling match with a UFC title shot within his grasp.
Ellenberger’s wrestling skills are a bit underrated at this point, and eventually he’ll get the chance to show them off against a high-level opponent. But Hendricks’ takedown defense is just too good, and he’ll likely be able to dictate where the fight takes place a little better than “The Juggernaut” can.
Edge: Johny Hendricks
This is where the fight may shift in Hendricks’ favor.
Even though he has been ending his fights quickly by using that knockout power, Hendricks has gone the distance enough times inside the Octagon to prove that he can go hard for a full 15 minutes.
Hendricks went toe-to-toe with Josh Koscheck in a grueling three round fight last March and didn’t appear to be gassed in the bout's final moments, which is impressive against a cardio machine like Koscheck.
While Ellenberger looked solid for the entirety of his last bout against Jay Hieron in October, his cardio has been one of his weaknesses throughout his UFC tenure.
Ellenberger’s Octagon debut against Carlos Condit a few years ago saw him get off to a hot start against “The Natural Born Killer” before fading in the fight's final half hour and losing the decision. After he seemingly corrected the problem over his next few fights, it came back in a big way in his first fight of 2012.
Ellenberger was dominating Diego Sanchez during their fight's first two rounds, putting on an impressive performance against the original Ultimate Fighter in front of “The Juggernaut’s” hometown crowd in Omaha, Nebraska, but he faded in the final five minutes and allowed “The Dream” to make a comeback in the final frame.
He still walked away with the decision win, but the problems Ellenberger had in the final round proved that his cardio woes have not completely disappeared.
Against a tough opponent like Hendricks, Ellenberger knows that he needs to be prepared for a full 15 minutes. While he showed that he can go the distance in his last fight, he hasn’t been consistent enough to prove that he will be good for the entirety of his bout against “Bigg Rigg”.
Edge: Johny Hendricks
Johny Hendricks is ultimately going to be able to control where this fight takes place, and “Bigg Rigg” is likely going to try to make another statement against Ellenberger.
If Hendricks wants to make this a gritty fight and work for takedowns and top control for three rounds, he may be able to wear Ellenberger down and earn a decision.
But knowing how much Hendricks likes to stand and trade punches, that isn’t likely to happen.
Hendricks is going to be looking for a knockout as soon as the bell rings, but as long as Ellenberger can survive getting hit by a big left hand, I like his chances in this fight.
In his last few bouts, especially the one against Diego Sanchez, Ellenberger has looked extremely good on the feet, and his striking has become really crisp when he’s not throwing wild haymakers.
If he sticks to his slightly less fan friendly—yet far safer—approach to fighting by picking his spots and trying to land instead of taking his opponents' head off, Ellenberger could pick Hendricks apart on the feet and steal a close decision here.
His gas tank is the major question, but as long as he keeps his cool and conserves his energy, Ellenberger should replicate his performance against Jay Hieron and get the nod on the judges’ scorecards.
Final Prediction: Jake Ellenberger by Unanimous Decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)