It's been more than six years since UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre has lost a fight in the Octagon. His 11 consecutive wins have included wrestlers, strikers and jiu-jitsu specialists. They haven't included anybody quite like Johny Hendricks.
Josh Koscheck, whom St-Pierre has beaten twice, was the closest analogue. Like Hendricks, he was a former NCAA wrestling champion. Like Hendricks, he had developed a well-rounded game.
But Koscheck didn't have dynamite in his hands. Hendricks does. Twice he's knocked out top-10 contenders with a single punch within the first minute of the fight.
That punching power, combined with his wrestling prowess, makes Hendricks a very dangerous foe for St-Pierre, whose game is predicated on controlling the fight for a full 25 minutes. St-Pierre hasn't finished a fight in more than four years. It's almost a given that he will go the distance in a win. He only need make one mistake in that five-round span for Hendricks to make him pay dearly.
It's a dynamic that is bound to make every moment of the fight, even the dull ones, wrought with tension. Normally, St-Pierre defending his title is never really in question. At UFC 167, it will be. And that alone is reason to celebrate.
Of course, UFC 167 is bigger than just GSP and Hendricks. Perennial stars Rashad Evans and Chael Sonnen will compete in the co-main event and the undercard is packed with compelling matchups. Let's take a look and see what makes this, potentially, one of the best cards of the year.
What's at Stake
The world championship in what has become one of the sport's glamor divisions. Does it get much bigger than that?
Betting Odds (via BestFightOdds):
Hardcore fans have been waiting for this one since Hendricks put the kibosh on Jon Fitch in just 12 seconds at UFC 141 way back in 2011. It's finally arrived. Highly anticipated is, perhaps, an understatement.
Hendricks is a walking highlight film. St-Pierre is one of the most cautious fighters in UFC history. If this fight is filled with fireworks, that means it was a bad night for GSP.
"I’m stronger than anybody that he’s ever faced. I hit harder than anybody that he’s ever faced. I’m quicker than anybody that he’s ever faced,” Hendricks said, sharing three reasons he will win the fight with the media during a press tour.
St-Pierre's dominant reign as champion is the result of his peerless wrestling, even when he's actually winning the fight on his feet. No opponent can get too comfortable standing and trading with him. As soon as they do, he can take them to the mat. It's a base that has given him the freedom to win fights behind a solid jab, even against technically better strikers.
In theory, at least, Hendricks can negate all of St-Pierre's strengths. A former NCAA champion, his wrestling game should be up to the task of meeting GSP head on. And when St-Pierre turns to his patented jab, Hendricks has the power in his hands to end the fight quickly.
(Hendricks, knockout, Round 3)
What's at Stake
For Evans, this is a fight that means everything. The former light heavyweight champion is looking for a second chance against long-time champion Jon Jones. If he can't beat Sonnen, a career middleweight, that fight will likely disappear—forever.
For Sonnen, the stakes are much lower. His gift for gab has placed him in the rarefied air of legends, where results don't matter as much as putting on a good show. No matter what happens against Rashad, Sonnen's future is set in stone—a stint coaching The Ultimate Fighter opposite Wanderlei Silva and an eventual grudge match between the two men.
Betting Odds (via BestFightOdds):
I should admit, in the spirit of full disclosure, that these are two of my favorite people in all of MMA. I kind of hate the idea of them exchanging punches. But, even if I wasn't torn about them competing, this would still be a really weird fight.
Everything is riding on this fight for Evans, who still sees himself as a title contender. Sonnen, by contrast, is more personality than fighter these days. Whether he wins or loses, he'll come out of this fight unscathed.
In the end, it makes you wonder why this match was made in the first place. There's no compelling personal issue at stake. It can't really help Sonnen. And for Evans, it's a potential disaster. Not much good can come of this fight—for anybody.
The fight boils down to Evans' ability to defend the takedown. If Sonnen can bring him to the mat at least once a round, he can grind out a win. But if Evans is able to stay standing as he did against Phil Davis, his technically superior stand-up should guide him to an uneventful decision win.
Either way, this one has the potential to be a real snoozer. In his last two fights, Evans barely seemed to be awake. That doesn't bode well for this bout being a barnburner.
"It is one of those tough spots that you end up in. The problem with Rashad is that he is really, really good. When you get these guys that are top 10 fighters, you've got to fight with them," Sonnen told The MMA Hour, lamenting fighting an old friend (transcript via MMAMania). "I'm in the same spot, I've had a career, a lot of wins, it's just one of those deals where your name is going to come out of a hat and you end up matched up and you got to go out and do the competition. As far as motivation, we're both competitors, we get it. But as far as animosity, it's just not there."
If Evans can stuff Sonnen's takedown, and we'll find out if that's the case early in the fight, it's going to be a very long night for the Gangster from West Linn.
What's at Stake
Rory MacDonald is in a limbo of his own creation. He's potentially the very best fighter in his weight class. Unfortunately, his friend and training partner Georges St-Pierre is the reigning champion. That makes this, like every MacDonald fight, the equivalent of killing time.
Lawler, on the other hand, is living on borrowed time. Still just 31 in human years, after 12 years in the sport he's a relatively ancient fighter. If he wants one final shot at winning an elusive UFC title, it's now or never.
For Robbie Lawler, once UFC president Dana White's favorite fighter, it seemed like his career was winding down in Strikeforce. He had lost three of four and was, to put it politely, floundering.
A return to the UFC, and to the welterweight division, has brought with it a career resurgence that's nothing short of remarkable. Not only has Lawler won consecutive fights in the Octagon, but he's done so in spectacular fashion.
That's a good thing—and a bad thing. It's brought him to the attention of the UFC brass and into the orbit of Rory MacDonald, the most promising young fighter in the division. MacDonald has won five straight, but still has more to prove if he wants to establish himself as among the best in the world. This is exactly the kind of resume-builder he needs to continue on his journey to the top of the sport.
MacDonald has turned into a mini-GSP, eschewing risk for convincing but safe decision wins. That's not a game Lawler plays. Only 16 percent of his fights have gone to a decision. He's either going to finish the young contender or go out on his shield. There will be no middle ground.
“He’s a very tough guy who has been around for a very long time," MacDonald told SportsNet. "I’ve been watching him since I was a little kid, you know? He’s another one of those guys I watched growing up that I get to fight. So it’s an honor and I’m looking forward to it.”
It's the end of the line for "Robbie Lawler: contender." MacDonald will bring him back to reality by being just a bit better in every conceivable area.
(MacDonald, TKO, Round 2)
What's at Stake
Things haven't gone so well for Koscheck since leaving his long-time home at the American Kickboxing Academy in 2012. He's lost consecutive fights and, at 35, is fighting for his career.
Woodley, too, is looking to prove he belongs. Once considered a top prospect, at 31, it's time for him to deliver on that promise.
This is a very interesting fight between old and new, the poor man's version of the MacDonald vs. Lawler match it will precede. In many ways, Woodley is kind of fighting to replace Koscheck on the roster. That makes this a particularly compelling bout.
Neither of these guys is afraid to grind out a decision. Woodley has gone the distance in 38 percent of his fights. Koscheck has seen the final bell in 45 percent of his fights. That could make for a long night.
"Any time you put two wrestlers together it is always an interesting bout,” Woodley told BJPenn.com. “It’s very difficult for wrestlers to have their way with the other guy. It’s going to be difficult for me to take him down or him to try to take me down. I respect the guy. He has done a lot for the sport. He’s chosen to take the bad guy route but his skills speak for themselves."
Koscheck took Johny Hendricks the distance last May. Fighters can age fast—but not that fast. The Lawler loss was likely an aberration. I don't say that with a ton of confidence—after all, Koscheck is 35—but I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is here.
What's at Stake
The flyweight division is so thin that almost every fight has serious repercussions when it comes to the title picture and the top-10 rankings. This bout is no different.
Bagautinov is an international master of sport in sambo. That may sound like a collection of adjectives here in the United States, but in Russia, it's kind of a big deal.
Elliott, of course, has a different pedigree, one proven in the Octagon with a fight of the night performance against Jared Papazian.
Two under-30 young prospects, tossed in together to sink or swim? I like it.
The UFC is very excited about this bout. Its placement on the main card should tell you all you need to know.
Both fighters have a ton of potential, but I think Elliott is the fall guy here. The UFC is keen on Bagautinov and some internally see him as a possible future star. This is his chance to make a mark and get his name circulating among the masses.
(Bagautinov, TKO, Round 3)
UFC 167 Start Times
Preliminary Bouts at Facebook.com/UFC: 6:45 p.m. ET / 3:45 p.m. PT
- Jason High vs. Anthony Lapsley
- Vaughan Lee vs. Sergio Pettis
- Cody Donovan vs. opponent TBA
Preliminary Bouts on Fox Sports 1: 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT
- Donald Cerrone vs. Evan Dunham
- Ed Herman vs. Thales Leites
- Brian Ebersole vs. Rick Story
- Edwin Figueroa vs. Erik Perez
- Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks (welterweight title)
- Rashad Evans vs. Chael Sonnen
- Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald
- Josh Koscheck vs. Tyron Woodley
- Ali Bagautinov vs. Tim Elliott
Fight of the Night: Lawler vs. MacDonald
Submission of the Night: Thales Leites
Knockout of the Night: Johny Hendricks