While all the talk swarming around UFC 167 focuses on Georges St-Pierre, Johny Hendricks stands at stage left, poised and ready, just waiting for his cue to step to the center of it all and take for himself that which no one can really give.
If you ask most of the fans, they say the champion is simply too good, smart or athletic to be defeated by a one-trick pony like Hendricks. They will regale you with a foe-by-foe analysis of the victims whom GSP has defeated in the past, using each one to illustrate why Hendricks doesn’t stand a chance.
For the fans, it is as simple as paperwork. It’s not a contest anymore; it’s academic. St-Pierre has managed to take what should be a fight and turn it into a contest of position; his is a probing kind of offense that is meant to offset an opponent’s rhythm while also allowing the champ to dictate the pace.
They say Hendricks doesn’t possess the conditioning needed to go five rounds with the champion. They don't think he can stop St-Pierre's takedowns. They point out that Hendricks has never faced anyone like St-Pierre, and because of this, he will be undone and leave just the way he arrived: empty-handed.
It is no secret what St-Pierre does: He will attempt to stick a stiff jab into Hendricks' face all night long while circling and looking for the takedown. This game plan has served him so well in the past that he has no reason to change anything.
Is it as simple as everyone is saying? Or is there more to it than a matter of history repeating itself?
St-Pierre—ever the kind and humble champion—constantly says that his next opponent is the most dangerous one he has faced. He’s saying the same thing about Hendricks now, but when you look at the men that the champion has turned away, you see a list of very good fighters who in any other organization would be (or have been) champions.
So what does Hendricks bring to the table that is so different?
He stands an inch shorter than the champion and will be at a reach disadvantage of approximately seven inches. He has managed to overcome reach disadvantages in the past but never against anyone with a jab as good as St-Pierre's, so that is going to be a problem.
Also, many of Hendricks' victims have been knocked out early or fought him with little in the way of a game plan. St-Pierre and his trainers are going to be coming in focused and with stratagems designed to take away Hendricks' advantages while maximizing their own.
He may have caught other fighters unaware, but now everyone knows who he is and what he can do. Team GSP has no doubt watched his knockout victories over Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann hundreds of times. If he was hoping to surprise the champion, that ship has already sailed.
If one thing about St-Pierre makes him so hard to stop, it’s his fear of defeat. In many ways, he is like Floyd Mayweather Jr. Both champions fear no one put in front of them. Instead, they fear the faceless specter of defeat. That is what makes them train so hard, and that is why they never stray from their game plans.
But no two men are alike—it is never as easy as history would have us believe.
Hendricks is the shortest wrestling-based fighter whom St-Pierre has ever had to face—save perhaps for Sean Sherk—which may (or may not) make it harder for the champion to get in deep on his takedowns.
In addition, Hendricks is a compact fighter, staying tight while working his way inside to either get a takedown or land power punches from up close. He has a near-perfect base for his aggressive style of fighting.
Another possible advantage is that he is a southpaw. In theory, nearly every weapon a southpaw uses can be used against him, but that is rarely the case for one main reason—the southpaw has far more experience of facing conventional fighters than conventional fighters have of facing southpaws.
The basics of striking say that when facing a southpaw, you must keep your lead foot on the outside, and you must circle to your left, away from the southpaw’s left hand. It sounds easy but rarely is, especially when you consider that one of the most damaging weapons is the southpaw right hook, which lands because the conventional fighter doesn’t see it coming.
Obviously, St-Pierre will be as ready as a conventional fighter can be in facing a southpaw, but the best way for him to nullify that is to go for takedowns. Engaging a southpaw in anything resembling a prolonged exchange—punch for punch, combo for combo—almost always sees the conventional fighter at a disadvantage.
So, it all returns to the takedown. The last time that St-Pierre faced a southpaw, he fought Frank Trigg. GSP ripped through him by attacking fearlessly and then scoring the takedown. While it was an impressive performance, it was also a long time ago, and Hendricks is a much different fighter than Trigg.
Hendricks is by far the hardest puncher that St-Pierre has faced during his reign. Should he land that left hand flush, chances are high that St-Pierre will fall and may not get back up. Coupled with his southpaw style, Hendricks' power could force St-Pierre into a takedown-heavy attack, which in turn would leech a great deal of unpredictability out of his style.
And if Hendricks can keep St-Pierre moving backward and totally committed to defending against that massive straight left hand, he may be able to score some takedowns of his own.
Hendricks is in an ideal position: He’s the underdog who has nearly no pressure on his shoulders. He’s expected to lose by the masses who think St-Pierre can do everything, and he has fight-ending power in his punches, which means he'll be in the fight until the very end.
And if he can stuff the champ's takedowns, he might be able to dictate the pace. In that scenario, a stiff jab and some crisp leg kicks from St-Pierre aren’t going to keep Hendricks at bay for long.
But all of these elements—the advantages of St-Pierre and the advantages of Hendricks—are secondary to the question that reigns above all: Who wants it more?
Hendricks has everything to gain in this fight: The championship is officially up for grabs on Saturday. But he must fight every second of every minute of every round; too many other fighters have come out thinking that St-Pierre would be as reserved and boyish in the cage as he is behind the microphone, and they paid for the mistake.
If he wants to be king, he’s must take the throne by force.
Anything less won’t get it done.