Reading the forums and message boards in the last few months has proved it difficult to find a majority opinion on the upcoming UFC 167 Johny Hendricks vs. Georges St-Pierre bout. Some think that Hendricks is a one-trick pony who stands no chance against the champion; others point to Hendricks' remarkable power and wrestling chops.
Both sides have a point. And today, only a few hours ahead of the welterweight title fight, I would like to outline some of the facets of Hendricks' game which are unique, and others which St-Pierre has encountered before.
Southpaws: Nick Diaz vs. Johny Hendricks
One of the more interesting factors in this bout is that Hendricks is a southpaw. St-Pierre's opponents have been overwhelmingly orthodox fighters but now he will have defended his title against two southpaws in a row.
On paper, Hendricks and Diaz present the same problem, both being southpaws. But, in reality, it is of course very different.
Not only is Hendricks a one-sided knockout artist where Diaz is a volume puncher, Hendricks is also a true southpaw (relying on his rear, left hand), while much of Diaz's most effective offence comes from his right hand.
Hendricks is a southpaw in the old mould. He uses his left hand to land the big punches, and his right hand to control his opponent's lead hand, checking the jab.
Diaz, meanwhile, barely checks his opponent's lead hand at all. Instead, he will jab or hook with his lead hand. This exposed him to GSP's jab, which should otherwise have been fairly limited against a southpaw.
Open Guard and Closed Guard
The orthodox versus southpaw (or, obviously, vice versa) position is what I refer to as "open guard," while orthodox versus orthodox (or southpaw versus southpaw) is what I refer to as "closed guard." These are terms I picked up from Masahiko Tanaka's Perfecting Kumite, and I feel they amply describe the situations.
In a closed-guard engagement the distance encourages a fast-paced fight. Both men can get in close enough to jab and then to throw follow-up punches. In an open-guard engagement, however, the lead hands should take each other out of place, checking and jostling for position, and the distance produced is greater.
Think back to Rashad Evans vs. Antonio Nogueira. Remember how ineffective Lil' Nog's jab was because Evans simply kept checking it? But they were very rarely comfortably close enough that Evans could do anything afterwards.
This is part of the reason why southpaws in boxing, until fairly recently, have not been promoters' favourites. Coaches and managers avoid them because no good fighters want to fight a good southpaw. Promoters avoided them because open-guard engagements are typically slower paced and more contact is made between the fighters' lead hands than betwixt fist and skull.
St-Pierre's greatest weapon, aside from his multi-million dollar shot, is his jab. Diaz, who boxes with his lead hand and in combinations, gave St-Pierre plenty of opportunities to back up, stop, and stick a hard jab on Diaz's snout.
Against a southpaw whose lead hand exists entirely to check the lead hand of his opponent, it will be interesting to see if St-Pierre can jab effectively.
Now think back to Hendricks' fight with Josh Koscheck. Koscheck's entire game is to check (and poke) with his lead hand, then throw his right. As an orthodox fighter, this is very limiting; but against a southpaw, it is the perfect game.
Hendricks and Koscheck were essentially mirror images, and Koscheck gave Hendricks fits with his hand fighting and his right hand.
Leading with the Face
That said, Hendricks has shown some of the most reckless striking you will see in any weight class. To generate his enormous power he throws himself forward (in the style of Dan Henderson, Rocky Marciano and numerous other great punchers), but he does so in a uniquely exposed way. Hendricks' head literally leads his charge.
Hendricks will run in swinging, with his head well in advance of his hips and even feet, his chin up, and his left hand low. This is where he is utterly exposed for anything—jab, right hand or, as Carlos Condit did so wonderfully, a left hook.
When Hendricks drops his right as he runs in, he is utterly exposed, whether that be to the left hand stiff arming him and keeping him at range (or straying into his eye), as happened numerous times against Koscheck, or to eating a jab, right straight or left hook.
It would be easy to write Hendricks off as a one-trick pony who shocked some great competition, were it not for his brilliant performance in his most recent bout against Condit.
Many thought Condit won the fight, and there's a good case for it, because he fights so well from disadvantageous positions. Hendricks' strategy against such a brilliant all-around fighter, with a significant reach advantage, was a real eye opener.
Rather than wasting time and energy by swinging his left hand, stepping through with his left leg and running after Condit repeatedly throwing the left, Hendricks used pressure incredibly effectively.
Backing Condit toward the fence, it was inevitable that a flying knee or a hard kick would be coming. Hendricks waited for this, dealt with it well most times, then dived in with punches, following through into a takedown.
This is what Hendricks can do best.
I will use the example I always use of Fedor Emelianenko and his right-hand lead. Fedor's opponents were either worried about the takedown or the right hand (and in his prime, the left hook). By attempting one and moving into the other, he could almost guarantee success.
So many great wrestlers work out so that they have punching power, then use it independently of their wrestling chops. They fail to reap the benefits of the synergies the two create, and in the worst cases, for example Henderson or Quinton Jackson, they can abandon their wrestling skills altogether and become just another hard puncher to fill out the division.
If he wipes his man out with the left hand, that's great. If he doesn't, he's shooting on the hips of a guy who is covering his head and hoping the assault ends soon.
The bout with Condit not only showed that Hendricks recognizes that he is only a threat to the elite when he puts his skills together, but also that he knows how to take a step back. Following Anthony Pettis' favourite strategy of putting his man on the fence, then fighting on the counter as the opponent panics, Hendricks was able to sway away from much of Condit's offence and come back in with his left hand.
Simple counters, but top-flight strategy.
You don't need to jump off of the fence to make Pettis' game plan work. In fact, Pettis' really dangerous techniques are the knees in counter to shots as he backs his opponent toward the fence. The fact that Hendricks understands the use of pressure to create openings, rather than simply trying to run in on his man, is a great thing to see.
This is only the briefest of analyses, but the most important point to take away is that you would be harsh to write Hendricks off as a one-trick pony. Until the Condit bout, I was under the impression that he was turning into just that, but the skills and savvy he showed in that fight were a real encouragement.
If a fighter has knockout power in one technique, it is up to the fighter how well his career goes. Many, many fighters have had that one technique that is incredible, then never amounted to more than a gatekeeper.
The following is true of anyone who has that one "money" technique, combination or position in any martial art. He can do one of two things:
1. Manufacture as many strategies as possible which create the opening for that technique or method.
E.g., Andy Ristie or Alistair Overeem's many insane knee strikes, young Marcelo Garcia's X-guard entries from seemingly any position, or St-Pierre's many variations on his jab.
2. Build out a rounded game to capitalize on the opponent's wariness of that one "money" technique.
E.g., Manny Pacquiao's development of his "Manila Ice" right hook in answer to his opponents circling away from his powerful left; Garcia's use of omoplatas, guillotines and many other threats once opponents began adapting to his guard game; Eddie Alvarez learning a complete boxing arsenal even though he was getting by decently on power alone.
It is not necessary for Hendricks to have a fully rounded skill set to take out St-Pierre. In fact, if St-Pierre gets complacent, it's not necessary for Hendricks to have any more than a left hand.
Assuming St-Pierre doesn't allow Hendricks to connect an easy left hand in the opening seconds, it's really down to how well Hendricks can use the threat of punching power to set up his wrestling, and vice versa.
For St-Pierre's part, one wild card in this bout is whether he has recovered his right hand. Against Diaz, he showed a couple of good right straights, but was allowed to jab for the most part. If Hendricks hand fights effectively, St-Pierre may well be forced to use that traditional strategy of leading with the right straight against a southpaw.
I wrote earlier this week about the decay of St-Pierre's right-handed punching skills; it will be interesting to see if he can bring them back against Hendricks.
Either way, this is an exciting bout and a hell of a way to continue the incredible events in the march toward the new year.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.
Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.