Johny Hendricks was at his best when his best was needed Saturday at UFC 171, turning away a strong second-half push from Robbie Lawler to claim the vacant welterweight title via unanimous decision.
Their instant-classic fight began the post-Georges St-Pierre era in style—with a visceral, five-round slugfest that at times seemed the antithesis of the slow-and-steady performances that had become the norm from the previous champion.
If there were any lingering questions about what the 170-pound class would look like with St-Pierre out on his self-imposed sabbatical, Hendricks and Lawler provided the answers.
Their back-and-forth scrap will surely be a Fight of the Year candidate and set up a litany of fresh storylines for Hendricks as he begins his reign as titlist.
In the end, though, one thing remained constant: The guy with the better game plan and more complete MMA arsenal walked out with the title.
"Realistically, I thought we were both going to knock each other out in the first or the second round," Hendricks said at the post-fight press conference, via MMA Fighting's Shaun Al-Shatti. "I didn't think we were going to go five. Definitely, as hard as he hit me in the third and fourth round, almost anybody else would've been out. For some reason I have a thick skull.”
Throughout his 17-fight professional career, Hendricks had established a reputation as an outstanding wrestler who could also throw bombs. Against Lawler, however, his ability to invoke a fully evolved stand-up attack proved to be the difference, duly erasing the memory of his bitter UFC 167 loss to St-Pierre last November.
He mixed fluid punching combinations with kicks and knees, adding in the odd takedown attempt to keep his opponent off-balance. It was the sort of showing that signaled the culmination of his journey from collegiate wrestler to mixed martial artist, and it was good enough to make him the first undisputed welterweight champion not named GSP since 2008.
By contrast, Lawler’s attack was far more one-dimensional, as he looked content merely to box through the first 10 minutes.
Perhaps it was that slow start that ultimately doomed the 31-year-old Iowa native. He looked serene and calm walking to the Octagon prior to the bout, as if certain his 13-year, 33-fight journey to a UFC title fight was about to pay off.
Through the first two rounds, though, Hendricks beat him to the punch, uncorking slick combinations in the middle of the cage and battering Lawler’s legs with knees when the two clinched against the fence.
Lawler did well to remain on his feet for the majority of the bout—and provided a few vintage "Ruthless Robbie" moments when he took Hendricks’ best shots and grinned back at him—but the early stanzas rightly went to Hendricks on most scorecards.
Lawler turned the tide in the third, putting Hendricks in serious trouble after landing a left hand midway through the frame. With a bit more urgency, he may have been able to finish the fight. Instead, he allowed Hendricks to creep back into contention and eventually take the victory on all three scorecards (48-47 x 3).
Hendricks recovered and rallied down the stretch. He got a stern lecture from cornerman Marc Laimon prior to the decisive fifth round and fought the final five minutes like a guy who had already been denied the championship in the cruelest fashion once before.
He left no doubt this time.
He once again reached into his striking toolbox to push an exhausted Lawler against the fence and settled things for good with a takedown in the final minute. With the two-time NCAA national wrestling champion on top of him as the last seconds ticked away, Lawler looked up at the clock and shook his head in frustration, knowing he had let this one get away.
"I'm just disappointed," Lawler said, via Al-Shatti. "So close. It was a hell of a fight. It's been a long road, a long journey, and I just didn't see it going down this way."