Now that the dust from UFC 171 has settled, Johny Hendricks stands atop the welterweight heap as the new UFC champion.
His fight with Robbie Lawler saw him seriously tested, and the judges awarded him the same belt they denied him at UFC 167 when he lost via split decision to Georges St-Pierre. But now that he has what he’s always wanted, is it all he always thought it would be?
In a sport that is based on action, one could argue that perceptions mean little, but sometimes perception is based on fact—and the fans are not the only ones watching.
Throughout the history of the UFC welterweight title, the men who took the throne with authority—via stoppage—have been the men who were granted absolute ownership in the eyes of the fans.
Pat Miletich had a hard time being accepted by some fans, given that he won the belt via split decision over Mikey Burnett. Conversely, Carlos Newton suffered no questions as to his legitimacy when he choked Miletich out for the crown at UFC 31.
When Matt Hughes won the title from Newton at UFC 34, many fans questioned his position as champion, given the way that fight ended. Hughes seemed to succumb to a triangle leg choke from an elevated Newton, who in turn was knocked out when Hughes fell and slammed Newton down to the mat.
It was only after Hughes stopped Newton in their rematch at UFC 38 that the masses finally agreed that Hughes was the true champion.
After Hughes, it was Penn and then Hughes again; both men won the title by stoppage in the first round, and both were fully recognized as champion.
Of course, St-Pierre entered the picture next, stopping Hughes at UFC 65 and leaving no question as to his place as top dog in the division. It wasn’t until he lost to heavy underdog Matt Serra at UFC 69 that the questions began to arise.
He wiped away all those questions when he stopped Serra in their rematch at UFC 83.
When Hendricks lost to St-Pierre, some questioned the decision, but many did not. St-Pierre had been sitting atop the throne for so long that his dominance had been unquestioned up to that night, and by proxy, the decision represented more of the same.
The fight saw Hendricks damage St-Pierre in ways that were surprising, but St-Pierre had more than his fair share of success as well. Additionally, an adage states that in order to win the belt, you have to take it from the champion, leaving no question.
In short, if you don’t stop him, you have to dominate him in convincing fashion—something Hendricks simply did not do.
After St-Pierre vacated the belt, Hendricks found himself in an excellent position; there was no champion to defeat, no legacy to overcome. All he had to do was defeat another contender, and the title would be his.
At UFC 171, Hendricks managed to do this, but many viewers thought that Lawler won the bout. Hendricks saw his face bloodied and battered, clearly losing Rounds 3 and 4. The majority of the dispute seems to revolve around who won the opening frame.
And so now Hendricks wears the belt, but he does so without the authority of past champions who took the title by stoppage.
During St-Pierre’s reign, many fans clamored for a new champion who would fight for the finish; Hendricks seemed to fit the bill, given his one-punch knockouts of Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann.
But he has not finished a fighter since November of 2012, which seems to speak to the depth of the division at hand. He landed his vaunted left hand on more than one occasion against both St-Pierre and Lawler, and both men took it well.
When Hendricks began to eat the hard shots from Lawler, it looked like he was the one in danger of being knocked out. He gutted it out and won the fight, but no matter who you favored after the final bell, it was a very close bout that could have gone either way.
It also made one point very clear—Hendricks is not invincible.
When St-Pierre began his true title reign, he possessed an enviable skill set that allowed him to decide where the fight was fought nearly without fail. He was in excellent condition and sharpening his overall game, showing improvements every time out.
And he could always take the fight to the floor at any time he wanted.
Going into the fight with Lawler, it looked like Hendricks had a similar advantage. As a very strong wrestler, it seemed to reason that he could take the fight to the ground anytime he wanted.
Yet Lawler stuffed eight of 10 takedown attempts, and Hendricks was forced to slug it out, effectively fighting where his opponent was strongest. This almost cost him the fight and could pose serious problems for his reign when you consider the depth in the division.
Fighters like Hector Lombard and Tyron Woodley, who are powerful and athletic, may now be much bolder, given the success of Lawler. The perception might be that Hendricks is not as complete a fighter as St-Pierre proved to be.
Given that fighting is just as much a mental battle as a physical one, Hendricks' inability to stop Lawler could leave many fans and more than a few fighters with the impression that the welterweight throne is still vacant.
One of the things that made a prime Mike Tyson such a dangerous opponent was that his power was not in question; if he hit you cleanly, he hurt you, and from there, the end was nearly academic. His opponents knew this and were wary of the fact in ways that could not be trained out of them.
Intimidation is rooted in the basest of human frailty and becomes a huge asset in the hands of those who have fight-ending power.
Hendricks came close to achieving this kind of respect for his left hand, and with that would have come a mental edge that further enabled other aspects of his game, especially the takedowns. Now, after Lawler ate his best punches and smiled, any idea of superiority is no longer certain.
Hendricks is a great fighter who is suffering the same undue criticism that Larry Holmes endured after taking up the throne after Muhammad Ali. Like Holmes, Hendricks is doomed to toil under a large shadow that will demand his very best at all times, not just 70 percent, as he noted after his losing effort against St-Pierre at UFC 167.
Until he starts to defend his title with the same kind of authority that men such as Hughes and St-Pierre used to earn it, Hendricks may be seen as nothing more than a steward who is keeping the belt warm for the next true champion.
But possession is still nine-tenths of the law, and with the belt firmly around his waist, Hendricks has a chance to solidify his standing as the true king.
To do so, he must begin to win convincingly, leaving no doubt.
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