Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler: How Safe Sparring May Change Contact Sports

Matthew Ryder@@matthewjryderFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2014

Johny Hendricks, left, and Robbie Lawler exchange punches during a UFC 171 mixed martial arts welterweight title bout, Saturday, March 15, 2014, in Dallas. Hendricks won by decision. (AP Photo/Matt Strasen)
Matt Strasen/Associated Press

We live in a weird time in sports. For the first time ever, the world is almost as focused on the physical price athletes pay to compete as they are on what happens on the field of play.

Long-term effects of contact sports have been a particular focus in this modern era, and while American football is taking the brunt of the criticism, there are certainly those who aren't shy about pointing out potential issues for combat athletes.

It's a sentiment that's grown so much in recent years that the UFC has partnered with several of its mortal enemies to fund a study on just how much brain trauma can be produced by a career specialized in face punching.

Now this is to say nothing of the free will of athletes and how that should be considered in this battle. No one is out there telling mixed martial artists that they need to fight for a living (most are college educated and could easily sit behind a desk for thirty years, where the headaches come from your boss instead of a man's shin landing on your jaw) anymore than people are forcing football players to play or hockey enforcers to engage in bare-knuckle combat on the ice.

For that reason, those who deem themselves progressive, demanding scalps for athlete head injuries may want to pump the brakes and look at the basis of their argument. The thrust is absolutely in the right place, and they're asking the right questions in an effort to improve life for those on the field, but they may not be approaching the problem holistically enough.

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Then, in the midst of this debate, and with the winds of change a-swirlin', an event like UFC 171 takes place and it makes everyone interested in this saga take note.

No, not because some blood was spilled and some dudes got roughed up in the Octagon. That's pretty much a standard night in the UFC.

Not because only two fights ended by (T)KO, either. That's only a means of finish, brain damage happens plenty in fights where no one gets stopped.

Not even because the event was seen by many as a success despite three-quarters of the fights ending via decision. Decisions can be as entertaining as fights being finished.

No, the reason to take note of UFC 171 is that it was headlined by the two heaviest punchers in the welterweight division, two men who stood toe-to-toe for 25 minutes and didn't get knocked out. In fact, neither one was even knocked from his feet.

How is that possible?

Perhaps its possible because of the way those two men, Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler, approach their training.

Going into their meeting in Dallas, both men made statements that left many in the MMA community shocked: They don't get seriously knocked around in training. In fact, Lawler doesn't spar at all in his camps and Hendricks avoids absorbing head strikes at all costs.

Wait, what?

The two top dogs of the welterweight class, who have each made a career on a combined 26 (T)KOs in 38 wins and are among the most feared fighters in the sport while standing, don't get battered in camp?

This was a story beneath a story going into the bout, one that people found interesting but that didn't really resonate with the MMA community. Now, after the two stood in front of one another and took the best that the other could dish out, it's perhaps more intriguing.

Said Hendricks to a media congregation during fight week:

Well, if you look at my training, if you see my helmet, it is like two inches thick... I got a big nose bar. And… I don’t take head shots. The reason why, is that you don’t get paid in the gym - you get training in the gym. I want to save them for in the Octagon, and I think that’s what helps me a lot, is don't take them in there.

Every time you get rocked, it's a little easier, and it's a little easier, and it's a little easier, and it's a little easier. Look at a lot of guys that take punishment. They get dazed, and the next time it's easier. And the next time it's easier. 

So I want to save all my… you know, I don't know how many knockouts you get in your lifetime. I don't know how many times you can get dazed in your lifetime. 

But I want to save those for the important moments. And that's in the Octagon.

Then, on Saturday night and with Lawler slinging the hottest of leathered heat at him in the cage, Hendricks stood up to it. There were times he almost dropped, but then he'd come back with something of his own and got back in the fight.

If he was through 10 weeks of gym wars leading up to the bout, perhaps starched by training partners a few times along the way, would that have happened?

For his part, Lawler ate the dreaded Hendricks left hand multiple times in his own right and did little to show it beyond grinning and returning fire. He hasn't sparred since 2004.

"I didn’t spar for four or five years... I was still knocking a lot of people out. I felt like I already knew how to f--king fight, and now I had to get in shape. I didn’t want to do too much hard sparring," he told Fight! Magazine in 2013.

Again, if he'd done a decade's worth of hard sparring at American Top Team and Miletich Fighting Systems, killing or being killed against the monsters dwelling in those gyms, would he have had the capacity to survive Hendricks for five rounds?

The fact is that the UFC 171 main event was a good one by any metric, but it became an interesting one by this very specific metric: It may have shown the sport what evolution is required in camps to be great in the modern era.

It's conceivable that the days of iron sharpening iron are dying or already dead, and two of the nastiest guys on the roster went out and made a strong case for that on Saturday night. Dana White has been decrying the training habits of mixed martial artists for years, perhaps selfishly, but this fight could very well have proven him right even if he's right for the wrong reasons.

MMA is a contact sport, just as boxing and football and hockey and whatever other sports are currently under fire over the safety of its athletes. The nature of a contact sport is that there is an inherent risk to the body, one that the athletes accept when they engage in the activity.

But if the athlete decides to engage in that activity on his own terms, to manage the risk and the physicality in a way that allows him to protect himself and save his body for the time that the spotlight is on him and he's earning his pay cheque, perhaps everyone can win.

Those worried about the safety of athletes are given not a safer sport per se, but rather a sport that is circumstantially safer through the approach of its athletes.

Those serving as promoters, presidents, commissioners or other figureheads have healthier, happier athletes who are providing better entertainment for a longer term due to better risk management. They also have less pressure from media and advocates fighting for safer sports.

Most importantly? The athletes win, and they win on their own terms. They're protected, healthy and performing at the highest levels, and they get to do it mostly by their own rules.

Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler changed the face of the UFC welterweight division on Saturday night. Who knew, though, that they were blueprinting a change to contact sports as a whole in the 10 weeks that no one was watching them?

Follow me on Twitter @matthewjryder!


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