Lawler vs. Hendricks: The Strangest Great Fight of the Year

Jack Slack@@JackSlackMMALead MMA AnalystMarch 17, 2014

Johny Hendricks blocks a punch from Robbie Lawler 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

Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler, at UFC 171 in Dallas on Saturday night, was one of the strangest fights I've ever seen. It was also easily my favourite fight of the year so far.

Strange how? Well, almost the entire fight took place at trapping range. The range wherein both fighters are touching hands. This is the range that Wing Chun, Kali and other old, traditional martial arts focus on, and the range that George Foreman and Sandy Saddler loved, but a range which is traditionally neutralized in MMA by the clinch.

Each fighter had one hand on the other for most of the fight. Strange stuff!
Each fighter had one hand on the other for most of the fight. Strange stuff!UFC 171

Both fighters are "feelers". They use their hands to eliminate the opponent's offence before throwing their own.
Both fighters are "feelers". They use their hands to eliminate the opponent's offence before throwing their own.UFC 171

Yet both men stood directly in front of each other, close enough to hit each other at all times, trying to work punches through or around the other man's hands.

It was the fight the UFC has wanted for years. A competitive, hard-hitting war for the welterweight belt. Yet no matter which great striker was pushed, they just couldn't stand up (literally) to Georges St. Pierre's unparalleled MMA wrestling.

So, let us take a look at the technical details of the bout.

Rolling with the Punches

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Something which MMA fans, judges and even commentators are guilty of is getting excited by activity rather than effectiveness. It's the reason that Diego Sanchez and Leonard Garcia can win rounds while swinging at air, and it's the reason that one idiot was able to score Round 2 (one of the least decisive rounds of the fight) 10-8 for Hendricks but gave no other 10-8 rounds despite the third round being a great deal more lop-sided for Lawler and the fifth round being all Hendricks.

Seriously...why do these people even work in this business?

But back on pointthere was a lot of excitement because of Hendricks' activity rather than his effectiveness in the early rounds. In Rounds 1 through 4, most of what Hendricks was throwing was either missing or being rolled off by Lawler. 

UFC 171

Notice this sequence, which was treated as one of the more effective moments for Hendricks in the bout, reveals no clean connections except the kick. Moving targets are damn hard to hit, and as much as we like to praise Hendricks' striking improvement, he was still struggling against Lawler's basic, but constant head movement.

That, more than anything else, was the most noticeable point about this fight. Lawler's upper body was in constant motion, while Hendricks stood almost perfectly still, waiting to fire. It made Lawler hard to hit clean, it made Hendricks easier to hit with the jab and it also telegraphed when Hendricks was going to move because it came out of a completely static posture.

UFC 171

The fascination in this fight was with the punching power of both men. But punching power is just momentum, and consistent knockout power is just the ability to create collisions. You can throw your hands as hard as you like against something that is moving away from you, and you'll accomplish very little.

If you have a heavy bag, start it swinging back and forth, then try throwing some hard punches at it while it's swinging away. It's irritating, right? All right, now treat yourself to a few whacks on it as it swings back at you.

No, there is nothing magical about punching power whereby you only need to touch someone (no matter how many times you hear that line rehashed in black-and-white promo movies). You need a clean connection to impart that kinetic energy, and that can't happen if your fist is always sliding off or the target is always moving away.

What Hendricks did have effect with, and what became incredibly significant to the fight later on, was low kicks. You can roll and slip punches all day, but if your upper body is moving, you are not in good position to be checking low kicks. There is a reason that so many Thai boxers fight upright after allit fits the established meta of their sport because they have to check kicks or push kick so often.  

UFC 171

Hendricks started the kicking early, and later on it really paid dividends and, in my opinion, won him the fight.

In the final seconds of Round 2, the fight began to move toward the craziness which would follow. With Hendricks' back to the fence, Lawler began touching Hendricks' hands and forearms at every opportunity. Frank Shamrock described Lawler on a Strikeforce broadcast back in the day as a "feeling" striker, and this sort of stuff demonstrates exactly why. Lawler loves to do the George Foreman, to check the hands and only release them when he wants to counter.

Rounds 3 and 4

The next 10 minutes were the reason that my Twitter is still heaped with incoming requests to analyse this fight. To put it in the simplest terms, Lawler boxed Hendricks' face off.

Opening the third round with some surprising low kicks (which he unfortunately did not return to at any point in the bout), Lawler put Hendricks on the fence from the start. He began connecting with his jabs, which chipped away at Hendricks throughout the bout and which Hendricks' lack of head movement only made into harder connections that they should have been.

Lawler continued to roll off the flurries (but eat the low kicks) and walk Hendricks down. Every time they reached the fence, he put Hendricks on the pressure cooker. When Hendricks wasn't attacking, he was eating jabs, and when he did attack, Lawler would cover, roll and come back with a punch. Halfway through the third round, he connected a good left hook which wobbled Hendricks.

Now, there has been something of a consensus in the media that Lawler should have stepped it up and got the finish right there. I disagree. I believe that what Lawler did next showed the real improvement in him since 10 years ago: He has learned some patience. 

There is no sense ever chasing a puncher. If a fighter is hurt, you put them under pressure, you expect them to swing back and you rack up some free punches and easy counters when they swing. You accumulate free damage; you don't run in and try to finish them, only to get tied up, taken down or knocked out by a Hail Mary punch.

Yes, Lawler lost the fight, but by no means did he do the wrong thing in sitting back once he had Hendricks hurt. The only thing that I would have liked to see more, and which could have changed the way the fight continued, was if Lawler had used the opportunity to land some free shots to Hendricks' body. You can recover from getting cracked over the head in a few minutes, but body work stays with you until the morning after.

Once Hendricks recovered, Lawler continued to use his hands to harass him. Slapping at Hendricks' guard he would get Hendricks reaching or bracing and then fire around it or inside it. When Hendricks was worrying about the right hookLawler's money punchLawler was firing jabs inside of his guard. 

Lawler's jabs were responsible for the damage to Hendricks' face, rather than the big swings.
Lawler's jabs were responsible for the damage to Hendricks' face, rather than the big swings.UFC 171

UFC 171

Round 4 was all Lawler as well, but this time it wasn't the big counters as much as it was the jab. You will remember that Hendricks, the southpaw, easily shut down Georges St. Pierre's orthodox jab with his lead hand. Well against another southpaw, it wasn't that easy. Lawler connected time and time again with hard jabs and opened Hendricks' nose and right eye up.

UFC 171

Furthermore, Lawler threw hooks to the body throughout Round 4, something which could have changed the complexion of the fifth round if he had started earlier. Round 4 demonstrated the best technical Lawler we have seen to date. There's a lot to a jab. Hiding the motion of it is everything, and Lawler used all manner of shoulder feints, slaps and pats to Hendricks' arms to hide his jabs throughout the round.

If you want to learn about landing the jab in MMA and you don't have GSP-like genes, this round is a good one to watch.

Round 5

Round 5 was where the low kicks paid off. If you can't move your weight quickly and effectively, you can't get out of the way of punches and you can't shrug off the connections that wouldn't bother you in Round 1. 

Two things can get someone to stand still in front of you: fatigue and low kicks. And Lawler was suffering from them both. By Round 5, he couldn't get away from the punches, and Hendricks started to have a field day. Lawler couldn't get away from the lefts quick enough and stopped being that heavy bag swinging away from Hendricks...and became just a heavy bag.

Hendricks landed hard shots on Lawler, and Lawler was sucking wind and eating punches in the last minute along the fence. Here, Hendricks opted to take the fight to the ground and adopt what I call "Josh Thomson position."

UFC 171

Anyone who remembers Thomson's terrible fight with K.J. Noons, or Jason Miller's terrible fights with Michael Bisping and Jake Shields, will know this position all too well. The last thing you want when you get a takedown is the opponent walking up the wall, getting their hooks in or hitting a technical stand-up (and there was an awesome one of those earlier in the night by Raquel Pennington).

So what Hendricks did was to grapevine the legs and stretch Lawler out. What can you accomplish from here? If you're not Shinya Aoki, nothing. But the fight was already done. Hendricks had dominated the round, and secured a takedown, so why let Lawler swing in the last 30 seconds like everyone knew he was going to?

The bout was the most exciting welterweight title fight in years, which is no slur on St. Pierre; it was simply a brilliant contest. Both men had moments of absolute, one-sided dominance and moments of being on the wrong end of a butt-kicking. They both displayed that much-touted "heart of a champion," and it was a little disappointing to see one man walk away the loser.

If you haven't watched it, what the hell are you waiting for? Easily the best title fight since Jones vs. Gustafsson and well worth your time and money.

Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone ByJack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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