The consensus number two-ranked welterweight in the world returns to action against a two-time NCAA champion wrestler this Friday night (Dec. 30, 2011) as former UFC number one contender Jon Fitch takes on Oklahoma's own Johny Hendricks in what expects to be a gritty hard-fought affair on the UFC 141: "Lesnar vs. Overeem" main card.
Fitch is coming off a highly competitive draw against B.J. Penn at UFC 127 earlier this year, as well as an extensive shoulder injury shortly thereafter that required surgery to repair. By the time he steps into the cage, it will have been more than 10 months since he last competed. He's got some major stakes in the fight, too, as he could earn a shot at the UFC interim welterweight title with a victory.
Hendricks, meanwhile, has bounced back strongly from the first loss of his mixed martial arts (MMA) career little more than one year ago by going undefeated (2-0) thus far in 2011. The Team Takedown fighter is capable of both grappling-fused decisions or highlight reel knockouts with his heavy hands. And he's got an opportunity to vault into contender status with a victory over Fitch.
Will Fitch show any signs of rust after a lengthy injury layoff? Is an upset brewing for Hendricks? What's the best path of victory for each man on Friday night?
Let's find out:
Record: 23-3-1 (1 No Contest) overall, 13-1-1 in the UFC
Key Wins: Thiago Alves (Twice: UFC 117, UFC Fight Night 5), Diego Sanchez (UFC 76), Paulo Thiago (UFC 100)
Key Losses: Georges St. Pierre (UFC 87)
How he got here: Fitch has been a staple of the UFC welterweight division for over six years now. A former team captain of the Purdue wrestling squad after walking on to the team, Fitch entered the UFC with a 10-2 record with one no contest and proceeded to win eight straight including notable victories over the likes of Thiago Alves and Diego Sanchez to earn a shot at Georges St. Pierre and the welterweight title.
Fitch would display his heart and toughness over the course of five rounds, but he was thoroughly beaten by the champion in a largely one-sided affair. Since losing his shot at UFC gold, Fitch has gone to six straight decisions, notably defeating Paulo Thiago, Ben Saunders and Thiago Alves (again) to return to top contender status before drawing with B.J. Penn earlier this year.
While training for a rematch with Penn, Fitch injured his shoulder and has been sidelined for much of the rest of the year after having surgery. He's finally back and ready for action, drawing former national champion wrestler Johny Hendricks in his return to the Octagon.
How he gets it done: Despite his incredible accolades, Hendricks has had issues against strong MMA wrestlers because of his comortability on his back. If Fitch wants to win this fight, the best plan of action is to avoid Hendricks' power in the stand-up exchanges and close the distance, either with clinches or takedown attempts.
If he can get inside in the clinch, expect repeated attempts to drag Hendricks to the ground or even simply dropping down for a single or double leg takedown. Fitch is a relatively competent striker, but if he can gain top control on the ground, he'll be well on his way to taking a round from his bearded foe.
From top control, Fitch is relentless, even if he doesn't pass guard. The American Kickboxing Academy fighter has a very strong ground and pound attack from full guard if his opponent is playing defense well and he'll only pass if it's safe to do so. He's got a great motor and is only going to get stronger as the fight heads into the later rounds.
How he got here: Hendricks was a stud who transitioned to MMA. While wrestling at Oklahoma State University, he claimed both the 2005 and 2006 national championships. After graduating college, he quickly joined up with Team Takedown and began training MMA full time.
In just his fourth professional fight, he was making his WEC debut, defeating an overmatched Dustin Haskins via second round knockout and after the UFC absorbed all WEC weightclasses over 155 pounds, he was taken along for the ride.
Hendricks made his UFC debut against The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 7 winner Amir Sadollah and he made quick work of him, crushing the TUF champ via technical knockout in less than 30 seconds. After four straight wins in the division, including another impressive stoppage of Charlie Brenneman, he earned another main card slot against Rick Story on TUF 12 Finale.
Hendricks would be no match for Story's relentless pace, losing a unanimous decision to suffer the first and only loss of his career. Since then, he's gotten back on the winning track with consecutive victories over T.J. Waldburger and Mike Pierce, respectively.
He was ready for a huge step up in competition in Fitch, a bout that can put him firmly on the welterweight map if he can score the upset.
How he gets it done: Hendricks, despite competing for Team Takedown and possessing national champion amateur wrestling skills, should want to keep this fight standing. He hasn't quite been able to transition those elite college attributes into his MMA game, at least against some of the better welterweight wrestlers in the UFC.
What he has been able to develop is an vastly improved striking game, one that continues to grow and evolve in technique and power every time we see him. Hendricks has severe knockout power in his hands if he can land a clean strike to the chin or temple and he'll be looking to catch Fitch if he can.
Expect to see Hendricks work his angles, maneuvering his feet so he's not caught out of position and he can fend off Fitch's attempts to either shoot in for takedowns or close the distance in the clinch. While he's comfortable on his back, that's the last place he wants to be against an MMA wrestler of Fitch's caliber.
The picture perfect scenario for him would be if he could side-step a takedown or strike attempt and land a flush right or left counter to Fitch's exposed jaw. There's a very real possibility that even someone as durable as the number two welterweight in the world might not be able to recover if swarmed.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight is Jon Fitch's shoulder. While it didn't quite put him on the sideline as long as a knee injury, having shoulder surgery is a huge deal in MMA. The shoulder is so incredibly important, whether it's for clinching, striking or grappling. If he doesn't have the strength he used to or the same range of motion, it could be a completely different fighter out there.
Questions about Fitch's shoulder should especially be raised considering what happened to his teammate, Cain Velasquez, losing the title in little more than one minute a year after recovering from a relatively similar procedure. Will he be able to control his opponents the same? Can he drag Hendricks down as well as he would have? That's something that we're going to have to find out on Friday night.
If not, Hendricks could be primed for a major upset.
Bottom Line: While most people are usually not very excited to see Fitch fight, there's something to be appreciated about what he's been able to do over and over again to his opponents. He can take them down and actively control them, doing enough to avoid stand-ups and completely frustrate anyone and everyone. As Joe Rogan once said, it's "Beautiful in it's ugliness," and if he's able to do the same thing to a two-time national champion wrestler in Hendricks, he deserves all the praise in the world. On the other hand, if Hendricks can keep it standing and force Fitch to scrap with him, the fight could get incredibly more interesting as well as entertaining for the more casual fan. There are some very interesting possibilities with this bout, so don't tune out simply because Fitch is fighting.
Who will come out on top at UFC 141? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!