Lost in the immediate aftermath of the bombshell announcement the Georges St-Pierre detonated last Friday (Dec. 13, 2013) that he would vacate his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight title and step away from mixed martial arts (MMA), was a discussion of what this means for Johny Hendricks, now the de facto No. 1-ranked 170-pound fighter in the world.
Sure, we know the immediate answer to that question, at least in terms of how it relates to the vacant title: Hendricks will now face UFC 171 on March 15, 2014, at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas (read full details here).for the Welterweight crown at
However, two words in the above sentence hint at a potentially Texas-sized problem for the winner of that match: "Vacant title."
Whoever the next UFC Welterweight champion is on March 16 next year (and let's face it, if we're being honest here most of us likely see Hendricks defeating the recently surging journeyman Lawler) he'll have an uphill battle convincing fans he isn't just keeping the belt nice and warm until the "real" champ St. Pierre comes back and takes what is rightfully his.
As if the inevitable comparisons to the iconic "GSP" won't be a heavy enough burden for the winner of Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler to take on, the next top dog at 170 pounds is also going to have the irrefutable logic of Ric Flair's Law damning him in the eyes of many of the UFC faithful.
Simply put, it's going to be hard to see the new champ as "The Man" since he never beat St. Pierre.
There is, however, a solution to this problem (provided Hendricks wins).
Starting immediately, the company should begin planting seeds in fans' minds that Hendricks was robbed against St. Pierre at UFC 167 last month.
For instance, on the next episode of "UFC Tonight," Dana White could mention St. Pierre's retirement, then transition into an announcement of the Hendricks vs. Lawler bout wherein he casually lets slip how he believes Hendricks won the fight against "GSP."
Then have various talking heads on the Zuffa payroll repeat this company line over the coming months -- Joe Rogan springs to mind as someone who has credibility with fans -- and begin hammering home the idea that, although the fight was close, Hendricks deserved to take the decision and many are calling him the uncrowned champ.
Finally, every time a microphone is shoved in front of his wooly mug between now and next spring, "Bigg Rigg" should repeat three simple sound bytes: He destroyed "GSP" when they fought, in his mind he's the rightful champ, and after March 15 he'll finally be able to take home the belt he earned on Nov. 16, 2013.
Sure, this may not be a 100 percent accurate depiction of events -- judged on the 10-point must system, St. Pierre vs. Hendricks was a razor-close fight that came down to how one saw the virtually even first round -- but "Hendricks got screwed" is a lot more marketable story than "Hendricks didn't do enough to convincingly win a decision."
One of the advantages UFC holds over mainstream sporting leagues -- especially in this era of synergy with FOX -- is that, because of a dearth of coverage by the majority of mainstream media outlets, the promotion can usually control the narrative that reaches the majority of its customer base.
Some hardcore followers of the sport may balk at this idea, but UFC doesn't don't have a responsibility to explain the often complex nuances of the truth to fans; as a business it exists purely to make the most money possible.
The tobacco-chawin' redneck Hendricks will never have St. Pierre's sponsor-friendly squeaky clean image, but that doesn't mean he can't be a big star, and a legitimate drawing card, in his own right. With his good 'ole boy persona and fool-killing crowbar of a left hand, Hendricks may prove to have something of an untapped Chuck Liddell-type appeal.
This is a star-driven business, and considering the black hole size void left by St. Pierre's absence, UFC needs all the new stars it can get. However, if the promotion wants to set up Hendricks for success, that means first and foremost giving fans a hook to get emotionally invested in him.
Losing the company's biggest cash cow will be a huge blow to Zuffa's bottom line, but part of White and company playing the hand it has been dealt is making the most out of what assets it can best promote. And given the state of this post GSP-world we suddenly find ourselves in, billing Hendricks as the uncrowned baddest man in the world at 170-pounds is the best hand UFC can play right now.
And if Hendricks does manage become a bonafide superstar while holding the Welterweight belt? Then we could be talking north of a million pay-per-view (PPV) buys in the entirely likely event St. Pierre comes out of retirement to face him.
If that scenario does play out, this whole St. Pierre temporarily stepping away from UFC thing might not end up being so bad after all. Either way, what matters most now is getting Hendricks ready to carry the division in his stead.