USA TODAY Sports
Some things in mixed martial arts (MMA), like Nick Diaz leapfrogging Johny Hendricks as the No.1 Welterweight contender, happen for a reason.
After grinding out a hard-nosed decision Saturday night at UFC 158, which too place at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Johny Hendricks proved the many reasons he is the top Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight contender, using a blend of big punches and takedowns to edge out Carlos Condit on the scorecards.
With the exciting win – which was marked by both men absorbing some big shots on the feet, and Hendricks' wrestling proving the difference – "Bigg Rigg" was promised a title shot by UFC honcho Dana White later this year, even though he’ll have to let his injured left hand mend for an as-yet-unspecified time.
And when it does, a healthy Hendricks will possess the best shot he’s ever had of beating incumbent 170-pound champion Georges St. Pierre.
Maybe the best chance anyone’s had since Matt Serra, where an overconfident St. Pierre trained for a mere 10 days leading into his first title defense. The champion, while retaining his belt in the UFC 158 main event against Nick Diaz, looked a few degrees removed from his physically dominant self over the final two rounds of the decision win, and badly tired, despite absorbing limited strikes from Diaz and scoring his usual flurry of takedowns early.
After the bout, with his banged and bruised face, he hardly looked the winner, despite taking his eighth title defense on a 50-45 sweep of the scorecards. It was also his sixth consecutive title defense by decision (breaking his previous record of five). At this point it’s pretty obvious that the St. Pierre who steamrolled through the promotion’s toughest contenders prior to winning the title from Matt Hughes, then losing it to Serra, is not the same guy fighting and defending the belt six years later.
That version of St. Pierre was an aggressive, athletic, ultra-assertive wrecking machine. After winning the Serra rematch in a destructive performance, St. Pierre proceeded to carefully batter B.J. Penn, and has since become so tactical and percentages-oriented that he’s one of the most dominant fighters in the history of mixed martial arts (MMA).
But, he seems content to ride out decisions instead of finishing opponents.
Hendricks was far from perfect against Condit, but he brought a couple things to light that, in comparing how both performed Saturday night, suggest he will be one heck of a challenge for St. Pierre. He can take a shot and his compact, powerful frame will make St. Pierre work readily for takedowns, unlike his previous two opponents in Diaz and Condit.
Neither are good wrestlers and both have lanky bodies that allowed St. Pierre to virtually flip a switch and plant them on the mat whenever he didn’t like how the stand up fight was going.
St. Pierre is almost guaranteed to go fight for a decision win these days, giving Hendricks five rounds to tire him out, sprawl and brawl, and keep throwing his huge punches. It’s also worthwhile to note that St. Pierre completely hit the wall by the fourth round of the Diaz fight.
After missing three straight takedowns, he seemed to concede that he wasn’t going to be able to keep stuffing Diaz to the mat, and by the fifth, he allowed himself to lay in a series of clinches with Diaz while getting outworked, often while being pushed against the cage.
When’s the last time you saw that happen to St. Pierre in a fight?
It may have been merely a night that wasn’t his best, but St. Pierre has had a long career with his share of injuries, including the severe ACL tear that in 2011 kept him out of the game for nearly a year. The explosiveness that defined his incredible takedowns simply wasn’t there against Diaz.
Indeed, the vicious, all-in killer instinct that saw him decimate Sean Sherk, Frank Trigg, decision Penn and crush Hughes in their rematch bout is pretty much a thing of the past. It’s fine to play the percentages and trend toward the most likely winning strategy, but against a potent banger like Hendricks, that also means five rounds of taking serious chances.
And as things stack up, Hendricks will never have a better chance than right now.
Hendricks, meanwhile, did many things against Condit that might put concern into eyes of his backers, at least compared to how St. Pierre performed against him in his previous defense. "Bigg Rigg" scored 12 takedowns, but couldn’t control position from top enough to land effective ground-and-pound nor keep Condit from working his way back up.
But, he did showcase his numbing left hand, especially in the first round, and an ability to absorb punishment.
Hendricks will have to stuff early St. Pierre takedowns and force a standing fight – something that seemed to frustrate and tire "Rush" late in the Diaz bout – and have the kind of gas tank that can keep winging and bringing pressure.
That’s exactly what Hendricks has demonstrated he can do, and it might be enough to put the champion in the kind of danger he hasn’t seen in a long time.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst