Two-time NCAA national wrestling champion, Johny Hendricks, looks to earn Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) gold by taking out longtime veteran, Robbie Lawler, this Saturday night (March 15, 2014) at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
As with any four-time All-American wrestler, Hendricks entered mixed martial arts (MMA) with a fair amount of hype. In his first nine fights, he lived up to it, winning all of his bouts and finishing most. A competitive loss to Rick Story sent him back down the ladder a bit, but he earned it back with wins against TJ Waldburger and Mike Pierce.
In his next bout, Hendricks became the first person other than Georges St. Pierre to defeat Jon Fitch in the UFC, using his powerful left hand to knockout the grinding wrestling in just 12 seconds. Three more wins over top competition, meaning he was on a six-fight winning streak, earned him a shot at the belt. In an extremely close bout, Hendricks wound up on the wrong side of a split decision.
Now, he's been given a second chance. Can he capitalize on it?
Let's take a closer look at his skills and find out.
Hendricks, who has been likened to a southpaw Dan Henderson, focuses almost entirely on landing his devastating left hand. It's not the most technically attractive style, but its effectiveness cannot be denied.
Much like his opponent, Hendricks showed in his last bout how well he can shutdown the jab of an orthodox opponent with his lead hand. Though St. Pierre still managed to land a good number of jabs, many were caught or parried by Hendricks' right hand. After deflecting the jab, Hendricks immediately attempted to land a long left hand.
In his last fight, Hendricks also showcased an improved jab, the only strike he didn't lunge in with. While jabbing, Hendricks did a pretty decent job hiding his chin with his shoulder. He would also slide backwards after throwing, as "GSP" was trying to counter Hendricks' jab with a left hook.
Hendricks frequently starts his combinations with a right hook or uppercut. While his opponent's sharp, straight punches can land quicker, they rarely pack the power of Hendricks' shots. After he throws either the hook or uppercut, Hendricks follows up with a long left overhand or straight, trying to catch his opponent moving backwards at the end of his shot.
To land his devastating overhand, Hendricks needs space. To land with full power, Hendricks lowers his body and takes a long step with his back leg, launching his fist through the air. Hendricks is a natural and has quickly learned how to put his entire body behind his punches, something many fighters struggle with for their entire career. When combined with his speed and accuracy, this kind of power is a threat to anyone in the division.
Hendricks' ability to cover a large amount of distance is very impressive and a large part of why his left is so dangerous. Hendricks routinely attacks from outside the boxing range of average fighters but is still able to land. Normally, fighters can relax and watch for kicks at this range, leaving them open to Hendricks' lunging attack.
One way Hendricks' lands his overhand left is to wait for his opponent's leg kick. This worked brilliantly against both "GSP" and Carlos Condit, as neither expected the shorter Hendricks to be able to hit them while at the end of their kicks. Though St. Pierre adjusted as the fight when on, making sure his guard was up to block the counter, it still forced him to switch up his attack a bit. Additionally, Hendricks managed to seriously hurt St. Pierre by following up this counter with more punches.
Hendricks attacks with the overhand with pure determination. It's not that he sets it up especially well, but his power, speed, and accuracy make up for that. It's also not uncommon for Hendricks to double or even triple up on the overhand. This is a fairly unorthodox thing to do with an overhand, but it also shows his aggression and belief in his own power.
"Bigg Rigg" is at his best when his opponent moves backwards, as he can extend his combinations. He generally just alternates power shots from both hands, but his forward movement and power makes attempting to counter him risky. That said, if one of his opponents plants his feet and fires a straight down the middle during a combination, Hendricks' chin would be at risk. St. Pierre had some success countering with his straight right, but his cross was never the best, and it didn't land with enough power to discourage Hendricks.
In his last fight, Hendricks really focused on slowing down the Canadian's movement. To do that, he used leg kicks, both inside and out, more than he had in his entire career. The kicks were powerful, and he tried to follow them up with his big left hand, the southpaw equivalent of Dan Henderson's favored combination. However, he did not set the kicks up fairly well, allowing St. Pierre to counter them as he adjusted.
Another new tool Hendricks' showed was his stepping knee. The Oklahoma native anticipated St. Pierre's attempts to shoot under his punches, so he switched it up by throw stepping knees when "Rush" changed levels. Though none landed clearly, he managed to make St. Pierre hesitate with his takedowns.
Hendricks has shown a great deal of physical strength while grappling inside the clinch, and it carries over into his clinch striking as well. He actively seeks a single-collar tie, where he can attack to the head and body with uppercuts or hooks. In his fights against Josh Koscheck and St. Pierre, Hendricks was able to land brutal knees to the thighs, which help limit a fighters movement.
Despite his success on the feet, Hendricks has quite a few defensive issues. His hands don't guard his chin very well, especially while punching, and he moves straight backwards when pressured. In fact, Hendricks' striking loses a ton of its power when he's forced backwards, since lunging forward is such a big part of his attack.
Hendricks was able to overcome his inability to fight while moving backwards against Condit, as he blasted a takedown whenever he was forced backwards. However, when a fellow wrestler in Rick Story pushed him backwards, he wasn't able to take him down easily, leading to his first loss.
Hendricks is a four-time Division-1 All-American wrestler, three-time Big 12 Conference champion, and two-time national champ, and one time national runner-up. These are some of the most impressive credentials of any UFC fighter, as Hendricks had Olympic potential after his college career. Prior to his St. Pierre fight, it was unclear whether his wrestling had translated into MMA very well, but he proved he could wrestle with the best in the world.
Regardless of whether he's shooting a single, double, or grinding in the clinch, it's very clear that Hendricks has an abundance of wrestler strength. Years and years of moving around bodies have given Hendricks the ability to manhandle his foes, even fellow wrestlers. In his title fight, Hendricks routinely out-muscled "GSP" in the over-under position, forcing him against the fence to eat knees to the thigh.
Hendricks is very good at driving through double legs. When he shoots for a double, it's not uncommon for him to push his opponent far across the Octagon. Though he prefers to finish the shot against the cage, where his physical strength is most effect, he can turn the corner in the center of the Octagon as well.
In addition to his double and clinch work, Hendricks has a very nice single leg. Once he's deep on his opponent's hip, he latches on and runs the pipe. Again, Hendricks is just so strong, it's hard for his opponent to resist.
"Bigg Rigg" demonstrated just how good his takedown defense is when he fought St. Pierre. In the first round, he did some serious damage to the champion while he attacked a single leg. Hendricks, while basically balancing on one leg, managed to get power into his sideways elbows, cracking the side of St. Pierre's head over and over. This eventually forced the champion to give up on the finish.
During a different single leg attempt from St. Pierre, Hendricks showcased his balance. "GSP" tried a few different grips on the single and attempted to elevate the leg, but no matter what he did, Hendricks remained upright. In an incredible display of balance, Hendricks didn't even bother to hop the next time St. Pierre tried to maneuver him, merely letting his foot drag across the mat.
That's not easy.
Hendricks is also very difficult to hold down. After creating space, he either transitions into a takedown of his own or turtles up. Hendricks isn't actually trying to finish the shot, but he can usually work up to his feet from his opponent's front head lock. Similarly, Hendricks ignores his opponent's attempts to take his back and just stands up.
If there is one takedown Hendricks is susceptible to, it's the double leg. That's not to say it's easy to double leg Hendricks, but if his opponent catches him swinging against the fence, it's not too difficult to get in on his hips while his feet are close together. "GSP," Story, and Koscheck managed to hit their takedowns in this exact situation, though Hendricks was able to return to his feet quickly.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Though the extent of Hendricks' jiu-jitsu is unknown, he has showed some nice techniques. He only has a single submission finish, but he has also never been finished on the mat.
Off of his back, Hendricks doesn't use the guard in the tradition sense (looking for submissions or sweeps). Instead, Hendricks uses butterfly hooks and occasionally a knee across the body half guard to create space. As he elevates or pushes back his opponent, he creates just enough space to get to a wrestling position, either the front head lock or turtle. His wrestling is so good from both positions that he can scramble back to his feet.
Even if this won't lead to any submissions from his back any time soon, it's a very intelligent way to add jiu-jitsu into his wrestling while still playing to his strengths.
Hendricks sole submission victory was a d'arce choke over Richard Gamble in 2008. From the GIF alone, it's clear that Hendricks understands the angle needed to finish, which he quickly secures. Then, he choose to lean into the choke with his chest, rather than sit on his hip and hook a leg. This method of finishing is perfectly acceptable and is actually the original way the choke was finished.
One submission technique that Hendricks uses is a reversal to the kimura. As his opponent tries to interrupt his takedown attempt with a kimura, Hendricks locks his own hands together. Then, he reverses who the position puts pressure on by wrenching backwards, More often than not, the person attempting the kimura is in a worse position and is forced to let go. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a muscle move, it's actually just leverage.
Although Hendricks has yet to be finished or even really put in a bad position, I have noticed a couple potential weaknesses in his grappling. Hendricks has been reversed by guillotine chokes at least twice, by Story and St. Pierre. Falling to his back is a good way to be safe, but it could get him in trouble positionally, or worse, land him in a mounted guillotine.
Additionally, Hendricks' willingness to give up his back could really come back to bite him. Of all his opponents, Story came the closest to taking Hendricks' back fully, and he also had an armbar opportunity from the position. It may be an effective move, but it's also very risky.
Best chance for success
Hendricks is facing an interesting style match up against Lawler. He hasn't faced many southpaws, with the most recent being Story, and has never faced anyone who can not only match but possibly exceed his own power.
In order to defeat Lawler, Hendricks needs to use his wrestling advantage. That doesn't mean he can carelessly shoot on the first exchange, as Lawler only needs a small advantage to do damage during scrambles (just ask Josh Koscheck). Instead, Hendricks should look to get a clinch. Not a single or double collar tie, as that's a position that Lawler can do damage from, as well.
If Hendricks can grab a over-under or double underhook clinch, he can begin to work on Lawler's legs with knees. In addition, he can also get a safe takedown if Lawler makes a mistake with his foot positioning. One of the biggest questions in this bout is who owns the cardio advantage, as both have slowed down as fights progress. An easy way for Hendricks to ensure that he has the advantage is to force Lawler to carry his weight.
There you have it.
Will Hendricks finally fulfill his goal of becoming the champion, or can Lawler pull off the upset?