Let's get one thing perfectly clear: Johny Hendericks, the new Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweight champion, is never going to fill the gargantuan shoes left by his predecessor, Georges St-Pierre.
"GSP" was a veritable name brand unto himself, and the biggest draw in the sport. It's simply unrealistic to expect Hendricks to live up to that standard.
However, it appears "Bigg Rigg" has a chance to be an entirely different type of attraction after watching the performance he put on against Robbie Lawler in the main event of UFC 171, which took place tonight (Sat., March 15, 2014) at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
Hendricks won a solid decision over Lawler and displayed some marked improvements to his game -- most notably in the way he integrated knees and low kicks into his striking arsenal. However, he also showed a distressing tendency to allow Lawler to back him up against the cage.
This caught up to Hendricks in a big way in the third and fourth rounds, where he almost gave the fight away after Lawler hit him with a series of equilibrium-shattering punches.
Hendricks may have shown a heart the size of his adopted home state of Texas when he battled back and took the fight to Lawler in the fifth round, but the fact that, after an early lead, he allowed Lawler to put him in a position where he had his back against the wall heading into the fight's final frame shows "Bigg Rigg" has a few chinks in his armor.
Which is exactly why I'm excited to watch him fight again.
In an era where the old kings of UFC like St. Pierre and Anderson Silva have either willing abdicated their thrones or been unceremoniously deposed, excitement heading into a UFC title fight is a rare commodity these days. Sure Ronda Rousey is a big star, but other than the rowdy one, UFC's title holders are largely exceedingly dominant fighters with major deficiencies in the charisma department. Not only do casual fans not get excited to watch talented champions like Renan Barao, Jose Aldo, and Demetrious Johnson defend their belts, those fighters have been so dominant, it's difficult for even mixed martial arts (MMA) diehards to feel like the outcome of each of their fights isn't a foregone conclusion.
Hendricks is different. Not only does he have a unique, good 'ol boy charm, but his fights almost invariably deliver. What's more, now that we've seen the vulnerability he displayed against Lawler, his every attempted defense of the belt just became that much more intriguing.
The list of the best championship fights in history is short on outright blowouts. What makes for a memorable title bout is a sense that at any given time, either fighter could pull off the victory.
Unlike Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez, and so many other modern UFC champs, Hendricks feels mortal. Which means he's one of few UFC champs with a dramatic storyline built into his every fight.
If you had told me Tyron Woodley was going to be facing St. Pierre next after beating Carlos Condit thanks to a freak injury to "The Natural Born Killer's" knee, I wouldn't exactly have been rearranging my social life to watch "The Chosen One" take on "GSP" (that is if I wasn't professionally obligated to do so anyway).
With Hendricks though it's a different story. After seeing Hendricks vs. Lawler, it's not outside the realm of possibility to imagine a scenario where "The Chosen One" catches Hendricks being flat footed and sends him on a one way express train to the astral plane. On the other hand, given the crowbar Hendricks seemingly has implanted in his left hand, it's highly likely he ends Woodley's night early.
Which means that whether you're pulling for Hendricks or for Woodley, you're going to be watching a potential fight between them with the knowledge in the back of your head that it could end at any time. That's only going to heighten the drama in the bout, and make it seem like that much more of an accomplishment if the scrappy babyface Hendricks pulls off the victory.
Put together enough hard fought victories, and you could be looking at a new cult hero to the MMA faithful.
Hendricks' bearded face may never grace the covers of magazines and be featured in TV commercials like St. Pierre, but he has a legit chance to be a unique type of superstar.