Last night (Sat., March 15, 2014) Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweights Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler squared off for the vacant 170-pound title in the pay-per-view (PPV) main event of UFC 171 from American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
Hendricks sought to prove that he was the rightful owner of the 170-pound title after an extremely controversial split decision loss to longtime champ Georges St. Pierre at UFC 167, after which "GSP" vacated the belt and left mixed martial arts (MMA) behind.
In his way stood Lawler, who had been fighting like a man possessed since his return to the Octagon in early 2013. The winner of three straight, Lawler was looking to add coveted UFC gold to his trophy case after debuting in the promotion way back in 2001.
It turned out to be a back-and-forth battle that will most likely be labeled one of the best fights of the year. In the end, Hendricks took a ton of punishment but never gave up, fighting to the finish in a war that won him the belt he's been so patiently waiting to call his own.
The fight kicked off with Lawler swarming to land a flurry. Hendricks threw some kicks and a left hand, clinching on the cage for a while. He ate a jab when the fighters broke. Hendricks landed a knee and a left, and Lawler responded with a solid shot. "Bigg Rigg" landed some good low kicks and another left, with Lawler fighting back with the jab. Hendricks continued to push the pace with more kicks, controlling the clinch as the round came to a close.
The second frame saw Lawler throw some sharp punches. His movement was working as he went in and out of the pocket. Hendricks unloaded a big combo with a big leg kick at the end. "Bigg Rigg" landed another flurry, mixing up his strikes with great effectiveness. Lawler scored with a big hook to turn the tides a bit. Hendricks continued to land accurate shots as Lawler danced more than he threw. Hendricks kept a high output as the round ended, but Lawler got the last shot with a left hand.
The pivotal third round began with Hendricks likely up two rounds to none. He persevered with more combinations with knees. Lawler began using some kicks, and then hurt Hendricks with a big left uppercut, going to work with a massive flurry of shots that had "Bigg Rigg" hurt. It looked like Lawler might finish the fight there, but somehow Hendricks fought back with his jab and knees. Lawler had little left on his punches as the third round ended with Hendricks pumping the jab.
Lawler came out aggressive in the fourth, firing some looping punches. Lawler hit a big knee and a flurry, but Hendricks landed another leg kick. The momentum seemed to turn in Lawler's favor as he avoided a takedown attempt. Hendricks' eye was bleeding badly but he fought on with more left hands. Lawler landed some hard left hands, including an uppercut. "Ruthless" was finally taken down as the fourth round wound down.
The fifth and final round featured Lawler landing more lefts as "Bigg Rigg" narrowly missed with a combo. Hendricks missed a takedown but clinched against the fence. A restart saw Hendricks land his left-low kick combination. Lawler landed a big shot and followed with another, but Hendricks got aggressive and scored with several big shots. He got the takedown as the final minute of the fight began, riding the time out to finish the final round in his favor.
The unanimous decision earned Hendricks the belt that he thought was already his last year, and now a litany of tough challenges await him. Top contenders like Tyron Woodley, Rory MacDonald, and Hector Lombard will all line up for a shot at the belt. Coming off the best performance of his life, his work has just begun.
Lawler almost had this bout finished on a few occasions, but he just couldn't seal the deal in the biggest fight of his life. He appeared to punch himself out after throwing an insane amount of strikes in the third and fourth rounds. His conditioning ended up failing him as he couldn't capitalize in the fifth round.
Still, he's an extremely exciting fighter who will get another big fight. His biggest potential bout is a rematch with the reportedly returning Nick Diaz, who is the only man to knock out "Ruthless" in the cage. Someone like Demian Maia, Dong Hyun Kim, or the winner of April's Jake Ellenberger vs. Tarec Saffiedine match-up would also be good bouts for Lawler.
Johny Hendricks accomplished his ultimate goal by winning the belt with a hard fought decision over a game opponent in Robbie Lawler. What challenge will be next for the victorious "Bigg Rigg?"