Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweight kingpin, Johny Hendricks, looks to defend his title for the first time against power puncher, Robbie Lawler, this Saturday (Dec. 6, 2014) at UFC 181 inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
No one can argue that Hendricks didn't deserve his shot at Georges St. Pierre. After an impressive six-fight winning streak, Hendricks pushed "GSP" to his limits, but the judges decided that the belt would remain in Canada.
Before a rematch could be scheduled, St. Pierre announced that he would be vacating his title and is still in a state of quasi-retirement. Luckily, Hendricks found himself in the perfect position to fight for the vacant belt. In his second straight five-round battle, Hendricks became the champion.
Now, he'll have to prove that he's the rightful ruler once again.
Let's take a closer look at the champion's skills.
Hendricks has developed his own style of wrestle-boxing. It initially relied almost entirely on Hendricks' overhand left, but the champion has since deepened his pool of techniques and lengthened his combinations.
It may not be beautiful to watch, but it's more than effective.
One of Hendricks' most important abilities -- the one that very nearly dethroned St. Pierre -- is his ability to shutdown the jab of an orthodox opponent with his lead hand. Using his right hand to deflect and parry jabs, Hendricks then will fire off his powerful overhand.
Over his last two fights, Hendricks has showcased an improved jab. He's increased his volume with the strike and doesn't lunge in with the punch, which makes it fairly unusual compared to his other punches. In addition, Hendricks will double or triple up on the strike to line up his left hand.
Hendricks frequently leads with a right hook or uppercut. Though a straight punch can often cut inside these blows, Hendricks' intimidating power often shuts that down. After getting his opponent backing away from that lead punch, Hendricks will look to catch him at the end of a long left hand.
In order to land his devastating overhand, Hendricks needs plenty of room. To throw the punch, Hendricks changes his level and takes a large step forward with his fist flying not far behind. Hendricks knows this distance very well, which is why he's so accurate with the strike.
Hendricks is able to cover an impressive amount of distance with his overhand. Part of the reason that he catches fighters off guard with the punch is that he's able to land it from outside the boxing range. At that distance, his opponent's are accustomed to simply watching out for kicks or taking a breath.
However, that also means Hendricks has difficulty when he's not given the space to fight from that range. Rick Story defeated the champion years ago by heavily pressuring him, while Robbie Lawler largely avoided this punch by staying in a tight boxing range.
Hendricks also utilizes this strike well as a counter. When his opponent throws a low kick, Hendricks will step into the kick and whip his overhand towards his foe. Against St. Pierre, Hendricks followed this counter shot with a series of punches, which hurt the former champion badly.
Simply moving straight backwards away from Hendricks' strikes is a very bad idea. The champion excels at chasing down his opponent with a combination of vicious power punches. His opponent is essentially creating distance for Hendricks in an attempt to stay safe, but really it's just setting up Hendricks' home run punch.
Low kicks have become a vital part of Hendricks' game recently. He often ends his combinations with them as his opponent circles away. Against Lawler, Hendricks landed low kicks almost at will, as Lawler was focused on avoiding his punches. In addition, Hendricks will occasionally follow a low kick with heavy punches, especially off of the inside low kick.
Hendricks is a very strong fighter, much more physically powerful than he looks. Inside the clinch, this allows him to control the single-collar tie easily. From this position, Hendricks likes to rip into his opponent's head and body with uppercuts and hooks.
Additionally, Hendricks really likes to wear at his opponent's legs -- and thus his explosiveness -- with knees in the clinch. Hendricks really digs into these strikes, and they have a clear effect. Between his clinch knees and low kicks, Hendricks greatly slowed down St. Pierre in his first title bid.
Defensively, Hendricks is far from the best. He often moves straight backwards when pressured, which makes it much easier to land combinations. Additionally, his punches are rarely straight, and he lunges forward, meaning that a well-timed counter could seriously hurt him.
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 fighter in the UFC, as Hendricks had Olympic potential after his college career. Prior to his fight with "GSP," it was unclear how well his wrestling had translated to MMA.
Since then, it has looked excellent.
As mentioned, Hendricks is seriously strong. Years of wrestling practices and hundreds of matches have left Hendricks with some crazy wrestler strength, as he's able to simply move his opponent around in ways that others cannot. Even against St. Pierre -- one of the most athletic fighters ever -- Hendricks was routinely able to manhandle his opponent, which opened up those painful knees to the thigh.
Hendricks primarily shoots a blast double. His drive is very powerful, as he's able to run his opponent all the way across the cage. He usually likes to finish with a lift against the fence, but he's also capable of turning a corner in the center of the Octagon.
In addition, Hendricks will occasionally attack with a single leg takedown, often when his opponent is pinned to the fence. From that position, Hendricks will change levels, latch onto the leg, and look to run the pipe.
During Hendricks' bout with Lawler, most of the work each man did happened on the feet. By the end of the fourth, it was fairly clear that the final round was the deciding factor. In the last five minutes, Hendricks managed to turn the tide and complete a double leg takedown.
Hendricks may not rely on it, but his wrestling is always a factor.
Against St. Pierre, Hendricks also proved that his takedown defense is sturdy. In the first round, Hendricks managed to land power strikes while defending a single leg takedown. As St. Pierre looked to finish the single, "Bigg Rigg" slammed the side of his head with sharp elbow strikes, forcing "GSP" to release his grip.
Hendricks would later defend another single leg in a spectacular display of balance. "Rush" attempted a couple of different dumps, as well as elevating the leg, but Hendricks was not bothered by his attempts. Then, Hendricks didn't even bounce as St. Pierre pulled him away from the fence, he simply slid along with him.
And landed an uppercut for good measure.
When Hendricks' opponents do get him down, he's usually quick to hop back to his feet. Hendricks does not allow himself to be flattened out, instead turtling up. By doing this, he can either quickly work up to his feet or turn it into a takedown attempt, which again results in him back standing.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Hendricks does not spend a lot of time actively doing jiu-jitsu, which makes it difficult to get a grasp on how deep his grappling game is. He's finished just one of his opponents via submission, and has yet to be truly threatened by any of his opponent's submission attempts.
From his back, Hendricks uses the guard to create space. He mostly uses butterfly hooks but will occasionally use the knee-across half guard in order to lift/push his opponent away. Once he has enough room to sit up, Hendricks will turn his position into a wrestling exchange.
One the NCAA national champion will likely win. Overall, this is a very smart use of jiu-jitsu to incorporate into the game of such a talented wrestler.
The only submission victory in Hendricks' career came via D'arce choke, which is another great weapon to add to any wrestler's toolbox. After securing the grip, Hendricks chose to finish by laying flat on his opponent and pressuring the head/neck with his body weight, rather than sitting out on his hip. Though less common, this is a great way to finish the choke as well, and lowers the chance of losing top position.
As mentioned, Hendricks hasn't yet been put in deep trouble by a submission. However, both Rick Story and St. Pierre managed to reverse Hendricks momentarily with guillotine chokes. Though falling to his back makes the choke much easier to defend, it does give up position and could potentially land him in a mounted guillotine, which is a far worse position.
Hendricks does have one rarely seen defense in his arsenal. To counter the kimura, Hendricks will grip his own hands together and wrench backwards. Most of the time, Hendricks has the leverage on his side, meaning that he will end up in the top position. This move actually isn't all about strength, despite its appearance.
Best chance for success
Hendricks needs to start quickly and do his damage early. That doesn't mean he can get reckless, but if he manages to take away some of Lawler's extremely potent offensive skills before the challenger warms up, it would be very beneficial.
To do that, Hendricks should attack Lawler's legs and body frequently. Lawler's head movement is phenomenal; Hendricks is as likely to miss or be countered as he is to land. Instead of aiming of Lawler's dome, Hendricks can put money in the bank by chopping away at him or siphoning off his cardio.
If Hendricks is successful with this game plan, he'll have Lawler getting tired and slowing down just as "Ruthless" gets into his rhythm. So long as Hendricks keeps his foot on the gas -- and doesn't fight with any of that 70-percent nonsense -- he can control the bout without taking nearly as much damage.
Will Johny Hendricks successfully defend his title, or can Robbie Lawler overcome the odds?