Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight kingpin, Johny Hendricks, is set to battle with kickboxing specialist, Stephen Thompson, this Saturday (Feb. 6, 2016) inside MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It's been a little less than one year since Hendricks last fought. Though he undoubtedly deserves his position near the top of the division, Hendricks has made headlines more often with his weight struggles rather than his fighting ability.
Nevertheless, Hendricks has an opportunity here to put that rough patch behind him. In this bout, Hendricks needs to remind the world of his past dominance and illustrate that he's still a top-level Welterweight.
Now, let's take a look at the former champion's skill set:
Early on, Hendricks either relied on his powerful left hand or his forceful takedowns. Since ascending to the highest level of the sport, Hendricks has blended his wrestling and boxing together far better, relying now on close range combinations to work over his opponents.
One of Hendricks' most important abilities -- the one that very nearly dethroned Georges St-Pierre -- is his ability to shutdown the jab of an Orthodox opponent with his lead hand. After using his right hand to deflect and parry jabs, Hendricks will suddenly close the gap with his long left hand. The overhand is not what one normally thinks of when talking about distance weapons, but Hendricks really does cover major distance with the strike.
In fact, each of Hendricks' one punch knockout wins comes from outside the boxing range. By stepping deep into the punch and really reaching for his opponent, Hendricks turns his left hand into a lethal weapon. Additionally, Hendricks' opponents are often surprised by just how far out he begins the attack, which helps him land it (GIF).
Simply moving straight backward away from Hendricks' strikes is a very bad idea. The former 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.
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.
Recently, Hendricks has showcased an improved boxing game to combat this. He's increased his volume with the jab and doesn't lunge from close range. In addition, Hendricks will double or triple up on the strike to get his opponent backing away and line up his left hand.
On the whole, Hendricks' combinations from inside the pocket are far improved (GIF). He does a really nice job tying together extended combos and putting his opponent on the defensive, which creates opportunities for his takedowns.
Forcing his opponent to cover up or slip has also created opportunities to land his low kicks, which have become a vital part of Hendricks' game. Against Lawler, Hendricks landed low kicks almost at will, as Lawler was focused on avoiding his punches (GIF). In addition, Hendricks will occasionally follow a low kick with more 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.
Hendricks' defense has improved a bit, but he's still a fairly hittable fighter on his feet. Much of his defense relies upon intimidating his opponent into shelling up and his own durability, as simply tagging Hendricks with one decent counter punch will not slow him down. However, Hendricks' habits of moving in straight lines and leaving his hands out of position do leave his jaw open fairly often.
A four-time Division-1 All-American wrestler, three-time Big 12 Conference champion, two-time national champion, and one-time national runner-up, Hendricks is one of the most credentialed wrestlers to ever step into the Octagon. He certainly had Olympic potential following his college career.
Earlier in Hendricks' career, it was unclear just how well Hendricks' wrestling has carried over into the Octagon. Overpowering Amir Sadollah is one thing, but Hendricks did struggle with the wrestling of both Story and Mike Pierce.
That said, Hendricks put all the pieces together ahead of his fight with "GSP," and that has remained true. Since first fighting for the title, Hendricks' wrestling has been extremely effective overall.
Hendricks is one of the most physically strong men in the division, undoubtedly thanks to many, many years on the wrestling mat. In pure wrestling exchanges, Hendricks is simply more powerful than his foes, able to manhandle even incredible athletes like St. Pierre.
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 (GIF). 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. As should be expected of any wrestler of his caliber, Hendricks can transition between the double and single leg with ease.
In Hendricks' first bout with Lawler, he struggled to consistently take and hold his opponent down. This was attributed to a torn bicep, and there was likely some truth behind that. In the second bout -- much to the dismay of fans -- Hendricks was far more successful in holding down his opponent.
Hendricks doing less than nothing with his top position may have lost him the fight, but he still demonstrated his incredible wrestling ability in that rematch.
Against St. Pierre, Hendricks proved that he'd fixed the holes in his takedown defense. In fact, he did more than simply defend shots, as he actively punished St. Pierre's attempts in the first round. As "GSP" struggled to finish the single leg, he wound up eating hard uppercuts and elbows to the side of the head.
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 (GIF).
The main complaint regarding Hendricks -- besides his diet, apparently -- is that Hendricks is not particularly active from top position. This includes submissions, as Hendricks hasn't tapped an opponent since 2008, nor has he significantly threatened any of his opponents inside the Octagon.
On the occasion that he is taken down, 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 sit up, latch onto a leg, and turn his bottom position into a wrestling exchange.
That's a battle that NCAA national champion will likely win. While I'd love to see Hendricks attack more with offensive jiu-jitsu, this is very smart application of jiu-jitsu to an athlete that's already a master of his own grappling art.
The only submission victory in Hendricks' career came via D'arce choke, which -- like any choke stemming from the front headlock -- is a great weapon for any wrestler. 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 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. Despite its appearance, this isn't really a strength move, as Hendricks actually have the leverage on his side.
In an alternate time line with some different judges, Hendricks very easily could still be champion with two or three title defenses under his belt. Instead, Hendricks has gotten in his own way a few times now, whether it be by "punching at 70 percent" or botching his weight cut. Hendricks may have a dangerous opponent on his hands, but it's a fight that he should win. If he instead comes up short, it may be some time before Hendricks is truly back in the title mix.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.