For the first time in almost seven years, the UFC has a Welterweight Champion who is not called Georges St Pierre (GSP).
Back in November GSP barely hung on to his title by winning a split decision over Johny Hendricks. Most believe that the decision was unjust, yet it was what it was. In the aftermath, GSP announced that he was stepping away from the sport due to personal reasons and he would relinquish his title. At UFC 171 last Saturday Johny Hendricks would get another shot at the belt against veteran, Robbie Lawler, in his hometown of Dallas, Texas.
There was an interesting atmosphere. Fighting for a vacant championship is far more common in boxing than in the UFC. In the UFC there is a feeling of needing to beat the champ to become the champ. Johny Hendricks, though, has always been absolute in his goal. He has never been bothered with beating the champ or any particular individuals. All Hendricks has ever wanted was the Welterweight Championship, whatever it took.
In Robbie Lawler, there is a UFC story for the ages. He made his UFC debut at UFC 37 way back in May of 2002 at the age of 20. After two losses on the trot to Nick Diaz and Evan Tanner, and seemingly no longer motivated to participate at the highest level, the UFC dropped Lawler from the roster. Lawler would fight for various promotions until 2009 when he made his Strikeforce debut. The UFC acquired Strikeforce in 2011, and merged it into the UFC at the start of 2013. At this time, Lawler had three wins and five losses in Strikeforce; hardly something for him to write home about. Then something happened, something clicked. Lawler went on a tear! Josh Koscheck, Bobby Voekler and the ridiculously talented Rory Macdonald all fell by the wayside and finally, after 12 years in the game, Robbie Lawler had a shot at the title.
So it was, two fighters with unrivalled knockout power in their arsenal stepped into UFC’s Octagon on Saturday night, ready to fulfil their dream. Hendricks was certainly favoured, though everyone suspected the fight would be over quickly with either contender securing the win by knockout. How wrong we were.
Hendricks took the first two rounds, seemingly landing at will and using his striking combinations to great effect. Lawler seemed to just stand in front of Hendricks, and it was obvious that he was looking for one big knockout punch. It was Hendricks’ variety that was so impressive and after two rounds, a large hematoma had formed on Lawler’s leg resulting from Hendricks’ brutal leg kicks. Lawler though was still in there.
Round three began. The situation changed dramatically. Lawler looked fresh as a daisy, Hendricks looked slightly gassed out. The day prior, Hendricks had been slightly over the necessary weight limit. With legendary trainer, Mike Dolce in his corner, this was very uncharacteristic and it transpired that the scales they had been using were damaged. On those scales they had been on weight, though not on the official scales. Hendricks lost the weight needed in the allocated time, but there was a question in the air as to how this might affect his condition. Was it now showing?
All of a sudden, Lawler started landing powerful shots. Half way through round three and Hendricks seemed out on his feet. Could this actually be happening? Was he going to miss out on the title yet again? Was Robbie Lawler going to complete his amazing career revitalisation? Lawler took round three, though had potentially missed an opportunity to finish the fight. He might have pressed more when Hendricks had been in trouble, but chose to reserve some energy. Hendricks showed his granite chin and somehow recovered.
Round four, and more of the same. Lawler took it to Hendricks and was landing enormous punches to the head of Hendricks. Two rounds all. Hendricks was well aware of the situation and told his corner he needed the 5th. It was back and forth and the with little time to spare, Robbie Lawler’s tank became immediately empty. He had simply no energy left. Hendricks summed the last of his will and determination and scored the takedown necessary to win the round, the fight and the championship. This, though, had been a war.
There is a new landscape in the UFC Welterweight division. Dominant champions are great for a sport, but so too is change, and that time for change has come. The division that seemed dull stuck in GSP’s stalemate has now opened wide up. There are at least three people who would deserve a chance to fight Hendricks for the belt.
It was a staggeringly exciting fight card. The UFC, again, defied the odds and produced a masterclass. With dilution of quality due to the quantity of fights they put on this year being a real point of discussion, they somehow continue to produce. Extraordinary.