Georges St. Pierre casts quite a shadow. | Photo: Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog.com
The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s crazy March schedule rolls into the American Airlines Arena in Dallas on Saturday, with the third of its four scheduled fight cards. Fortunately for North Americans, unlike the last two weekends, you will not have to wake up and stay up through the wee hours of the morning for this one. Saddle up for what should be a good old-fashioned Texas shootout between two of the 170-pound division’s most powerful sluggers, as Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler meet for the vacant welterweight title in the UFC 171 main event.
How We Got Here: Normally the Smartest Guy at the Bar would fall off his stool ranting and raving about Hendricks’ title shot when considering the smell off a fresh loss emanating from his grizzly beard. However, the welterweight division is anything but normal these days. The greatest welterweight of all-time, Georges St. Pierre, narrowly escaped defeat at the hands of Hendricks at UFC 167 and then left the UFC, possibly for good. With the belt now up for grabs, Hendericks and Lawler will try to snatch the hardware out of limbo ... Before the main course, another Strikeforce welterweight looks to see if he bit off more than he can chew. Tyron Woodley talked his way into a high-profile bout against Carlos Condit, a onetime Hendricks and St. Pierre victim. The Albuquerque, N.M., native is promised a title shot of his own should he defeat Woodley.
The St. Pierre Vacuum: If you saw one UFC welterweight championship fight the past seven years, you saw them all. The buildup for each of St. Pierre’s nine consecutive title defenses consisted of the same formula. Some resurgent veteran or hot, young prospect wielding the necessary skill set was trotted out against St. Pierre. “This guy is different,” fans were told. He has the mental edge, punching power, history, whatever necessary to defeat the reigning champion. Yet every time out, GSP’s athletic ability, game planning and preparation resulted in his hand being raised. Wash, rinse and repeat. Now the division is ripe for change. GSP dominated Condit, Nick Diaz, Josh Koscheck and others, making rematches a tough sell. Some of the sport’s most talented fighters were left spinning their wheels without a direct path to the top. Believable contenders were a rare commodity. With the title vacant and GSP out of the picture, at least for now, the division hit the reset button. Woodley, Jake Ellenberger, Jake Shields, Matt Brown, Rory MacDonald and others are potentially just a few wins away from a crack at the gold. St. Pierre is surely missed, but his departure means the weight class can breathe.
Lawler’s Journey: Lawler is fighting for a UFC championship in 2014. Let that sink in for a moment. In 2004, the rolling Miletich Fighting System slugger was hailed as the next king of the welterweight division, until a short right hook from Diaz stopped him short. The southpaw spent the next decade promotion hopping, filling the role of a reliable power puncher. His action-first style and decision to compete 15 pounds above his premium weight class kept him from pushing through as a true top-10 threat. Once “Ruthless” returned to the UFC in 2013, he dropped back down to welterweight and reeled off three straight wins, the run topped off by his halting MacDonald’s five-fight winning streak. Despite engaging in 33 professional fights since 2001, Lawler is still only 31-years-old -- the same age as Anderson Silva when he first won UFC gold.
Useless Fact: When Octagon announcer Bruce Buffer bellows the names of Hendricks and Lawler, it will be the first time since Sept. 23, 2006 that a UFC welterweight title fight did not include St. Pierre. That night, Matt Hughes successfully defended the crown against B.J. Penn, and GSP was not impressed by his performance.
Violence Meter: The Smartest Guy at the Bar wishes he had invented Sherdog’s All-Violence Team. Conversations revolving around which fighters are better at concussing others are best discussed over a cold draft. However, since Jordan Breen pulled the trigger first, we will make do here. Hendricks-Lawler has the potential to be the most two-way violent title fight in recent memory. Both contenders possess brain-rattling one-punch power. Their fists are predatory, and the southpaw-versus-southpaw factor ups the chances of a knockout. Both fighters finish fights in the opening minutes with the same regularity as back-and-forth bruising decisions. Comebacks? Check. Momentum? Check. Stakes? Double check.
Say What: Lawler is a man of few words, as his answers during post-fight speeches are usually shorter than the questions. He speaks with his fists and leaves the spotlight for guys with Mohawks and podcasts. His Tweets, all 206 of them, consist mostly of retweets of people singing his praises or motivational quotes he likes. However, during the UFC 171 conference call, he suggested he was ready to bear the responsibility of being a UFC champion: “Outside the ring, I never wanted to do the PR and I never wanted to be in the light, nor was I ready to be in the light. I’m just a quiet guy who loves to fight. I think now that I’ve matured, I’m ready to take that step and I’m embracing everything that has to do with being in the UFC. I’m ready to be out there in front of everyone, and I’m ready to do what it takes to be a champion.”
Awards Watch: Diego Sanchez has won six “Fight of the Night” awards over his last nine appearances inside the Octagon. His opponent, Myles Jury, is 13-0 overall and has easily handled his competition so far. Sanchez is just the guy to push Jury and elevate the games of both fighters while giving the Dallas crowd all the blood and guts it wants … Condit is similar to his fellow New Mexican when it comes to cashing post-fight checks. He has scored six bonuses in seven fights, mixing in both “Knockout of the Night” and “Fight of the Night.” His style of fighting even coaxed a “Fight of the Night” award from a St. Pierre match. If he beats Woodley, it will be in a blaze of glory … Dennis Bermudez may not be “The Ultimate Fighter,” but he has quietly compiled a 5-0 record since losing to Diego Brandao in the Season 14 finale. Look for Bermudez to play Jim Hettes’ grappling game just enough to keep things interesting, all while striking enough to guarantee a win.