’s 2014 Fight of the Year

Fight of the Year

By Jordan Breen Jan 6, 2015

A great prizefighting rivalry is priceless. In their best manifestations, rivalries elevate combat and the athletes themselves, perhaps a whole weight class, maybe even a whole sport. Finding your foil, however, can be an arduous, sometimes fruitless search. Georges St. Pierre had Matt Hughes and B.J. Penn fall right into his lap, but Anderson Silva spent years, already at the apex of the sport, waiting for Chael Sonnen to come along and share his spotlight; and while rivalries and classic fights often go together, it is not always the case: the first iterations of Josh Thomson-Gilbert Melendez and Gray Maynard-Frankie Edgar were lame-duck fights, and who on Earth wants to watch the first Tito Ortiz-Ken Shamrock bout, let alone the nihilistic second and third go-arounds?

Enemies are not hard to find in combat sports, and with the right alchemy, you might develop a sporting rival. However, to find that person and to share with them the necessary chemistry to consistently, calculably create classic fights ... that is very rare. Still, uncommon as it might be, that is precisely what Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler share with one another. They go together like peanut butter and jelly, hand and glove, punch and kick, heaven and hell. Hendricks and Lawler’s savage symbiosis is why their UFC 171 welterweight title fight is’s 2014 “Fight of the Year,” why we had to run the rematch back before 2014 ended and why we are due a rubber match in 2015.

After earning a controversial split decision over Hendricks at UFC 167 in Las Vegas, longtime welterweight ruler Georges St. Pierre stepped away from the sport. For the first time in almost six years, GSP was no longer the UFC welterweight champion, leaving an enormous void for the star-hungry Ultimate Fighting Championship. While there is no one who can simply “replace” what St. Pierre meant to the company financially, it was not hard to decide which two men would get the chance to be his 170-pound successor.

Most -- but certainly not all -- onlookers felt Hendricks had beaten St. Pierre and was the rightful champion, making his inclusion easy. Meanwhile, the same night that Hendricks suffered the torment of the judges, Lawler completed his improbable 2013 “Comeback Fighter of the Year” campaign by earning a just split decision over GSP’s supposed spiritual successor, Canadian Rory MacDonald. To be honest, the pairing seemed strange, but in the beautiful way that tends to define MMA: a two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion, cheated out of the belt months ago, getting his chance for redemption against a bruising puncher who was completely irrelevant in the sport two years ago but yet wound up fulfilling his potential 12 years after initially entering the UFC. With the storyline and the heavy-hitting style clash, it seemed like UFC 171 in Dallas could bear witness to something really special in the Octagon.

In actuality, that would not even begin to define this contest.

The first 20 minutes proved to be a tale of two halves. Lawler -- measured, composed and nowhere near resembling the wild, brash puncher who entered the UFC a dozen years earlier -- started slowly, as he often does, and looked for his chances to counter. Hendricks pressured him from the outset and pivotally punctuated his punching combinations with leg kicks. The Team Takedown fighter could not touch the defensively stout Lawler with all of his punches but made sure to punish his opponent for his flat boxing stance. The first round was competitive, but in the second, the former Oklahoma State University Cowboy turned up the pressure on Lawler, landing 42 of 109 significant strikes in the round, literally doubling Lawler’s tally of 21.

In rounds three and four, a suddenly lively Lawler put on a boxing clinic, his right jab repeatedly rocking back Hendricks’ head. In the third round, he wobbled the Oklahoman with a hard left hook and more power punches and then got right back to busting Hendricks’ nose and eye with his jab throughout the fourth round. What makes this unceasingly delightful style clash work is that Hendricks and Lawler have both finally found another rugged, durable puncher in their own image. It is more than just being similar southpaws, too. More importantly, both fighters like to stand at clinching-and-trapping distance. When Lawler and Hendricks fight, they are constantly within an arm’s length of one another, fighting the opponent’s lead hand and trying to find ways to land jabs, combinations, kicks and set up takedowns. The fact that they do not circle, attack and then retreat, like 90 percent of MMA fighters, allows them to constantly be creating striking and grappling exchanges; and more importantly, because of the relative distance, they can create a higher volume of counter opportunities, which, by their nature, are cleaner, harder blows.

So they went, round after round, seldom stepping outside the phone booth, yet always attacking. They jabbed frequently and threw power combos with regularity. Lawler bobbed and weaved around Hendricks’ shots and found counterpunching opportunities of his own. However, even as he flagged in the third and fourth rounds, it was Hendricks’ constant leg kicking that extracted a necessary cost from Lawler, and it would eventually give the two-time NCAA wrestling champion another major piece of hardware.

In spite of a crushing fourth round in which he landed 56 of 104 significant strikes by FightMetric count, the toll of Hendricks’ leg attacks was obvious when the final round began. “Bigg Rigg” went back to the well quickly, and after discomforting Lawler literally and figuratively with the kicks, he brought out his left hand. Lawler kept throwing and trying to respond, but he just could not get out of the way of his enemy’s attacks. Backing up the “Ruthless” one with less than a minute to go, Hendricks landed another hard salvo and then took down Lawler against the fence for just the second time in 10 attempts.

“He’s one hell of a fighter. I was trying to roll with stuff and come back. He was taking it to me and got a couple of takedowns,” Lawler said. “Hat’s off to him. I just needed to do a little more, and he did enough to win, plain and simple.”

After 24 minutes of back-and-forth brawling and tit-for-tat tactical assault, a rush of punches and a takedown -- an exchange Hendricks spent an entire fight building toward -- had sealed the deal. Although judge Douglas Crosby, ever the contrarian, gave Hendricks an absurd 10-8 second round and scored the fifth 10-10 instead of the obvious 10-9 for Hendricks, he and fellow judges Mike Gonzalez and Aladin Martinez all ended up with 48-47 scorecards for the winner and ninth UFC welterweight champion: Hendricks.

“Robbie is [expletive] tough,” Hendricks said. “I feel very blessed. I know the first two were mine. The third and fourth, he kind of caught me. In the fifth, I knew I had to win it. Robbie is tough. He’s a stud. I promise you, I’ll be facing him again, and when I do, hopefully I can put on a better performance.”

Hendricks’ words that night in Dallas proved both prophetic and ironic. Incredibly, he carried a torn right biceps into UFC 171 and prevailed but had to undergo surgery following his title win to repair it. During recovery, he ate his way up well above 200 pounds, while Lawler stayed hungry in a different sense, dominating Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown in quick succession. When their rematch came at UFC 181, Hendricks initially weighed in a pound and a half heavy. He fought well that night in Las Vegas, but in a matchup like this, the smallest details make the difference. Lawler turned on the jets early in round one, late in round four and throughout round five, precisely the moments in which he was critiqued for cruising during their first fight, earning the split decision and finally, the UFC welterweight crown.

The fascination with this beautiful and brutal binary star has yet to wane. Throughout UFC 181, viewers were inundated with discussion of imminent title challenger Rory MacDonald, the man UFC President Dana White had already said would face the winner of Hendricks-Lawler 2. Yet in the end, despite not being as outright chaotic or exciting as their first fight, Hendricks and Lawler’s rematch was still so tightly contested and dramatic that the promotion changed course. We are due to see a rubber match between the two in 2015.

Honestly, it is a dangerous and slippery slope. These men are violent soulmates, certain to create high drama and trauma in any and all encounters. What if Lawler and Hendricks surpass themselves in the third showdown? What if it ends in a draw? They cannot just fight one another other forever, can they? Not outside my dreams, anyway.

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