Opinion: Passing Torches Through Shrinking Windows

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

Mixed martial arts is an unforgiving sport.

Stephen Thompson on Saturday lived up to his “Wonderboy” moniker when he effortlessly breezed through former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks via first-round stoppage. It was a signature win for Thompson, one that will decorate his highlight reel until the end of his career; and while his victory represents a welcome shakeup to a division that has been gridlocked in spectacular evenness at the top, Thompson’s coming-out party is the obverse of Hendricks’ closing window.

It’s funny. Thompson’s three-year, six-fight winning streak will likely be described as a “meteoric rise,” which is ironic when juxtaposed with Hendricks’ precipitous descent and crash -- a more accurate depiction of true meteoric trajectory. Once hailed as the heir to George St. Pierre’s throne, “Bigg Rigg” has not looked the part since arguably beating the former kingpin in 2013. After his short-lived title stint, Hendricks relinquished the belt in another debatable split decision loss to Robbie Lawler -- the man he beat for the championship -- before ever logging a title defense. Now, having been knocked out for the first time, his legacy as an all-time great and his future prospects as a title contender are looking more uncertain than ever.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. Hendricks is only 32 years old, and he probably has another three to four years of upper-echelon competition left in him. He could also be the next wrestler turned MMA champion to follow in the footsteps of Randy Couture and Dan Henderson and continue to fight the best into his quadragenarian years. Maybe, but I’m not convinced. Nothing about his last three fights leads me to believe he will be in step with the welterweight elite for much longer.

First, does anyone see a rematch with Thompson going any differently? Hendricks didn’t get caught; he was completely outclassed. After “Wonderboy” stuffed a takedown attempt from the two-time NCAA national champion wrestler, he proceeded to put on a striking clinic until the “Bigg Rigg” broke down. Furthermore, Thompson has been steadily improving, while Hendricks’ performances have at best plateaued. Add to that the insane parity at the top of the 170-pound division, Lawler’s streak of transcendent performances and Hendricks’ general outside-the-cage troubles, and the future is not looking so bright.

It speaks to the fickle, often pernicious nature of the sport. Prior to this fight, there were legitimate claims that Hendricks should have been the defending welterweight champion with a 19-1 record. Both of his title-fight losses to GSP and Lawler were controversially close split decisions. It was seen as a formality that he would make his way back into the title picture after a few tweaks to his game here and there. A workmanlike decision over the tough yet ultimately not championship-caliber Matt Brown did little to thrust Hendricks back into the title fold, and now he is further away from the belt than he has been since 2012.

The shame of it all is that Hendricks has been his own worst enemy. He has struggled with weight cuts, made questionable coaching and preparation arrangements and coasted in the later rounds of big fights. There is no doubting his talent, but talent is seldom enough to win championships. Nor is it a sellable rationale for the Ultimate Fighting Championship brass to necessarily grant a title shot in the first place; deserving a title shot and getting a title shot are not the same thing.

This sport cannibalizes its heroes, and Hendricks is just the latest to fall prey to a hungrier, more talented fighter. The feeling I had watching the fight was the same as when I watched rebounding former champion Mauricio Rua get outgunned for 15 minutes by a relatively unknown Swede named Alexander Gustafsson. “Shogun” has gone 2-3 since and never looked worse; Gustafsson went on to challenge for the light heavyweight crown twice. Sometimes, the writing is on the wall that you’re simply not at the top of the food chain anymore. When a former great passes the torch to a potentially future great in this sport, it typically happens in violent spectacle and unceremonious ignominy.

Yet I will leave room for one caveat, one hopeful silhouette of silver lining around the otherwise cumulonimbus shadow looming above Hendricks’ future. As Joyce Carol Oates said about boxing, MMA is about failure far more than it is about success. Failure forges courage and breeds motivation in ways that success -- or in Hendricks’ case, near success -- forever strains to inspire. Unlike his two close losses, where no one would blame him for feeling robbed and, by extension, basically winning, this loss against Thompson should serve as a wakeup call. Everyone loves a comeback story, and if anyone is capable of coming back, it’s a relatively young former champion with all the physical and technical tools to climb back up the proverbial mountain. The beauty of fighting is in its savage honesty; unlike the outside world, you tend to get what you deserve inside the cage. If Hendricks truly is the champion he is supposed to be and the champion he should have been, he will start renovating his many rooms for improvement.

“Bigg Rigg” may not be done quite yet, but the window for his return to greatness is closing rapidly; and in that narrow space, more often than not there is only enough room to pass the torch through to the next man. I’m of the belief that is exactly what we just witnessed.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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