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Johny Hendricks has big shoes to fill

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Back on December 6, 2008, it was pretty clear the career of Oscar De La Hoya was over after his fight with Manny Pacquiao ended after the eighth round.

Suddenly, there was a moment of truth. For years people said boxing was a sport on life support, and what was keeping it alive was the mainstream popularity of De La Hoya. Insiders knew De La Hoya was past his physical peak, but he was still the biggest drawing card in the sport.

Bob Arum was directly asked it about that same thing about an hour after the fight, and responded that now all those people who bought the show, far more than had ever bought a show to see Pacquiao, will now become Pacquiao fans.

In that specific case, Pacquiao's mainstream appeal exploded with such a high-profile win. His fights with name opponents were suddenly doing three and four times what they were doing before, rendering Arum clairvoyant. But the reality is not so simple.

Boxing didn't die with De La Hoya, and his two highest profile losses, to Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., both created mega-drawing stars that have carried the sport in the U.S. the past four years.

UFC opened 2014 with the reality the two men who carried the box office for the past few years, Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva, were, at least for the time being, out of the picture.

The closest thing UFC has had to De La Hoya was St-Pierre, who could be have been nicknamed Canada's Golden Boy if it wasn't far too soon to give any fighter that kind of a nickname.

Nobody has gotten their hand raised against Georges St-Pierre who didn't later pay the price of it being avenged in a most forceful of ways. Ever.

Even though there is daily speculation as to "What will Georges do?" and "Will he fight again,?" the show must go on. Johny Hendricks could have been Pacquiao, save for the fact he didn't finish St-Pierre, and the judges on Nov. 16 weren't being very cooperative.

Saturday night at the American Airlines Center in Dallas will be the first UFC welterweight championship fight that didn't involve either St-Pierre or Matt Hughes since May 4, 2001. It's an amazing statistic when you think about it, particularly when you consider how many different headliners there have been in other divisions, and how much the sport has changed.

On that day, Carlos Newton grabbed a bulldog choke on Pat Miletich, squeezed for all he was worth with biceps bulging, and became the guy who Hughes power bombed into unconsciousness to start his reign six months later. Hughes was the first big drawing star of the division, and after St-Pierre beat him twice, he became a man who set multiple box office records for the sport.

The question becomes, how big a star and how big a draw can Hendricks (15-2), the man who beat up St-Pierre even if he didn't beat him on scorecards, become? It's relevant because it's a time when UFC badly needs a guy who can move the needle.

Even if Hendricks had beaten St-Pierre, Arum's statement is false as often, if not more often, than it's true.

While St-Pierre became a bigger star than Hughes ever was, he's the exception. Frankie Edgar beat B.J. Penn twice, but never came close to replacing him as a drawing card. Cain Velasquez destroyed Brock Lesnar in the cage, but couldn't touch him at the box office. Jose Aldo is one of the greatest fighters the sport has ever seen, but neither he nor Mike Brown ever garnered close to the popularity of Urijah Faber.

Hendricks has things going both for and against him. Going for him is his performance against St-Pierre, and all the photos and video clips of the two men behind the podium after the fight, one with his face looking like he walked out of a meat grinder, the other looking like he just finished a stroll in the park. It's also his first fight since being the beneficiary of a level of fan outrage at a decision rarely seen, even if the nature of the ten-point must system is that it could have justifiably been scored either way.

He's got sledge hammers for fists, and fans love a guy who can knock someone at any moment. He's had some memorable knockouts, in particular a one punch 12-second lightning strike that ended Jon Fitch's run as the division's perennial bridesmaid. And he's far from a one-trick pony, having some of the best wrestling credentials in the sport. There are power and wrestling similarities to Hughes, and the same type of American farm boy powerhouse appeal. Hendricks is physically superior to Hughes, but may not be as dominant since the level of competition is exponentially better these days.

On the flip side, Hendricks was not a major name until the St-Pierre fight. Estimates have Nick Diaz, coming off both a loss and a suspension, outdrawing Hendricks, the longtime logical No. 1 contender, by close to 350,000 buys in St-Pierre's next-to-last title fight.

He's had his big knockouts. But the "Big Rig," as he's known, hasn't run over everyone. There was a win over Josh Koscheck on a split decision that could have gone another way. There was the night he was outwrestled by Rick Story for his other loss. There was even the win over Carlos Condit where Condit came back strong enough late to where people speculated it may have gone the other way had the fight been five rounds.

One good sign has been the ticket advance. UFC 171 was almost completely sold out the first weekend tickets were put on sale months back. Living in Dallas, Hendricks is clearly the star of Saturday's show. We've seen of late with Gilbert Melendez in the San Francisco Bay Area, Joseph Benavidez in Sacramento, Calif., and Anthony Pettis in Milwaukee, that the quest of the local star to get the world championship is not a snap your fingers sellout.

Yet, that doesn't often correlate to pay-per-view figures. Being Hughes or St-Pierre as far as a marketable top star takes time, timing and luck. It was five years and a coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter before Hughes turned the corner. St-Pierre was the right guy in the right place. Besides being one of the greatest fighters the sport has ever seen, he was already the national fighting star of Canada by the time he challenged Hughes the second time.

It's impossible to say what Hendricks would need to turn the corner. It could be a series of dominant wins or strong finishes that get replayed to death in the modern multimedia age. It could be finding that perfect rival, which could be St-Pierre if he does come back.

Or it could be that he doesn't stand the test of time. Hendricks is 30 as the apparent heir to the throne. In Robbie Lawler (22-9), he's facing a fighter with knockout power similar to his. Hendricks' age can be a funny number, becomes it's more the wear-and-tear than the number. He hasn't taken any bad beatings, but he's also been competing, without a break, and at a high level since he was a sophomore in high school.

Hughes was 27 when he won his title. St-Pierre was 25. Hughes was a first generation UFC television star, one of the original big five stars. St-Pierre was the rising star from day one, a headliner whose quest to topple Hughes came at a time when UFC's was exploding in popularity.

Hendricks' rise is coming at a time when a dozen fights are taking place every weekend, so making a lasting impression is far more difficult. But Hendricks did just that on Nov. 16. And in Lawler, he's got an opponent that provides where the mix on paper sounds like fireworks. For those who watch UFC faithfully, they all know that and this has to be one of the most anticipated fights in some time. Outside of the group who follows it closely, how much of a lasting effect the St-Pierre fight has will tell the tale of how big a star Hendricks is today.