This time around, there was no "70 percent."
Johny Hendricks took his foot off the gas pedal against Georges St-Pierre in the final round at UFC 167, and it cost him the welterweight championship. GSP got the controversial split decision nod in November in Las Vegas, and well, you know the rest.
Saturday night, though, Hendricks proved himself a fighter capable of learning from his mistakes. Going into round five of his bout against Robbie Lawler for the vacant championship, we already knew the bout was a classic, all tied up with the title hanging in the balance.
Lawler had taken the third and fourth rounds in a convincing manner and appeared to have the momentum on his side. But it was Hendricks, the man who had missed weight on his first attempt the day before, who dug down deep over the final five minutes to seal the victory this time.
"I looked at [my coaches] and I said, it's two to two. I've gotta win this round," Hendricks said at the post-fight press conference. "I'm not dumb. I'm not going to be one of those naïve fighters who goes (in thinking it's) four to zero. I'm true to myself."
Hendricks went for an early takedown in the fifth, but Lawler successfully neutralized it, as he had for much of the evening. By the round's midpoint, though, Hendricks began punishing a fading Lawler with his standup, moving forward and using his kicks to set up those nasty "Bigg Rigg" lefts and rights. By the final minute, Hendricks finally landed that elusive takedown.
The fight was sealed. Lawler knew it, too, as he looked up at the clock and shook his head in resigned disbelief.
Sure, the fight still went to the judges, and you never know what they're thinking. But this time, Hendricks had gone out and decisively earned the championship in the fight's closing moments. There were none of the "what if's" or "coulda/shouldas" that came out of UFC 167.
The new champion had learned from the sins of November.
"I took it to heart," Hendricks said. "Leave everything out there. Five minutes can change the world. He hit me with some hard shots and I knew I had to come back in the fifth round. That's where I lost it in the GSP fight and I told myself that it wouldn't happen again."
UFC 171 Quotes
"I'd like to fight Georges again. I think it'd be fun. We had a good match. I think I'm better. I'm going to get stronger." -- Hendricks, with an eye on a GSP rematch.
"The thing is, when you leave it up to the judges, those things happen. I just didn't do enough tonight, they thought. I need to go back to work, obviously." -- Lawler.
"I'm ready to fight." -- Nick Diaz picks a convenient time to hit the scene.
Stock up/Stock down
Up: Robbie Lawler. It's ironic that after all these years, Lawler justified all the early predictions of greatness in a losing effort. Somewhere around the end of round two, Lawler started wading through Hendricks' punches like some sort of zombie. Think about that for a second. This is Johny Hendricks we're talking about, someone who hits like a freight train. Lawler not only waded through Hendricks' punches, he started to land in the closing seconds. Then he turned it on in the third and fourth rounds and put us in position for the most dramatic of all scenarios: Going to the fifth round with the score tied and a championship hanging in the balance. There's no shame in coming up short in that fifth round. Lawler might not have the title belt today, but make no mistake about it, Lawler is no longer MMA's can't miss prospect who did and he never again will be.
Down: Diego Sanchez. It's beginning to look like last year's barnburner with Gilbert Melendez was Sanchez's last great brawl. Against Myles Jury last night, Sanchez's spirit was willing, but his body just couldn't respond. Jury wasn't about to get goaded into a brawl, and whenever Sanchez tried to push forward and create his special brand of mayhem, Jury effortlessly parried his efforts. Sanchez's legacy as a warrior is forever secure. But you get the feeling we're going to have to watch a few more fights like last night's before Sanchez calls it quits, and that's not a good thing.
Up: Tyron Woodley. What's the old saying, fortune favors the bold? Carlos Condit's knee injury, while unfortunate, should not diminish from Woodley's performance on Saturday night. While Condit showed flashes of his Condit-ness, by and large, this was looking like one of those fights where the veteran suddenly looked old, which is a scary thing to say about someone who is just 29. Condit had little answer for Woodley's takedowns and appeared to be surprised by just how much power T-Wood packs in that lethal right hand. Woodley had the courage to step up and ask for Condit, and more importantly, he delivered.
Down: Jake Shields. If Shields pulled out a win over Hector Lombard last night, there would be a lot of talk this morning about how, like it or not, Shields was pushing his way back into the title picture. Instead, Shields looked flat. The UFC wasn't going to be inclined to give Shields another title shot under the best of circumstances. Now, he's 35, has 38 pro fights, is coming off a listless loss, and doesn't have a win via finish in five years. Things aren't looking good for Shields.
Up: Dennis Bermudez. OK, so there were a slew of fighters I could name here for "stock up." Ovince St. Preux, Tank Scoggins, and Kelvin Gastelum all showed they're ready for the next level. But to keep this from going on all day, I'm going to focus on Bermudez. it's not just that Bermudez won his sixth straight fight, it's the way he did it, displaying his progress in all aspects of the game and showing a finisher's touch. "The Menace" is ready for a top-10 featherweight.
To Lawler, for the dignity he showed in the face of defeat. Lawler was handed ample opportunity last night to dispute his decision loss, from his interview in the Octagon to the post-fight press conference. But he never took the bait. Lawler instead tipped his hat to the new champion and talked about going back to the drawing board and figuring out ways to get better.
Hendricks clearly won 1, 2, and 5; Lawler clearly won 3 and 4. Lawler's body language told the story, from the look of defeat on his face in the final minute of the fight, to nodding when the decision was read in Hendricks' favor. There were, per usual in a close fight, some cries of "robbery" afterwards. If the decision was acceptable to Lawler, that should be good enough for the rest of us. Save the "robbery" witch hunts for the real robberies.
Talk about the wrong way to get to the right verdict. Judge Doug Crosby had Hendricks winning the fight by a score of 48-47, same as judges Aladan Martinez and Mike Gonzales. But the route he took to get there included a 10-8 for Hendricks in round two and a 10-10 in round five. I campaign for more 10-8 rounds as strong as any reporter in this field, but round two never struck me as a 10-8. And if that's a 10-8, then how was Lawler's effort in round 3 a 10-9? If any round in the fight came close to a 10-8, that was it. As for the 10-10 final round, first off, it wasn't, it was a clear round for Hendricks. Second, you're one of the three people in the building whose opinion on the fight truly matters. If you can't pick a winner in the final round of a match for a vacant championship in the fifth round when things are going down to the wire, then maybe judging fights isn't for you.
Incidentally, what was up with Joe Rogan trashing Lombard's performance in his victory over Shields? I've been as harsh on Lombard as anyone, but what I saw last night was a fighter who started strong and showed what he can do on his feet, then was smart enough not to get goaded into doing something dumb against one of MMA's craftiest jiu-jitsu players. I'm not going to pretend like Lombard didn't take his foot off the gas in round three, but, I mean, Shields has been finished exactly once since 2000. You would have thought this was Lombard vs. Tim Boetsch part two the way Rogan badmouthed him. But Lombard fought a smart fight and deserves to take the next step up the ladder.
Fights I'd like to see next: Hendricks vs. Woodley and Robbie Lawler-Nick Diaz 2
Diaz wants back. Dana White wouldn't commit on Hendricks' next opponent just yet. While Diaz is still a big draw, he's done nothing to merit a title shot (or for that matter, even less to merit one than when he actually got a title shot).
So here's what I propose: 1. Line up Hendricks vs. Woodley while Woodley is hot, and give us an intriguing matchup of wrestlers with scary punching power; 2. Give us that Diaz vs. Lawler rematch so many of us longtime observers have wanted for so long.
You can headline a pay-per-view with Lawler vs. Diaz at this point. Lawler's stock is as high as it has ever been, and you can give Diaz the main event and PPV points he wants without straining to give him a title fight he doesn't deserve at this point. Play the clip of the knockout in the first fight over and over, let Diaz do his thing in the buildup for the fight, and you've got as surefire of a non-title headliner as anything the UFC can put together in 2014.