As Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald put on one of the greatest, bloodiest fights in 2015 at UFC 189, one spectator was looking right past the gruesomeness of the encounter to fixate on the X’s and O’s. That was former welterweight champion and No. 1 contender Johny Hendricks, who was cageside in Las Vegas taking in the action.
Lawler persevered in the end, finishing MacDonald in the fifth round via TKO. Both men were ripped asunder, with MacDonald’s foot and nose broken, and Lawler’s lip busted and gashed open.
So what was going through Hendricks’ mind as he watched the thing transpire?
"You know, realistically, seeing what they’re doing to each other," he said during an appearance on The MMA Hour on Monday. "Just what’s working, what’s not working. We saw from Rory MacDonald that the straight punches were working. Then we saw Robbie in the second round come back with his straight punches, and that was what realistically started the bloody mess. Then we saw Rory MacDonald was able to land that head kick.
"It didn’t seem like the one-twos…they were there, but they were just sort of keeping them at bay. Then you saw the head kick. Maybe Rory MacDonald should have tried for a takedown instead of trying to finish him on the feet,? Get some takedowns, maybe try and finish him on top. I don’t know. When you’re in that situation you’ve just got to trust your body."
Hendricks admits he had a bit of tunnel vision as he watched Lawler go through what he did to get his arm raised.
"It’s all hindsight now," he said. "You look at that fight and you think, yeah, [Lawler] did a good job, but again, I want my belt back. Whenever I look at that fight that’s all I can think about."
Of course, now the UFC has a slam-dunk of a trilogy between Hendricks and Lawler, should it opt to go that way. Lawler and Hendricks met twice in 2014, with the first fight going to Hendricks, and the second to Lawler. Their first encounter at UFC 171 was considered the Fight of the Year in many people’s eyes. Both of them went to the judge’s scorecards.
Hendricks said that’s why he’s not bothered by the violence he witnessed at UFC 189.
"I’ve been in two fights with [Lawler], and it’s turned out well, you know what I mean?" he said. "If he wants to get into that kind of battle, there are other ways around that. I know that. I’ve been in there with him. So, to sit there and think that it’s going to be a bloody war, you never know until the moment comes. Does that make sense? But when the moment comes, you either rise up to it or you fold."
The only hitch is whether or not the UFC wants to book the 31-year old Hendricks into a trilogy fight once Lawler heals up. Or, if the UFC might opt for a different course of action, such as booking Tyron Woodley or Carlos Condit against Lawler.
"I haven’t talked to anybody yet, I don’t know what’s going on," Hendricks said. "I have not a clue. I figure it makes perfect sense. Robbie’s going to get some time to relax, let his body heal, and then let’s do it. But other than that, I don’t know why. All I can do is keep training with what I need to do, but hopefully I get that call soon and they tell me it’s going to happen."
While vying for a title shot before, Hendricks last fought Matt Brown at UFC 185 four months ago in Dallas. When asked if he’d be willing to wait for Lawler, he said he would, and that it’s actually perfect for him.
"Because, realistically, look at my last couple of years," he said. "I fight in March, it’s either the 14th, 15th or the 16th. And I always fight in either late-November or early-December. So realistically it’s playing perfect for my timeline. So there’s things I can get better on. Yeah, my weight went well. There’s just some things, I’m making tweaks. And now that I know in my eyes that it’s going to be Robbie Lawler, we’re already training for that. That’s what sort of makes me happy is I’m going to train for him. Yeah, he’s got to take some time to recover. In my mind we’re going to fight in late-November or early-December, which is fine with me. That just gives me more time to get my weight under control and get my skills a little bit more prepared for the fight.
Lawler was the consensus comeback fighter of the year in 2014, having overcome the initial Hendricks loss to defeat Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown en-route to the rematch. He then capped the year with a decision over Hendricks to take the belt.
It was a surprising run for a guy who less than three years ago was on a 1-3 slump, with losses to Lorenz Larkin, Tim Kennedy and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza.
Hendricks said he’s not overly surprised with what Lawler’s been able to accomplish.
"No because realistically when you look at somebody who has power, stuff like that can come true," he said. "If you look at it, if Rory MacDonald makes it through the fifth round, it’s a different story. If you look at that, yeah, realistically, I thought that’s how my card should have went whenever I was fighting him. I was up three to one going into the fifth round, he had to knock me out, that’s the only way he was going to win. It didn’t go my way. So, you take it with a grain of salt and you make yourself better. And you make sure the next time it doesn’t happen.
Asked what he thought about No. 3 ranked Woodley, who has been openly campaigning for a title shot, Hendricks said he understood.
"You know what, I’ve talked to him. I’m actually…I like him a lot, he’s a really good guy," he said. "I get where he’s coming from, I’m in the same boat. I’m in the exact same boat. I’m sitting here saying hey, I want my title. I want to fight for that title again. And he’s wanting to get to it. So I get where he’s coming from.
"It’s just that I want the title, and that’s the only play that makes sense, is me and Robbie III. Realistically, that’s all that makes sense. Then, because right now we’re 1-1, boom, win or lose, then we can move on and start venturing out there and leading different chapters."