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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Fight Night 82

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
In a sport where underdogs win big fights nearly 40 percent of the time, upsets in main events are commonplace.

Still, Saturday night's Johny Hendricks vs. Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson fight ended up perplexing on many levels. It wasn't that Thompson won. That possibility is almost always there. It was that Hendricks, the man who battered Georges St-Pierre, looked like a wrestler coming off the college mats doing his first day of stand-up against an experienced striking MMA star.

Hendricks (17-4) had never been stopped, nor for that matter, had never been close to being stopped in his entire career. He went from being one of the best college wrestlers of the last 15 years, and made a smooth transition into MMA, where he reached the top spot in the sport.

But on Saturday, Hendricks was outstruck, his takedown attempts got him nowhere, and he quickly turned into a punching bag.  He was finished at 3:31 of the first round by a veteran who had fighter just shy of his 33rd birthday and held zero wins over anyone in the current top 16.

There were comparisons that could be made to November's Holly Holm upset over Ronda Rousey. The similarity is there. Both Rousey and Hendricks were heavy favorites. Both were strong with takedowns, and suddenly the takedowns weren't working against somebody with superior speed and standing technique.

But there's a huge difference. Hendricks had looked the devil in the eye in fights and never cracked under pressure in going 10 rounds with Robbie Lawler. He's a proven competitor, tested against the highest level competition in 13 plus years in both wrestling and MMA. He'd fought nothing but tough guys for years. His previous eight fights were with Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Martin Kampmann, Carlos Condit, St-Pierre, Lawler twice, and Matt Brown. Every opponent since the end of 2011 was either a champion or someone a step or two away from a title shot at the time Hendricks faced them. He beat every name on that list except for St-Pierre, and most feel he won that one as well.

But the guy who Bruce Buffer introduced on Saturday didn't appear to be the same person.

Hendricks came into the fight looking significantly smaller, which could be due to any one of a number of factors. It could have been related to his body shutting down during a tough weight cut and being hospitalized prior to his scheduled Oct. 3 fight with Tyron Woodley. Maybe he felt he had to keep his natural weight down to avoid a hard cut because missing weight twice in a row would be devastating for his career. If so, that made two high class wrestlers in the past two months who had never been in trouble before in MMA, both coming in smaller than usual, and both getting hammered.

This fight, and the Chris Weidman middleweight title loss to Luke Rockhold, is a lesson to wrestlers who rely on power that when you change your structure and your size, that power doesn't stay the same.

Perhaps due to the problems leading into his previous fight, he overcompensated and gave up too much size and strength. He didn't appear undertrained. He looked, if anything, more fit than usual, but clearly, not as strong.

There was a change in camps, moving away from Team Takedown. Some coaches were gone, most notably Marc Laimon. And who knows if outside business stresses, notably the recent shutting down of his Big Rigg Steakhouse, divided his pure concentration.

Post-fight interviews gave no answers. He talked about how he expected Thompson to fight differently, but Thompson seemed to fight the same style, albeit a crisper version, of what he always does.

Hendricks was gracious in defeat, but offered no answers, nor excuses, nor did the usual citing of injuries that so many fighters do after a disappointing performance.

With a win, Hendricks would have done enough to have earned a title shot, even if he may have had to wait to get it. Lawler's win over Condit was controversial and a rematch would have the most interest of any Lawler opponent right now other than a GSP return.

With Thompson, how much does doing a number on Hendricks in a manner than nobody else ever did help him? Thompson was ranked as the No. 8 contender coming in, but the only other currently ranked fighter he's faced, Matt Brown, beat him convincingly three years ago.

Let's look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of Saturday's show:

STEPHEN THOMPSON - Thompson was the big winner on an otherwise lackluster show. The win was so impressive that Thompson could very easily be pitted with Rory MacDonald (18-3) or Tyron Woodley (15-3). That would answer the question whether the one-sided nature of Saturday's fight was more indicative of how good Thompson is, or how off Hendricks really was.

The winner of either of those fights could be in line for the next title match.

JOHNY HENDRICKS - Just as nobody gained more than Thompson, nobody lost more than Hendricks.

There is still the opening for Hendricks vs. Woodley. It was fight that had some interest four months ago and a legitimate grudge on Woodley's part stems from a Big 10 wrestling championship match more than a decade ago. If not that, Hendricks would likely be looking at someone like Neil Magny (17-4) or Dong Hyun Kim (21-3-1), a step down in name value from the caliber of people he's been facing the last several years.

With Woodley, a win by Hendricks would him to greatly rebound in most people's eyes and he'd be back in the top tier. But with Magny or Kim, even a win would only be a baby step back to the level Hendricks has been hanging at for years.

ROY NELSON - Nelson (22-12) kept himself alive at 39 in taking a lackluster decision over Jared Rosholt. To show how aged the UFC heavyweight division is, Rosholt, 29, was the only top 15 ranked fighter under the age of 30.

Nelson has fought most of the top 15. Aside from Cain Velasquez, who makes no sense for him to fight right now, the only ranked fighters he hasn't fought are Antonio Silva (19-8-1), Travis Browne (18-3-1) and Alexey Oliynyk (55-9-1). Browne would be interesting. Silva hasn't looked good of late. A wild card test would be Derrick Lewis (14-4).

Lewis is a knockout artist who would probably give Nelson an exciting fight, and Lewis deserves a chance against a division name coming off his first round knockout over Damian Grabowski on Saturday night.

OVINCE SAINT PREUX - Things didn't look good for Saint Preux (19-7) when he rolled his ankle in the first round against former Strikeforce champion Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante. But Saint Preux moved well enough in rounds two and three to dominate the fight.

Saint Preux's best next opponent would be Alexander Gustafsson (16-4). Gustafsson gave Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier fits and would be either a major step forward for Saint Preux, or a big enough win for Gustafsson, to be within shooting distance of the highest rankings.

JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ - Benavidez (24-4) has been in a weird position for two years. He is generally considered the second-best flyweight in the world behind champion Demetrious Johnson. But Johnson has two wins over Benavidez, the second coming by quick knockout.

Benavidez has won five straight since that time. And with the exception of Henry Cejudo, who Johnson faces on April 23 in Las Vegas, the champion has turned back every legitimate contender already.

The argument is that Johnson vs. Benavidez at this point would be a tough fight to sell. But every flyweight title fight is hard to sell. If Johnson beats Cejudo, there would be no other contender even close to ready or as worthy.
The only holdup is if Cejudo beats Johnson. Johnson's long tenure as the only flyweight champion in company history should entitle him to a rematch.

If that happens, the best opponents would be Kyoji Horiguchi (16-2), Wilson Reis (20-6) or Louis Smolka (10-1).

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