Georges St-Pierre has not been welterweight champion for the entire 20-year history of the UFC. It only seems that way.
That's mostly a good thing, a sign of an elite athlete dominating his game, always and forever. There's been grumbling over the years, though, because there's always grumbling in sports. In the case of GSP's enduring reign, the detractors have pointed to the inevitably similar results of his fights: not because they've all been wins, but because every one of them since 2009 had been a five-round decision.
The champ doesn't finish anyone. He plays it safe. Grumble. Grumble.
Well, the naysayers sure got a treat on Saturday night. So did the 14,856 who packed the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for UFC 167, the fight promotion's 20th-anniversary card. Johny Hendricks showed up with an anniversary gift in hand.
Hendricks gave St-Pierre a challenge unlike any that have come before. He did not allow GSP to coast. As a two-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler, he did not let St-Pierre do what he typically does, which is to put an opponent on his back or at least on his heels for fear of a takedown. Hendricks came forward with punches, fearlessly and fearsomely, and while he didn't flatten the champ the same way he had some high-profile past opponents, he sure did beat him up.
There are some -- many, in fact -- who will say Hendricks not only beat up GSP but beat him as well. But two of the three cage-side judges disagreed, and the champion retained his belt with a split-decision victory.
More on the particulars of that in a moment, but first a bit of news that might well result in there being a new welterweight champion after all. In the octagon following the fight, after crediting Hendricks for giving him "without a doubt my toughest fight," St-Pierre (25-2) paused at the microphone, looking uncomfortable, and waited until the crowd noise had died down before saying, "I have a bunch of stuff in my life happening. I need to hang up my gloves for a little bit."
Interviewer and analyst Joe Rogan asked the 32-year-old, the longest-reigning UFC champion with 10 defenses since 2008, if he was announcing his retirement. "I have to go away for a little bit at least," St-Pierre said, cryptically. "I have personal things happening, and I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart to the UFC, which gave me the chance."
Unspecified personal issues aside, all you had to do was take a look at St-Pierre -- the cuts below both eyes, one of them swollen partially shut, abrasions all over his face and head -- to understand that this is a man who needs some time away from the cage. He even acknowledged what Hendricks had taken out of him. "I lost memory a little bit in the fight," he said. "Imagine how tough it was. I couldn't see with one of my eyes. He really messed me up. I need vacation right now."
Hendricks (15-2), by contrast, appeared relatively unscathed. This shined a cruel spotlight on the judges' decision. You can't give the fight to the guy who looks more beat up, right?
Well, yes you can. Scoring does not take into account blood and bumps and bruises, unless they render a fighter susceptible to a beatdown that turns a round in his opponent's favor. In this instance, however, the judges and most other observers agreed on four of the five rounds. Hendricks won the second, St-Pierre the third, Johny the fourth and Georges the fifth on all three scorecards.
The entire 25 minutes of fighting came down to the first five of them. One judge, Glen Trowbridge, scored Round 1 for Hendricks. The other two, Sal D'Amato and Tony Weeks, gave it to St-Pierre. I agreed with the majority, while my colleague Loretta Hunt gave it to Hendricks.
How'd that decisive round unfold? It began with GSP getting an immediate takedown and going right into a submission attempt. But Hendricks escaped the guillotine choke and regained his feet, then defended the takedown the next time St-Pierre grabbed a leg. Midway through the round, Hendricks got a takedown of his own against the fence, but GSP quickly got the fight standing again. From there, St-Pierre used kicks and jabs to maintain distance the rest of the way. When the horn sounded, the champ was the one with some bruising next to his right eye, from Hendricks' elbows thrown while GSP was holding onto a leg during his unsuccessful takedown attempt. But those short shots easily could have been missed by judges, depending on their viewing angle. No one missed St-Pierre's steady stream of punches and kicks from distance, though.
The judges' job is over at the fight's final horn, and the fighters' work is done then, too. But we often see the difference between winner and loser in those fleeting moments before the scores are read. On this night, when the fifth round ended, St-Pierre dispassionately walked back to his corner while Hendricks threw his hands in the air and exalted. It was only when trainer Firas Zahabi -- who between the third and fourth rounds had told his fighter in French that he was behind, as reported by Ariel Helwani on the Fox postgame show -- lifted Georges on his shoulder and carried him around the cage that the champ looked like a winner.
Not to Hendricks, though. "I thought I clearly won the fight," the challenger said right there in the cage. "Georges is a great guy, but--" At this point Hendricks stopped, hearing the crowd booing his proclamation of victory. "Hey, hey," he yelled at the fans, "did you guys see the same fight I just fought? I'm pretty sure I won."
He has one important person on his side: the boss. UFC president Dana White began the postfight press conference by spitting out this question: "Does anybody here think that Hendricks didn't win that fight?"
White went on to talk about St-Pierre getting "smashed" and "wobbled" and "dropped," and after acknowledging that he ought to be happy to still have his biggest pay-per-view draw as champ, he added, "I want what's fair, and that wasn't fair."
This led to a rant against the Nevada State Athletic Commission, whose judging and refereeing has drawn White's ire in the past. "I think the Nevada State Athletic Commission is atrocious," he said. "I think the governor needs to step in immediately before these guys destroy this sport like they did boxing."
And a happy 20th anniversary to you, too.
Notes from the undercard
Suga Sweet: The first thing that came to mind as the co-main event fighters took to the cage was that it was hard to believe a bout involving Chael Sonnen could fly under the radar. The first thing that came to mind once the fight was over was that being overlooked by the populace wasn't such a bad thing for Sonnen this time.
But there I go talking about Chael when the real story was Rashad Evans, best known these days as Sonnen's colleague at Fox television but once upon a time the UFC light heavyweight champion. "Suga Rashad" was more used to being disregarded, considering his tepid showings ever since last year's unsuccessful challenge of friend-turned-foe Jon Jones. He'd looked slow, tentative and barely interested in a loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and even a win over Dan Henderson, and at age 34 it was looking like the game was catching up to him.
But Evans looked like his old self against Sonnen, grappling with him against the cage for about half of the first round, then getting the takedown and smothering Chael while landing the occasional elbow or punch. Sonnen gave up mount, then back control and Evans rained down shots until referee Herb Dean mercifully jumped in, making it a TKO at 4:05.
"He wanted to go for the wall-and-brawl, so I obliged," said Evans, who is the first non-champion to beat Sonnen since 2009.
The loss derails Chael's rise in the 205-pound division, but he's already booked for a meeting with Wanderlei Silva, whom he'll face after the two coach on the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil. There'll be plenty of trash-talking in the leadup to that one.
There wasn't any prior to this fight, of course, because Evans (19-3-1) and Sonnen (29-14-1) work together on Fox telecasts. For Rashad, that made even the beatdown tough to take -- I mean, dish out. "Yeah, it was because me and Chael are close," he said. "I like Chael a lot as a person. When you have to land those shots on somebody you really like, it's hard to do."
Good to know. I won't be calling out Peter King or Tom Verducci any time soon.
Ruthless and breathless: That first word is Robbie Lawler's nickname, and the second is how the crowd likely felt after his upset victory over Rory MacDonald. If the fans weren't roaring so loudly throughout the welterweight bout, you might have been able to hear Dana White chuckling to himself at octagon-side. It's not that the UFC president would have been actively rooting for Lawler to win, but he surely was rooting for MacDonald's fighting style to lose.
Rory, at age 24, is a well-rounded fighter who could use some sharp edges. Over his last few fights, he'd measured his opponents on the way to victories that were clear but not domineering. The thinking in advance of this fight was that Lawler (22-9, 1 NC), who might just as well be nicknamed "Relentless," would not allow MacDonald to lay back and pick him apart. And that's pretty much how the fight unfolded.
Lawler's leg kicks and overall aggressiveness carried the first round, and MacDonald (15-2) used a takedown and some elbows on the canvas to carry the second. The final five minutes saw the older fighter, a 31-year-old who seems to have been in this sport forever, going for it with, um, ruthless abandon. He landed punches and kicks that appeared to sap the verve from Rory, dropped him a couple of times with combinations and even withstood a late comeback when a bloodied MacDonald fought the way Dana wishes he always would.
The judges had it as a split decision, all by 29-28 scores, and the right guy had his hand raised. It was Lawler's third straight win since his return to the UFC following a nine-year absence. "I've had a tough road, up and down," he said. "But I kept getting up, kept pushing forward. And that's what happened tonight."