The arena lights will dim, the walkout music will begin its thump, and out from the shadows will emerge the man dressed head to toe in white. And then ...
Oh, wait, this UFC welterweight championship fight is not going to be like all of the others we've seen over the last seven years. There'll be no gi-swathed Georges St-Pierre walking to the octagon this time. Set aside the dancehall rhythm and cue up some country music and rap.
When Johny Hendricks meets Robbie Lawler at the American Airlines Center in Dallas in the main event of UFC 171 on Saturday (10 p.m., PPV), it will be the first fight for the 170-pound belt not involving GSP since September 23, 2006, the night Matt Hughes defended the title with a knockout of B.J. Penn.
Immediately afterward, St-Pierre famously entered the octagon to tell the champ, "I'm not impressed by your performance." Less than two months later, Georges followed up the slap in the face with a TKO of Hughes to take possession of the belt. All 11 UFC welterweight championship bouts since then have featured the dominant and at times dynamic Québécois.
But following his last title defense, a narrow and much disputed decision victory over Hendricks in November, a battered and emotionally frail St-Pierre elected to walk away from mixed martial arts, at least for the time being, and at least in terms of professional competition.
He continues to train -- "for fun," he says -- and has continued to make his presence felt with charged-up comments advocating for more stringent drug testing. This newfound touch of activism probably has UFC president Dana White wishing his former champion and pay-per-view cash cow had retired to the Yukon for some ice fishing. The promotion and its 170-pound division are doing their best to set the GPS in the direction of a post-GSP future.
The 30-year-old Hendricks (15-2, 10-2 in the UFC) will walk into the octagon without the title belt but wearing the aura of a champion. The two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion may not have beaten St-Pierre back in November, according to two of the three cageside judges in Las Vegas, but no one would dispute he beat up the champ. The same fistic thunder "Bigg Rigg" had used to knock out Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann left its mark on the champ's face and in his psyche.
On Saturday night Hendricks, who sits at No. 1 in the SI.com welterweight rankings and at No. 10 on the pound-for-pound list, will fight in the city where he lives and trains ... as GSP did several times during his championship reign.
Lawler (22-9 [1 NC], 7-3 UFC), ranked No. 4 on the SI.com welterweight list, spent much of his career at middleweight, dropping down to 170 a year ago at the start of his second stint with the UFC. He has won all three of his bouts -- two by knockout -- since the behemoth promotion assumed his contract when Strikeforce shut down. It was the one fight that went the distance that got "Ruthless Robbie" here. A split-decision upset of No. 3 contender and St-Pierre training partner Rory MacDonald, which came on the same UFC 167 card as Hendricks vs. GSP, was enough to earn the 31-year-old a shot at the vacant title.
In addition to the pay-per-view telecast of the five-fight main card, four prelims will be shown on Fox Sports 2 (8 p.m. ET) and the card's other four bouts will stream on the UFC Fight Pass digital subscription service (6 p.m.).
One man is coming off a loss. The other is not far removed from a 3-5 stretch that threatened to end his relevancy if not his career.
But that Hendricks loss was a winning performance, his battering of St-Pierre making him the obvious choice for this jump ball once Georges decided to take his ball and go home.
And Lawler has bounced back from his bad career stretch in a big way, knocking out onetime title challenger Josh Koscheck a year ago in his first bout in the UFC since 2004, then putting Bobby Voelker to sleep and then edging the 170-pound division's flavor of the month, Rory MacDonald.
So this title fight is not entirely a reclamation project.
In a way it is, though, because the UFC must find a new formula for satisfying a customer base that's grown used to watching a longtime champion perform like a virtuoso.
The matchmakers have come up with an answer that twists the dial. They're transforming the feel of welterweight championship fights from steady dominance -- the last seven of GSP's nine title defenses came down to judges' decision in which the champ barely lost a round -- to bang bang. Hendricks and Lawler both got here on the strength of highlight-reel knockouts, and the potential for more will bring a hush of nervy anticipation on this fight night and perhaps many to come.
|Last five fights|
|Tale of the tape|
* Official weights announced at the weigh-in (Friday, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2)
Other numbers to count on
82: Percentage of Robbie Lawler's victories that have come by knockout (18 of 22). Hendricks has eight KOs in 15 wins (53 percent).
3: Consecutive bouts in which Hendricks has earned a performance bonus: Fight of the Night for his most recent two (vs. Georges St-Pierre and Carlos Condit) and Knockout of the Night for the one prior (vs. Martin Kampmann).
2002: Year in which Hendricks, a high school senior in Oklahoma, won his third straight state championship in wrestling, and in which Lawler made his UFC debut with a win over Aaron Riley.
Johny Hendricks' KO power:
Robbie Lawler's KO power:
Johny Hendricks was a two-time NCAA Division I national champion and four-time All-American. There's no question who will be the better wrestler in the octagon Saturday night.
But Robbie Lawler doesn't have to be as good a wrestler. He just needs to be good enough to keep the fight where he wants it to be fought. Stop a takedown here. Work his way back to his feet there. Having grown up in this sport training with Matt Hughes, whose wrestling chops made him a champion, and having been in a cage with Matt Lindland, Jake Shields, Josh Koscheck, and Frank Trigg, strong wrestlers all, Lawler should be equipped to stand his ground for the most part.
That suggests we're in for a standup fight. And that suggests we're in for some excitement.
A telling moment might come, however, when one of these thunder-fisted men hurts the other. If Lawler is the one stunned by a punch, we know from experience, he'll fling leather back in an effort to turn the tables.
What about Hendricks? We haven't seen him put on his heels. If Lawler can touch him, will Johny fire back or revert to his wrestling? We might see a grappling match after all.
Hendricks is a sizeable favorite at all sports books checked, with his money line ranging from -412 (bet $100 to win $24.27) to -500 (bet $100 to win $20). The lines on Lawler range from +280 (bet $100 to win $280) to +375 (bet $100 to win $375).
The Lawler renaissance has been a heartening story, but Hendricks began walking like a champion the moment he walked out of the octagon in November, not draped by the brass-and-leather belt but fittingly bathed in cheers. He's come too far to stop now.
His smartest path to glory would be to get one of those NCAA champion takedowns and nullify much of what's threatening about Lawler. But I suspect that Johny will be looking for a more invigorating showing, one that'll make the fans forget about a certain French-Canadian, if only for a while. Hendricks by KO.
"Georges, he was going to throw a jab, a high kick, a low kick and try to take you down. That's his game plan. Robbie, if you make a mistake, we've seen it time and time again that he can knock you out. So you really have to make sure that you stay focused, cross all your T's and dot all your I's and make sure that you stay solid. That's a lot more dangerous fight."
-- Johny Hendricks, speaking to reporters on a UFC conference call last week, after being asked to compare this fight with his bout against Georges St-Pierre
"I feel like with all of the bumps and bruises I've had in this career and the ups and downs, it has made me a stronger fighter today. And that's all that matters. March 15, I will be the strongest fighter that I've ever been."
-- Robbie Lawler, on the same conference call, talking about the roller-coaster career that's brought him to this title fight
The Tweet Beat
Join the conversation about Hendricks vs. Lawler on Twitter. Track the hashtags #HendricksLawler and #UFC171 to see who's tweeting what about Saturday's fight.
@JohnyHendricks (Johny Hendricks)
@TeamTakeDown (Team TakeDown, Hendricks's training team)
@Ruthless_RL (Robbie Lawler)
@AmericanTopTeam (American Top Team, Lawler's training team)
@ufc (Ultimate Fighting Championship)
@danawhite (UFC president Dana White)
@jeffwagenheim (SI.com's Jeff Wagenheim)
@lorettahuntmma (SI.com's Loretta Hunt)
@chuckmindenhall (Chuck Mindenhall, MMAfighting.com writer)
@arielhelwani (Ariel Helwani, Fox Sports 1/MMAfighting.com interviewer)
@LukeThomasMMA (Luke Thomas, MMAfighting.com writer)
@MikeChiappetta (Mike Chiappetta, FoxSports.com MMA writer)
@benfowlkesMMA (Ben Fowlkes, USA Today/MMAjunkie.com writer)
@kevini (Kevin Iole, Yahoo! Sports MMA/boxing writer)
@bokamotoESPN (Brett Okamoto, ESPN.com MMA writer)
@davedoylemma (Dave Doyle, MMAfighting.com writer)
@MMAjunkieJohn (John Morgan, USAToday/MMAjunkie.com writer)
The rest of the card
Carlos Condit vs. Tyron Woodley, welterweight
Myles Jury vs. Diego Sanchez, lightweight
Jake Shields vs. Hector Lombard, welterweight
Ovince St. Preux vs. Nikita Krylov, light heavyweight
Preliminary card (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2): Kevin Gastelum vs. Rick Story, welterweight; Raquel Pennington vs. Jessica Andrade, women's bantamweight; Dennis Bermudez vs. Jimy Hettes, featherweight; Sean Spencer vs. Alex Garcia, welterweight.
Online prelims (6 p.m. ET, UFC Fight Pass): Renee Forte vs. Frank Trevino, lightweight; Will Campuzano vs. Justin Scoggins, flyweight; Robert McDaniel vs. Sean Strickland, middleweight; Daniel Pineda vs. Robert Whiteford, featherweight.
Mike Goldberg will handle blow-by-blow and Joe Rogan will provide analysis for the main-card telecast on pay-per-view as well as prelims on Fox Sports 2 and the UFC Fight Pass. An hour-long postfight show begins at 1 a.m. ET on Fox Sports 2.