The world of 170-pound mixed martial artists used to be black-and-white. Now it's 50 shades of gray. And gray is worth its weight in gold.
For six years, we watched welterweight challengers march forward in lockstep single file, each in succession stepping to the head of the line with the naïve optimism of one who knows not what lies ahead. But the rest of us knew. We had seen the scenario play out before, a stout contender looking like a killer until he tussles with the champion and gets incarcerated and incapacitated for 25 minutes of water torture.
Now Georges St-Pierre's unwavering control of the division is over. It ended back in December, when after eight dominant defenses and one gritty one he vacated his title and walked away from the sport, perhaps forever, but at least for the time being. On Friday night we finally met GSP's successor. Or should we say successors?
It was Johny Hendricks who ended the evening on his knees at the center of the octagon, brass-and-leather belt shining in the arena lights, the hometown boy overcome by emotion as the Dallas crowd cheered his victory in the main event of UFC 171. He'd just defeated Robbie Lawler via a unanimous decision that came down to a winner-take-all fifth round.
Early on, Hendricks (16-2) looked to be on an express route to coronation, peppering Lawler (22-10, 1 NC) with punches and leg kicks, staying on the move, smoothly changing up the attack while also sustaining it. What had been billed as a slugfest between a pair of bangers was unfolding as a showcase for the Texan's unrushed technique. Lawler, meanwhile, was unable to find his range.
That went on for two rounds, but in the third Lawler finally landed some leather. And Hendricks felt it. And bled. A left uppercut did the damage, opening a cut near Johny's right eye, and blazed a trail for unkind punches from both sides that drew the occasional "oooh" from the fans outside the cage and a slight stagger from the man inside with him. Lawler walked down Hendricks and picked his shots for two rounds, sometimes looking like he was a clean shot from a finish. But Hendricks persevered. And planned ahead.
"I gotta win, I gotta win this round," he told himself between the fourth and fifth, his thoughts relayed at the post-fight press conference. "The fifth round is the decider." So he dared to trade blows in the pocket with the man who'd bloodied and wobbled him for the previous 10 minutes. He took the fight to Lawler. In the final minute, he sewed up the decision by taking Robbie to the mat and controlling him there to the horn (a la GSP!). "Leave everything out there, you know?" he said afterward, describing his mindset. "Five minutes can change the world."
And it has. Sort of. The UFC has a new welterweight champion. But it does not have a successor to St-Pierre in a broader sense.
Minutes before Hendricks took possession of the gold, the UFC's No. 2 welterweight fought to secure the right to be the new champ's first challenger. But opportunity slipped away from Carlos Condit, as he injured his right knee during a Tyron Woodley takedown and, while he was able to get back to his feet, couldn't stand and fight. Woodley was awarded a TKO victory, and while that was an unsatisfactory finish for those watching, the fighter felt it satisfied the requirement that had been set out in front of him. At the post-fight press conference, he declared himself to be first in line to meet Hendricks, saying, "I'm in this to be world champion."
Hector Lombard was at the press conference, too, having earlier beaten down Jake Shields on his way to a unanimous-decision victory. And at one point he took the microphone, without even having been asked a question, and began stating his case for a title shot.
What a thing it was to see these two muscle-bound debaters, the Mr. Universe wing of the UFC welterweight division, each try to step to the fore. And they're not alone in feeling entitled. Rory MacDonald, who just last month put in a resolute effort in defeating Demian Maia, has made it known that he wants next. Then there's the retired fighter who sat smiling at cageside after showing up at the weigh-ins on Friday to razz Hendricks over missing the 170-pound limit on his first try. Nick Diaz has said that only a title fight will entice him off his couch.
Lastly, of course, there's St-Pierre, or at least the ghost of St-Pierre. UFC president Dana White has said "I know for a fact" that the longtime champion is coming back. But he's a promoter, and buildup of suspense is his job. No one knows whether GSP will return to take a shot at Hendricks. Even Georges probably doesn't know at this point.
So there are a lot of grey hues in a welterweight title picture that used to be all black-and-white. And while the absence of GSP surely isn't helping pay-per-view sales, if it allows for thrillingly competitive fights like Saturday night's, we'll take it.