Deciding who should challenge Johny Hendricks March Madness-style
Have you filled out your bracket yet?
I'm not talking about college basketball, even though everyone else is this week. I'm referring to a different sort of March Madness.
On Saturday night in Dallas, the UFC endeavored to set up its welterweight future. Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler would vie for the 170-pound championship vacated in December by Georges "No Rush" St-Pierre, who'd worn the belt since hoopsters were shooting into a peach basket. Tyron Woodley and Carlos Condit would tussle in the co-main event, with a shot at the title on the line ... at least for one of them. And Hector Lombard and Jake Shields would try to use each other as a springboard toward the front of the line.
Dominant wins by Hendricks and Condit would have set up a rematch of their Fight of the Night shindig of a year ago, and if Shields, with perhaps the shiniest resume of them all but a fighting style that grinds fan interest to a halt, had added another Top 10 notch to his belt, he'd have been hard to ignore (try as the UFC might) when the next championship fight was being masterminded.
Ah, but the best laid plans ...
What actually happened at UFC 171 was Hendricks won but only by a sprinter's lean into the finish line. Along the way he took a beating that Usain Bolt will never know. Some are calling for an immediate rematch with Lawler. That bloodthirsty case is strengthened by the lack of an obvious alternative, as Condit was TKO'd after blowing out his knee.
So does Woodley get the title fight instead, or should it go to his American Top Team training partner Lombard, who handled Shields like no one before him, not even GSP? Of course, Hector didn't look at all like St-Pierre as he was gassing out before the second round was done. Still, at the postfight press conference, Lombard argued for a title fight just as bodaciously as Woodley did.
Let's add a few more faces to the championship picture.
There's Rory MacDonald, who was on the cusp of a title bout -- or at least of having the UFC try to talk him into one with his friend and teammate St-Pierre then on the throne -- before dropping a lackadaisical split decision to Lawler in November. But last month's impressive win over Demian Maia righted the ship and got it steaming in a positive direction.
Then there's Nick Diaz, the in-your-face antihero whom everyone -- some openly, some quietly and despite themselves -- wants to see end his year-long retirement. But he'll do it only for a title fight, he says, and here's an instance where he might not be blowing smoke. Diaz was in Dallas over the weekend heckling Hendricks at the weigh-ins and belittling him after the fight like an MMA playground bully. Nick sees an opening and wants in.
The other name from outside the game? St-Pierre. He professes to be happy in his retiremen-- no, no, he hasn't used the "R" word. He's on a hiatus. But Georges is still in the gym every day. He's staying sharp. Maybe, just maybe we'll get the return of a dynasty the likes of which the 170-pound universe hasn't seen since John Wooden was sitting atop a pyramid of success at UCLA.
Which brings me back to my bracket. Perhaps we should settle this welterweight quandary the way the NCAA basketball powers do, by tossing all of the contenders into a bracket and matching them up. We probably could even come up with a field of 64 (we'd have to go looking around Asia for Ben Askren, though), but let's stick with the six mentioned above, comparing their cases for a title shot against Hendricks using logic no less fuzzy than the Ratings Percentage Index, along with concrete criteria like win-loss record against the current SI.com welterweight top 10.
1. Georges St-Pierre
Curriculum vitae: 25-2
What have you done for me lately? Defeated Johny Hendricks by split decision Nov. 16
Lucky streak: Has won 12 straight
Top 10 hit parade: 3-0 (beat Hendricks, Carlos Condit, and Jake Shields)
X factor: Anderson Silva took his game to a higher level by training with Steven Seagal, so Georges is now hanging out with a far better actor, Arnold Swarzenegger. (Yes, Mr. Under Siege set the bar low, way low.) The hope is the Terminator is teaching the erstwhile champ how to say, "I'll be back."
Selling point: What better challenger could there be for Hendricks's first title defense than the greatest welterweight the sport has ever seen? St-Pierre need not bother joining the "pick me!" chorus. He built a case for himself over more than half a decade, defending the 170-pound belt nine times before walking away in December, just weeks after being brutalized in his slim-decision win over Johny. If Georges wants it, this fight is all his.
Not buying it: GSP doesn't want it. Not now, anyway.
2. Tyron Woodley
Curriculum vitae: 13-2
What have you done for me lately? Defeated Carlos Condit by TKO on Saturday
Lucky streak: Has won two in a row
Top 10 hit parade: 1-1 (beat Condit; lost to Jake Shields)
X factor: Woodley and Hendricks have history, having wrestled for the Big 12 championship in 2005. Apparently, there was controversy over an accusation by Johny that Tyron bit him. So we could have a Tyson vs. Holyfield situation on our hands.
Selling point: Woodley knocked out the man who, going into the weekend, was being promised a shot at the title if he won. So now he should get what was to be Condit's, right? It's simple MMAth.
Not buying it: The fight description actually should say that Woodley "knocked out" (note the ironic quotation marks) or even "knocked out*" (note the added asterisk) Condit because the fight ended only when Carlos tore up his knee. True, Tyron had won the first round and was looking strong early in the second, but he's been known to fade and Condit is a cardio wonder. Can we see a little more, Tyron?
3. Hector Lombard
Curriculum vitae: 34-4-1, 1 NC
What have you done for me lately? Defeated Jake Shields by unanimous decision Saturday
Lucky streak: Has won two in a row
Top 10 hit parade: 1-0 (beat Shields)
X factor: Step 1 is Lombard asking for the title fight. Step 2 is heavy-breathing Hector petitioning for the fight to be a one-rounder.
Selling point: Of all the welterweights on display in Dallas on Saturday night, Lombard was the most dominant. He slowed down as the fight wore on, for sure, but whenever he chose to engage, he threw around Jake Shields like Shields was a child. Wouldn't it be fun to see how the Cuban's judo would fare against Hendricks, a two-time NCAA Division I national champion in wrestling?
Not buying it: After the emptying his tank faster than a gridlocked SUV in Saturday's three-rounder, Lombard now wants to show us what he can do in the championship rounds? Better have a medic and an oxygen mask at cageside. That aside, Hector has fought as a welterweight only twice, and before that he lost two of his first three UFC bouts. Does Lombard have the stamina to be in this for the long haul?
4. Robbie Lawler
Curriculum vitae: 22-10, 1 NC
What have you done for me lately? Lost to Johny Hendricks by unanimous decision Saturday
Lucky streak: Has lost one
Top 10 hit parade: 1-2 (beat Rory MacDonald; lost to Hendricks and Jake Shields)
X factor: Russell and Chamberlain would be envious of Lawler's rebounding. After losing five of his eight fights in Strikeforce, he stepped up to the UFC and knocked out his first two opponents, then beat top five contender Rory MacDonald and then was ahead of Hendricks midway through the fifth round, meaning he was two minutes away from being crowned champion. Give him a few months, and he'll have forgotten all about Johny and instead be pining for a challenge of Cain Velasquez.
Selling point: Did you watch Saturday night's fight? Wouldn't you love to see Rounds 6 through 10? Or at least Round 6 through nighty night?
Not buying it: Been there, done that. Unless the UFC puts Francis Ford Coppola in charge of the production, how likely is it that the sequel would live up to the original?
5. Rory MacDonald
Curriculum vitae: 16-2
What have you done for me lately? Defeated Demian Maia by unanimous decision on Feb. 22
Lucky streak: Has won one
Top 10 hit parade: 1-2 (beat Maia; lost to Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit)
X factor: Tyron Woodley calls him "the prince, the heir of GSP." It sounds like there's some sitcom potential there, with each episode beginning with St-Pierre cutting the line outside a nightclub and, pointing at Rory, telling the doorman, "The kid's with me."
Selling point: MacDonald's presumed ascendency to the throne was not entirely a creation of the GSP aura at Tristar Gym. Rory has shown he can fight, and if not for his friend being on the throne until recently, "Ares" might have been in a title tilt by now. He was especially impressive in his tough-it-out victory over grappling master Maia.
Not buying it: MacDonald should know better than most that being a champion is stressful. How many times did he sit next to GSP, patting him on the back and saying, "Breeeeeathe," as Georges hyperventilated into a paper bag? Rory, meanwhile, sometimes seems to not even have a pulse. Before the win over Maia, he'd taken the air out of two arenas with somnolent performances against Lawler and Jake Ellenberger.
6. Nick Diaz
Curriculum vitae: 26-9, 1 NC
What have you done for me lately? Lost to Georges St-Pierre by unanimous decision on March 16, 2013
Lucky streak: Has lost two in a row
Top 10 hit parade: 1-1 (beat Robbie Lawler; lost to Carlos Condit)
X factor: 420 + 209 = high drama
Selling point: Sure, a Hendricks vs. GSP rematch might be the biggest seller, but no one in this bracket would market the fight with the mad melodrama of Diaz. From "Don't be scared, homie" to "Where you at, Georges?" to "selling wolf tickets," he's a meme machine. And once fight night came, he'd pose fascinating problems for Hendricks with his ever-forward boxing and ever-threatening ground game.
Not buying it: He hasn't won a fight since October 2011, and even then it was against a bloated lightweight. After following that win over B.J. Penn by losing an interim title fight to Carlos Condit, Diaz nonetheless was given a shot at St-Pierre. That was peculiar enough, but awarding Nick a title fight now after two losses -- and a year-long retirement during which he turned down a Condit rematch, among other top-contender bouts -- would be akin to flipping the double bird at the sport. Nick endorses both.
In a field of six, our top two seeds get byes into the Final Four, and we end up with these quarterfinal matchups:
No. 3 Lombard vs. No. 6 Diaz: This is a fight I'd love to see actually happen, but what we're doing here is merely comparing resumes to determine who's most worthy of a title shot. And that argument is over before it begins. Hector has his issues, but the bottom line is the UFC would be abdicating its responsibility as a promoter of sporting events if it were to put Diaz in a championship fight at this point. (If Dana White & Co. do it anyway, I'll be among the chorus chuckling when Diaz blows off his first press conference.) I'd live with seeing Nick get a shot if he would first fight -- and beat -- a top 10 guy. But now? No way.
No. 4 Lawler vs. No. 5 MacDonald: It's déjà vu all over again. Last November's fight was a tight one, and while Robbie's split-decision win propelled him into the top 10 and dropped Rory down a few notches, MacDonald remained ahead of Lawler in the SI.com rankings. (Much to the chagrin of some readers, I might add.) I wouldn't mind seeing either of these guys step in the cage with Hendricks, but since we've just seen Lawler do that, I'm going to go with the new blood.
That sets up these semifinals:
No. 1 St-Pierre vs. No. 5 MacDonald: Georges isn't showing up to fight anyone -- not Hendricks, not any of these contenders, and certainly not the Robin to his Batman. If this were a hoops semifinal, the fans at one of those gigantic football stadiums would eventually get out their binoculars and figure out there's only one team on the court down there.
No. 2 Woodley vs. No. 3 Lombard: Here's a teammate vs. teammate tussle that would go down. Tyron already was preparing himself mentally to fight a training partner, since he expected Lawler -- who rolls with Woodley and Lombard in the American Top Team gym -- to grab the title Saturday night. But relax, fellas, we're just comparing resumes here. Neither of these guys is a shoo-in for the job, frankly, but even if we taint Woodley's TKO of Condit with fluke talk, Tyron was on his way to a dominating win, anyway, much like Chris Weidman was on his way to pasting Anderson Silva when their rematch ended freakishly.
Which brings us to our bracket finale:
No. 2 Woodley vs. No. 5 MacDonald: Here's where I wish GSP had a fight in him. Or that Hendricks vs. Lawler ended in some bizarre way that necessitated a rematch. (No, I don't really wish for that.) We're just looking to buy time here. Woodley and MacDonald (and Lombard, too, really) are on their way to championship fight worthiness, but they aren't there just yet. The belt can't wait, though. The matchmakers have to make a call and do so soon enough to build off of the momentum of Saturday's fine fights. And based on that, the title bid should go to the man whose performance separated him from the pack in the most dramatic way. By finishing his opponent.
It's not the biggest pay-per-view fight the UFC can book, but Johny Hendricks's first challenger should be Tyron Woodley.