Kampmann, Hendricks keep focus during stagnant year for welters
With two fighters wearing UFC welterweight championship belts for most of 2012, but no title fights, it hasn't been the easiest time to be a top-tier 170-pound contender.
Both Johny Hendricks and Martin Kampmann have been on rolls. Hendricks, a former NCAA wrestling champion at Oklahoma State, has won four straight fights. Kampmann has two candidates for Comeback Win of the Year in consecutive victories over Thiago Alves and Jake Ellenberger.
But Hendricks and Kampmann have also had to cool their jets despite their red-hot results. Georges St-Pierre, the welterweight champion since 2008, has been out of action for a year and a half, most recently due to a knee injury. In his absence, Carlos Condit was awarded an interim title after defeating Nick Diaz in February, but the belt went undefended over the past nine-plus months.
Finally, though, the logjam is ready to clear. Hendricks and Kampmann will square off Saturday at UFC 154 in Montreal's Bell Centre in a welterweight eliminator bout, which will serve as the co-feature bout to the St-Pierre vs. Condit main event.
In the days leading up to the showdown, the competitors are happy the waiting game is almost done.
"It got frustrating for awhile," said Hendricks (13-1). "I wanted to keep building my momentum and I wanted to stay active. But eventually, you just have to accept things the way they are. I can't sweat it. All I can do is defeat whoever they put in front of me."
For Kampmann (20-5), the experience was doubly frustrating, since Condit over the summer had expressed a desire to fight Kampmann, who handed Condit his only UFC loss back in 2009.
"I know Carlos wanted to fight me and try to get that loss off his record, like any competitor would," said Kampmann. "I was disappointed when it didn't happen, but at the same time, he has an opportunity to fight Georges, and he would have risked that by defending the interim title. I would have made the same choice if I was in his position."
Instead, fight fans will get a clear-cut No. 1 contender fight between two guys who have proven time and again that they can bring it. Hendricks-Kampmann is a match of former training partners, as Hendricks, early in his MMA career, worked out at Extreme Couture, the Las Vegas gym that Kampmann, the transplanted Dane, calls home.
For his part, Hendricks doesn't believe Kampmann has much of an edge due to their training history. Kampmann, was and remains a skilled kickboxer who also had a slick submission game; Hendricks already had nonpareil wrestling ability, but he's displayed a much-improved striking game since the two first crossed paths.
"Martin trained with the Johny Hendricks of four years ago, someone who was new to the sport," Hendricks said. "I had my wrestling back then, but the rest of my game was still primitive compared to who I am today. If Martin's going to base his game plan off of who I was back then, he'll be in for a surprise."
"Johny helped me with my wrestling, there's no doubt about that," Kampmann countered. "And he had heavy hands even back then. But he's making a mistake if he thinks I haven't improved my game, too."
Kampmann has stood out in 2012 for the sheer excitement level of his victories. In his March 3 bout against Alves, Kampmann appeared on his way to a clear-cut decision loss, only to find an opening and finish Alves via guillotine choke with less than a minute left in the fight. Three months later, Kampmann was nearly put away by a tremendous Ellenberger flurry in the opening moments of their fight, but Kampmann withstood the barrage and rallied to win with a second-round knockout.
While Kampmann has earned admiration for his displays of heart, he doesn't see it as anything out of the ordinary. "I can't really put it into words," Kampmann said. "All I can say is that when I fight, I fight until the end. I don't like to quit. Against Alves, I had an opening early in the third round for a submission but I didn't quite get it. But I knew that if I stayed patient and got another chance, I'd take advantage, and I got it. ... Against Jake, there's no doubt he rocked me, but I wanted to keep it on the ground and I wanted to stall him. I knew if I got back to my feet right away when I was still dizzy, that would have been bad. So once I got my head back together I knew I was in a good position."
For his part, the 29-year-old Hendricks, who is coming off back-to-back wins over UFC welterweight mainstays Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck, says he can't get caught up in Kampmann's never-say-die aura.
"All I can do to counter that is be ready to fight three hard rounds," said Hendricks. "I know Martin has a lot of heart, but that's not something I can let myself think about during the fight. I want to go out there and put him away, and I'm confident I can do it, but with someone like Martin I know I need to be ready to just push and push for 15 minutes."
The bout with Hendricks will mark the 30-year-old Kampmann's 16th in the UFC. He hasn't been given many favors along the way, either in matchmaking or on the judges' scorecards. His only losses over the past three years have been controversial decisions against Diego Sanchez and Jake Shields. But Kampmann believes his perseverance has paid off.
"I feel like I've earned my spot," Kampmann said. "You're more grateful for the opportunity when you've had to work hard for it. "It's been a long road getting here, but I'm getting my opportunity and I've earned it."
In separate phone interviews Wednesday, Hendricks and Kampmann expressed similar views on the GSP-Condit fight. Only Kampmann specifically predicted a Condit victory, but both feel that if St-Pierre gets the fight to the ground, the champ will retain his title, while Condit's best shot lies in keeping the fight off the mat.
Both also agree on another item: If they win Saturday night, they should get the next shot at whomever emerges from UFC 154 as welterweight champion.
"No one has said anything to me specifically," said Hendricks. "But if I win, that will be a whole bunch of the toughest guys at welterweight I've beaten, all in a row. How could they give the fight to anyone else?"
"If I win, it's my time," said Kampmann. "I've already beaten Carlos, if I beat Johny, there's no one else in the division who will have my credentials."