Everything you need to know about this weekend's big fight.
The question that hangs in the air in the leadup to a 2014 UFC welterweight championship fight: Who’s going to win?
The question that lurked in the vicinity of any UFC welterweight championship fight from 2008 through 2013: Will the challenger win even a round?
A year ago, Johny Herndricks changed the narrative for 170 pounders, putting a hurt on Georges St-Pierre even while dropping a much-disputed split decision. GSP’s aura of invincibility -- which he’d cultivated and nurtured through eight one-sided title defenses ever since regaining his belt from Matt Serra in ’08 -- faded away that night in November 2013, and soon the champ faded away as well. Less than a month later, GSP vacated his belt and walked away from the sport.
Suddenly the strap was up for grabs. And in March it was Hendricks, fittingly enough, who grabbed it, taking a unanimous decision from Robbie Lawler.
It was a unanimous verdict, yes, but it bore little resemblance to the beatdowns St-Pierre had administered during his reign. It wasn’t a one-man show. It was anybody’s fight right to the end.
When Hendricks defends for the first time in a rematch with Lawler on Saturday night in the main event of UFC 181 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, PPV), the champ will be seeking to restore an exclamation point to the top of the welterweight division. St-Pierre is a tough act to follow. The bar is set high.
Hendricks (16-2, 11-2 in the UFC), a four-time collegiate wrestling All-American and two-time NCAA Division 1 champion, has not fought since the Lawler bout because of injury. He came into the Lawler bout with his right biceps compromised, and he tore it early on in the fight. The 31-year-old, who is No. 8 in the SI.com pound-for-pound fighter rankings, fought on gallantly that night, and after having the shiny brass-and-leather belt secured around his waist, the new champ underwent surgery and has been rehabbing ever since.
Lawler (24-10, 1 NC; 9-4 UFC) has fought twice since the heartbreakingly close title bout. Just two months after the Hendricks fight, the 32-year-old stepped in with Jake Ellenberger and knocked him out in the third round. Then, two months after that, Lawler got the better of Matt Brown in a rugged five-rounder. He is No. 3 in the SI.com welterweight rankings, behind only the champ and Rory MacDonald, who’ll likely fight Saturday’s winner.
In addition to the pay-per-view telecast of the five-fight main card, four prelims will be shown on Fox Sports 1, starting at 8 p.m. ET, and the event’s other two fights will be on UFC Fight Pass at 7. The main card also will be screened by Fathom Events at 400 movie theaters nationwide.
In the days and weeks leading up to the first meeting in March, the mere fact that Robbie Lawler was in a title fight was an unlikely story. Here was a man whose career had been wallowing in what-could-have-been, his first UFC run concluding way back in 2004 with three losses in his last four fights, then his rebirth in Strikeforce fading into nothingness as well.
When Lawler arrived in the UFC early last year, his contract having been included in the Strikeforce purchase, he was a tarnished castoff. He’d lost three of his last four in Strikeforce and had gone 3-5 overall in the second-fiddle promotion. And the UFC didn’t exactly ease him in, sticking him in the cage with former title challenger Josh Koscheck. But Lawler knocked him out in the first round.
After Robbie followed that with a KO of Bobby Voelker, he was matched with the division’s rising star, Rory MacDonald. Lawler took MacDonald out of his game and won a split decision. That earned Robbie a spot in the jump ball for the belt, a matchup with Hendricks to determine who’d ascend to the top of the hill now that St-Pierre had vacated that hallowed position.
And even though the decision did not go his way in March, Lawler made a strong case for a do-over. After Hendricks got the better of him for two rounds, Robbie turned the tables in a big way, battering and bloodying and wobbling Johny in the third and fourth. It was anybody’s fight going into the fifth. Hendricks wouldn’t be denied. Lawler ended the night with regrets overshadowing his feisty performance.
On Saturday, he has an opportunity to rewrite the story with a happy ending.
Last Five Fights
3/14/14 Robbie Lawler W UD 5
11/16/13 Georges St-Pierre L SD 5
3/16/13 Carlos Condit W UD 3
11/17/12 Martin Kampmann W KO 1
5/5/12 Josh Koscheck W SD 3
7/26/14 Matt Brown W UD 5
5/24/14 Jake Ellenberger W TKO 3
3/15/14 Johny Hendricks L UD 5
11/16/13 Rory MacDonald W SD 3
7/27/13 Bobby Voelker W KO 2
Tale of the Tape
* Official weights announced at the weigh-in (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2)
Other Numbers to Count On
80: Percentage of Robbie Lawler takedown attempts that have been successful during his UFC career, which according to FightMetric is the best in the promotion’s history (among those with at least five UFC fights and 20 attempts). Is that a meaningless number, with Robbie in with an elite wrestler in Johny Hendricks -- against whom he didn’t even attempt a takedown in March? Or will Lawler surprise?
97: Percentage of Lawler’s significant strikes in the first meeting that were from distance. He didn’t even attempt a strike while on the ground (Hendricks was just 2 for 2) and landed only four from the clinch, to Hendricks’s 18.
11: Strikes to the body by the two men in their March fight. In all, they combined for 308 significant strikes. Hendricks landed 41 to the legs, to Lawler’s four.
A champion is crowned in the first meeting between Hendricks and Lawler:
We’ve seen what these guys can do to each other. More to the point, we’ve seen what they can withstand.
Back in March, we watched Hendricks take a punch from Lawler, the kind of heavy leather that has put many a man on his back. We also saw Robbie fend off Johny’s elite-level takedown attempts, the kind of shots that have put others on their backs.
So what now? More of the same? (To which the viewing public exclaims: We’re in!)
The X-factor might be that Hendricks is healed. He has blamed his lack of success on takedowns -- except for on the huge one in the decisive fifth round -- on his arm injury. Will that be the difference? Will he be more relentless in his wrestling, which will make Lawler fight off his back or at least operate more tentatively, knowing that’s where he might be headed?
Or will Lawler be emboldened enough to force the fight into toe-to-toe, where his more diverse striking would seem to give him an edge?
It’s exhilarating to watch two high-level athletes take a second go at each other, with the stakes as high as they get in this sport. The feeling-out process has already taken place. It’s time to fight.
Hendricks is the betting favorite, with the money line ranging from -250 (bet $100 to win $40) to -201 (bet $100 to win $49.75) at various sportsbooks. The line on Lawler ranges from +160 (bet $100 to win $160) to +200 (bet $100 to win $200).
I’ve watched the first fight a few times, looking for … something. I’ve run through my mind the dueling scenarios -- Lawler going harder for the finish and getting it, Hendricks making the rematch his from the start and never letting up. It’s not implausible to envision either man walking out of the octagon with the belt. But what keeps popping up in my mind is the Round 5 clock ticking and Hendricks digging deep for the difference maker he needed. He refused to lose. I think that willfulness can carry him again. Hendricks by decision.
“Oh my God, Robbie’s tough. I promise you we’ll be doing it again.”
-- Johny Hendricks, in a postfight interview after winning the belt in March.
“I’m very excited. I want to get back to work and go after Hendricks. He’s nursing some injuries, but I’m going to be the one waiting for him. That’s nice.”
-- Robbie Lawler, in a postfight interview after beating Matt Brown in July.
The Rest of the Card
Anthony Pettis vs. Gilbert Melendez, for UFC lightweight championship; Travis Browne vs. Brendan Schaub, heavyweight; Todd Duffee vs. Anthony Hamilton, heavyweight; tony Ferguson vs. Abel Trujillo, lightweight.
Preliminary card (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1): Urijah Faber vs. Francisco Rivera, bantamweight; Eddie Gordon vs. Josh Samman, middleweight; Corey Anderson vs. Justin Jones, light heavyweight; Raquel Pennington vs. Ashlee Evans-Smith, women’s bantamweight.
Online prelims (7 p.m., UFC Fight Pass): Sergio Pettis vs. Matt Hobar, bantamweight; Alex White vs. Clay Collard, featherweight.
Mike Goldberg will handle blow-by-blow and Joe Rogan analysis for the main-card telecast on pay-per-view as well as prelims on Fox Sports 1 and the UFC Fight Pass. An hour-long postfight show begins at 1:30 a.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.