Although the UFC's unofficial fight season, "The Time Is Now," doesn't get underway until December 13th, UFC 181 this past Saturday got people hungry for the epic fights on the schedule. In many ways, "The Time Is Now" is the UFC's attempt to erase a year full of canceled headliners and injured champions. In that sense, it's surprising that UFC 181 wasn't an official part of "The Time Is Now." Regardless, the long-injured welterweight and lightweight champions finally made their way back to the cage on Saturday, with vastly different results.
Johny "Big Rig" Hendricks, who was coming off a torn bicep injury, faced off against the always gritty and hard-hitting "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler. The other champion hoping to reclaim his star power after an injury was Anthony "Showtime" Pettis, who defended his title against the incredibly talented Gilbert Melendez. Going into their respective fights, Hendricks and Pettis likely had two questions lurking in their minds: (1) Can I win, and (2) can I still win big like I've done in the past?
Pettis answered both question with a resounding and flashy yes. In his last cage appearance, Pettis submitted the dynamic Benson "Smooth" Henderson in the first round. Now, more than year later, he rocked Melendez, the longtime Strikeforce champion, repeatedly with crisp straight punches before sucking him into a brutal guillotine choke in the second round. There were no signs that Pettis' PCL injury remained a problem. Pettis continues to be one of the most exciting fighters in the UFC. With a healthy knee, he may build up the victories he needs to be recognized as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the game.
The story line didn't play out as smoothly for Hendricks. The welterweight champion — who in my book should have received the nod against Georges St-Pierre — wasn't able to drum up the same go-for-broke pace that has so clearly defined his style in the past. From the very beginning of his rematch against Lawler, it was Lawler who took the fight to Hendricks. His barrage of punches, kicks, shoves, knees and elbows in the first 30 seconds of the fight might be the most intense short burst assault ever in the cage. Although that waned in the middle rounds, Lawler seemed to just edge Hendricks in the majority of rounds because the champion put himself in bad positions (e.g., holding a single leg while allowing Lawler to tee off on him) time and again.
Although it did not look like his bicep injury played a direct role in the fight, it may have been a contributing factor. Not in the sense that it pained Hendricks, but that it added an additional element Hendricks was forced to work with in his training camp. Most MMA fans know that post-fight Hendricks likes to eat and balloons quickly in weight. That means at every training camp, Hendricks must pay extra attention to his weight loss instead of just regular conditioning. Maybe this time around, that weight cut was more difficult when he also had to find time to nurse his bicep. Maybe he had to start the weight cut later than usual because he was still rehabbing his injury. Whatever the reason, Hendricks admits that:
"Look at the fourth and fifth round; I just didn’t fight. I didn’t come out the fourth and the fifth like I normally do. It is what it is."
Lawler is now the new champion with a long list of contenders nipping at his heels, including Rory McDonald, a training partner of former champion Georges St-Pierre and a man who's gone on record as saying he'd like the headbutt to be legal.
Yet, with the repeated comments from Dana White that St-Pierre is training for a comeback, Lawler might be lucky enough to get a crack at the former king of the hill instead of his protege. Then again, Lawler and Hendricks might get a rubber match. With so many good options on the table for Lawler and the UFC, the fans will surely be the winners. If Lawler can hone and sustain the onslaught he showed at the beginning and final seconds of the fight on Saturday, he'd be an even more terrifying fighter than he is now. And that's saying a lot.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.