(The bourgeoisie and the proletariat shed their blood for the world’s scraps, while a shadowy bald figure in the background pulls the strings. Can’t you see? WE’RE ALL JUST PAWNS IN THE GAME, MAN. / Photo via Facebook.com/MMAFighting)
UFC 167 is shaping up to be — on paper, at least — one of the most loaded events of the year. This isn’t a surprise; the UFC marks its 20th anniversary this month and does so with what should be a sufficient amount of bombast. Headlining Saturday’s festivities will be the UFC’s reigning king of pay-per-view, Georges St-Pierre. His opponent is Johny Hendricks, a decorated collegiate wrestler with a left hand that will lay waste to whatever unfortunate being happens to lie in its path. There can be no doubt that Hendricks, in this sense, might pose the single greatest threat that GSP has faced in his MMA career. He might also be the easiest matchup GSP has faced in years.
Against St-Pierre, Hendricks epitomizes the idea of a “puncher’s chance.” He has virtually no advantage over GSP except power — power so substantial that the threat of it seems to have obscured glaring weaknesses that St-Pierre is particularly gifted at exploiting. Granted, his power is impressive. If he hits GSP flush with his left hand, he can end the fight in an instant. He should, for the first few rounds at least, be capable of keeping the fight on the feet. He’d better, because he has little chance of victory on the ground. His bottom game is solely focused on returning to his feet, and he has not shown the ability to threaten from top position. Recall how easily and how often Carlos Condit, a well-rounded fighter who does not possess extraordinary wrestling ability, was able to return to his feet in Hendricks’ last fight. No, if Hendricks wants to win he needs to look for the kill shot.
Here’s where Hendricks runs into problems. If he lands his left hand, the fight is his. The tricky part is actually landing it. His two best knockouts — against Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann — came against opposition with terrible footwork. Hendricks can cover ground extraordinarily fast; backing up against him doesn’t work well at all. Even if he misses the left hand, by pushing opponents straight back they invariably end up against the fence. This is where Hendricks does his best wrestling; against Condit, every single one of his takedowns came after he backed Condit up with left hands and put him against the fence. In some of his previous fights, Hendricks has relied on pushing opponents into the fence and grinding out (sometimes questionable) decisions. It’s an effective strategy, so long as he’s the superior wrestler and his opponents back up in a straight line.
Unfortunately for Hendricks, neither qualifier applies to this fight. While he may well be the superior amateur wrestler, he’s just not as good at wrestling in an MMA context as Georges St-Pierre. While Hendricks’ takedowns are dependent upon the clinch against the cage, St-Pierre can shoot doubles, singles, transition between the two, use the cage, switch to back control, maintain top position on the ground and do all of this while fluidly alternating between his striking and grappling. And while his takedown defense is also superb, don’t be surprised if GSP doesn’t have to use it much. Unlike Carlos Condit and Martin Kampmann, St-Pierre doesn’t back straight up. He’s excellent at maintaining distance between himself and his opponent, closing it only when he wants to attack and effectively circling out when he’s pressured. The only meaningful shot landed against him in recent fights was a deceptive headkick thrown by Condit; Hendricks doesn’t possess the same diversity of striking technique or the element of surprise that enabled Condit’s kick to be successful.
Hendricks success in striking is startling despite his utter predictability. All it takes to avoid his left hand is to circle towards his right, which he conveniently drops whenever he throws his left. When St-Pierre fought Josh Koscheck — another high-level college wrestler with a powerful overhand — his entire strategy was to circle to Koscheck’s right and throw a counter jab that possessed as much beauty as it did power. Despite circling into Koscheck’s power hand, St-Pierre emerged unhurt while Koscheck’s orbital bone was broken in the first round and further punished over the next four. Against Hendricks, St-Pierre has the opportunity to employ the same strategy, only with less risk as he’ll be circling away from Hendricks’ power hand.
It’s hard to see just how Hendricks would adjust to this. Of course, it’s entirely possible he could make the necessary improvements in a relatively short amount of time; it’s been done before. But it’s also extraordinarily unlikely. As things stand, Hendricks seems to be an opponent tailor-made for GSP — legitimately threatening, but vulnerable in ways St-Pierre is primed to exploit. There is also the question of stamina; we know GSP can go five rounds. Can Hendricks? Ultimately, this — like virtually all of his other fights — is St-Pierre’s to lose. Expecting a finish from GSP seems like wishful thinking at this point, as much due to his lack of finishing power as his opponents’ durability. So while it may not be the most appropriate grand finale for the card that celebrates the unexpected, thrilling, violent rise of the UFC over the past two decades, expect yet another dominant decision from the champion rooted in sound strategy, patience and overwhelming skill.