Johny Hendricks tries to get back into the title picture against Stephen Thompson this February 6, 2016 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Single sentence summary:
Phil: The most unpopular rightful ruler since Stannis Baratheon tries to battle his way back to a throne which seems further away by the day.
David: The most uneducated drug student since Half Baked tries to battle his way back to a throne protected by William Zabka.
Johny “Bigg Rigg” Hendricks 17-3
Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson 11-1
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: Hendricks was hated as a wrestler. Then, he was liked as an MMA fighter. His stock among fans was at its peak following his bout with Lawler, and then crashed after he lost the rematch. He beat Matt Brown in an uneventful top control decision, then blew weight against Tyron Woodley. Why does he get so much hate? The common complaint is that he’s boring, but he had three straight FOTY contenders. Like Eddie Alvarez, I can forgive some less-than-stellar showings, because those kind of performances get you a lot of leeway with me. Essentially, it seems like mild dislike for his smugness is blown out of all proportion as a defense mechanism against the fact that he should most likely be 3-0 against fan favourites GSP and Lawler.
In general I just don’t really “get” hate for fighters. The only things that really sour me are if they do something genuinely awful, or if they try to annoy me by ruining otherwise interesting fights with one hit KOs. Hendricks doesn’t do that any more! He has awesome consistent decisions instead of boring-ass knockouts! We can like him now.
David: I’m with you on everything except the getting the hate part. Basically, people are simple. People are uncomplicated. Something as simple as an unlikable face, or smug smile can create a family tree of negative connotations that begin with small emotions, and end with large proclamations.
In this case, I’d argue it’s Hendricks’ excuse me ma’am voice. His voice patterns hearken back too closely to the days of Matt Hughes. Minus the part about scaring people with severed pig scrotums. And the world is in unanimous agreement that Hughes ranges from unlikable to really unlikable.
Phil: The path of Wonderboy’s career has been shaped by one thing more than any other- how insanely underrated Matt Brown was. Brown was a journeyman who wasn’t far away from a cut when he fought and beat Thompson, and rarely has something which looked like the final demolition of a hype train been quite so inaccurate. Brown is a really good fighter, and even looking back at that fight, Wonderboy gave a good impression of himself, battling tooth and nail with a pretty ferocious finisher. Since then, he’s cruised under the radar, winning with basic MMA skills like “clinching” and “boxing”, finally busting out the spinning shit when it was time to step back into the limelight. Whether you think his much-ballyhooed kickboxing record is inflated or not, he’s a pretty fantastic natural athlete with a great feel for fighting.
David: I think it was a combination of the Brown loss, and his age. It’s important to remember that Thompson is in his early 30’s, so any notion of “prospect” typically goes flying out the futures door. That’s not to say the skepticism is valid. Just that it’s understandable. At this point fans see him as a mix between Lyoto Machida and Burger King’s Amir Sadollah.
What are the stakes?
Phil: Welterweight still appears to be shaking out after the last title fight. Does Condit get a rematch? What the hell happened to Rory? Woodley said he was sitting out but that’s not going to work. It still feels like there’s a direct line to the belt open, but I suspect it’s only going to work if someone can win in really spectacular fashion.
David: Welterweight is a lot like heavyweight these days. Granted, there’s none of that ‘sorry excuse for a punch in the face contest’ stuff. But in the sense that title shots won’t be gathered from wins, but from singular performances. I’d like to see Condit get a rematch personally, but who knows. Maybe Conor McGregor gets there first.
Where do they want it?
Phil: No big surprises here. Hendricks needs to be close in. This isn’t just because of Thompson’s fighting style but because of the physical disparities. We sometimes talk about what the “ideal” body shape for MMA is (spoiler: it’s Luke Rockhold), but Johny Hendricks is most definitely not it. He is short as hell for the division, as per Fightnomic’s graph here. If fighters like Tony Ferguson and Jon Jones have Cheater Arms, then Hendricks is playing MMA on Hard Mode. This makes it all the more astonishing that he’s been able to hang with, and in many cases get the better of elite strikers like GSP, Lawler and Condit, all of whom significantly outrange him. He’s able to close distance through a combination of integrated defenses, including head-movements and parries on the step-in. The old stepping left straight he used to knock out Fitch and Kampmann is supported by an uppercut and a nasty right hook which may get play as Thompson tends to circle out to his right. Hendricks is also excellent at chaining knees, single-collar tie work and leg kicks into his combinations. As mentioned by Pat Wyman, the kicks may be particularly important against Thompson’s bladed stance.
Hendricks is still a great wrestler, although his top position work isn’t great. Again, I feel this may be somewhat body-type dependent. Stocky dudes just don’t tend to do good work from guard position (for obvious physiological reasons- it’s hard to get wind-up with stump arms), and traditionally work better when constantly bludgeoning and chaining takedowns with dirty boxing in scrambles. His biggest problem is that he’s what I’ve referred to as “mentally explosive”- he can be the best welterweight on the planet for short stretches but he is incapable of maintaining it for a full five minutes. People think he has a bad gas tank, but I don’t actually think they’re right. It’s not physical weariness, it’s him mentally running on empty, which is subtly different. As such he’ll near-always drop into a form of autopilot in the last minute of a round.
David: The mentally running on empty part is a product of two things; not being able to produce offense when the traditional method of offense fails him, and a limited arsenal. We know plenty of fighters who can maintain high output with limited resources and conversely, we know plenty of fighters who can pressure without their Plan A.
However, his flaws are typically offset by his unreal power. His boxing looks longer than it is because he keeps himself in excellent position as he’s stepping in. He’s like the San Antonio Spurs, dangerous at midrange with that three point percentage play. In that way he sort of defies the analytics here. As someone disgracefully trying to understand and write in the world of hockey analytics, I’m not trying to peddle some bronze age thinking here. But perhaps Hendricks’ presence can add new wrinkles to what the numbers are telling us.
Phil: Thompson’s going to maximize the real estate in this fight. He’s a comparatively tall welterweight who wants to fight from far away. Unlike fellow karateka Machida, who circles away to create collisions, Thompson is much grittier and essentially wants to hold a slice of range at the tip of his punches, and then fill that space with volume until the opponent backs out of it. He has a lot of craft to his boxing, to the extent that it’s largely supplanted his kicking game at this point.
He switches stances a lot, but he’s clearly more comfortable in righty, where he has a greater variety of counters (hop step, straight right and jab as compared to basically a straight left in southpaw), and throws round kicks rather than the more risky side kicks. Like Machida or Belfort, he has a knack for blitzing straight up the middle with combinations, although he adds in a sneaky right uppercut rather than the traditional marching barrage. It’s this combination of the weird point-karate and plain boxing fundamentals which makes him dangerous, and in many ways makes him a bit more like McGregor than Machida.
David: Thompson’s stance shouldn’t work against in a grapple heavy division like welterweight, but it does. Part of that is because welterweight seems to be phasing out some of the classic wrestlers. The other part is that Thompson isn’t as eccentric as he lets on. He’s good at getting inside opportunistically with boxing, but I’d maintain that his kicks still do the bulk of the efficiency work. I’m splitting karate hairs, but his punches are the puck to his foot’s hockey stick. His general movement, positioning, and tactics begin with how he’s sitting in the pocket, how far away he can stay, and how far away he can begin to move forward for counters.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: Both these guys have shown vulnerabilities to the kind of weapons which the other guy brings to the table. Matt Brown actually hurt Hendricks pretty badly with a right head kick (which Hendricks disguised because he has a fantastic poker face for damage). Similarly, Wonderboy overestimated the effects of one of his counters, then switched stance, sat down and threw against Ellenberger, and got dropped for his troubles. Surviving an Ellenberger punch standing square says good things for his chin, but he doesn’t want to spend extended time in the pocket with Hendricks.
David: I like going back to Thompson’s fight with Robert Whittaker. Now, Whittaker was nothing like he is now. But Whittaker still had decent pop in his fists, and Thompson showed a willingness to both counter and pressure in the pocket upon landing. This could either play out in a positive way for him, catching Hendricks with strikes, or in a negative way, getting caught for overstaying his welcome.
Phil: Gotta be sundry Hendricks weirdness. Leaving Team Takedown, the disastrous weight cut last time out, the closing down of his steakhouse. He looks slimmed down, but who knows what’s going on in his head, and whether this is a newly-motivated Hendricks, or a diminished Weidman-type situation.
David: To be fair, it’s on the fans to try and appreciate DEA Approved balsamic mango with ‘romaine tosses in creamy Caesar’. Overcooked strip streaks with no option of rib-eye should be enough for the real hungry man.
Phil: The distance seems like a really big factor in this fight, as does Hendricks’ tendency to eat head kicks. However, he’s just been absolutely fantastic at closing in on his opponents, even great ones like GSP. He has a big wrestling advantage, but if this is a striking match, Wonderboy has willingly exchanged with -and been hit by- lesser strikers than Hendricks. Johny Hendricks by unanimous decision.
David: I think Johny Hendricks vs. Stephen Thompson will come down to how well Stephen adjusts away from the pocket. If he successfully anticipates Hendricks’ movement, he’ll be able to cut down on Hendricks’ chances to land while putting himself in a position to counter. To be honest, I see enough similarities in Carlos Condit to think Thompson is a good pick. It’s not about their similarities in styles, rather, their ability to land punches moving forward. Hendricks got caught with some big punches as the fight wore on, which is where his height kind of amplifies his lazy positioning. I really like Thompson to get enough chances late in the fight to win some kind of bizarre decision. Stephen Thompson by Split Decision.
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