Tuesday, July 30, 2013 | 2 a.m.
As Johny Hendricks enjoyed lunch Monday afternoon following an hourlong media session to kick off the UFC World Tour, passers-by intermittently serenaded him with shouts of encouragement he’s beginning to find everywhere.
In between every few bites Hendricks took out of his cheeseburger at an MGM Grand restaurant facing a shopping promenade, people would stare with recognition and vocalize that he is the one to beat Georges St. Pierre.
“Johny Hendricks, the next champion,” yelled one fan in his mid-20s before an accompanying friend added, “You’ve got this, no problem, brother.”
Another guy, a few minutes later, approached the table and kept repeating to Hendricks, “You’re going to catch him.” Hendricks is drawing wide-ranging votes of confidence before his UFC 167 main event showdown with St. Pierre scheduled for Nov. 16 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The feeling is that the tides are changing in the UFC. Not every wave exerts the same level of force, though.
The welterweight championship bout is more than three months away, but it’s never too early for a guarantee: The Hendricks love will all be for naught. St. Pierre will be one win away from tying Silva’s record of 10 straight title defenses going into next year.
The man with the second-longest title reign in UFC history won’t join the leader in missing his belt more than someone wearing pants two sizes too large. Weidman was quite possibly the worst matchup imaginable for Silva, but the same isn’t true for Hendricks when it comes to St. Pierre.
“It’s always something,” St. Pierre said with a smirk. “For this fight, maybe that’s a special thing that’s coming up. People think he’s a perfect style matchup to beat me. We’ll find out Nov. 16. I don’t believe so.”
Silva’s most glaring perceived weakness was his takedown defense, which Weidman could combat with a strong wrestling base. St. Pierre’s ability to take a punch is often called into question, a potential problem against “Bigg Rigg” Hendricks’ left hand that carries as much horsepower as the lifted pickup truck the native Oklahoman drives.
“Georges has been wobbled in, what, his last three fights at least once,” Hendricks puffed. “Man, if I touch him with my left hand, it’s not a wobble. It’s forget the day.”
There’s no denying Hendricks’ five knockout victories in the UFC are deliciously vicious. But they’ve all come in the first six minutes of bouts.
While Hendricks doesn’t necessarily fade from there, his strikes seem to have less behind them as the fight drags on. St. Pierre, a master of control and cardio, should cruise as long as he survives early.
Having a first-career 25-minute championship fight against a tireless St. Pierre — who’s gone the full five rounds in six straight fights — is a disadvantage, and Hendricks knows it.
“It’s something I’m going to have to train for,” Hendricks admitted, “which is great because we’ve been training for it already. We’ve found some holes and found some good things we like. Now we’re going to implement it.”
Hendricks’ late-fight drop-offs have gotten him into trouble against fighters clearly inferior to St. Pierre. His current six-fight win streak includes split-decision nods against Josh Koscheck and Mike Pierce, both currently unranked, that could have gone the other way with one different judge scoring the action.
That shows the divide between top contendership and mediocrity in the welterweight division is as thin as the plastic fencing surrounding the octagon. St. Pierre was among those who argued Hendricks lost to Koscheck in the past, but the champion was nothing but complimentary Monday.
“The toughest challenge of my career,” St. Pierre remarked at the MGM press stop.
St. Pierre used the same phrase to describe several other opponents before he fought them. That’s appropriately what he’ll make Hendricks look like in a few months — just another opponent.