Matt Strasen / AP
Saturday, March 15, 2014 | 10:47 p.m.
Johny Hendricks deserved at least part of the blame for what transpired in his controversial loss to Georges St. Pierre last November after he dialed down his aggressiveness in the final round.
Hendricks’ now-famous last words in the octagon that night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena were that he’d never let it happen again. The next time he was in the cage, Saturday night in Dallas in the main event of UFC 171, Hendricks lived up to the vow.
Hendricks emerged as the new UFC welterweight champion by powering through Robbie Lawler in the final two minutes of their bout for St. Pierre’s vacated title.
“I knew I had to win it,” Hendricks said while still in the octagon, out of breath and on his knees. “And I did.”
Hendricks earned a unanimous-decision victory (48-47, 48-47, 48-47) in a bout so close that it came down to the final tenth of the 25-minute, five-round fight.
Hendricks came out strong and captured the first two rounds by outstriking Lawler, who then turned everything around. Lawler rocked Hendricks with a combination in the third round and appeared on the verge of a finish.
The end of the round saved Hendricks, but Lawler kept his punishment up in the fourth with a big uppercut that snapped the eventual champion’s head back. Hendricks’ face had turned into a bloody mess as the two fighters resorted to their corners, where coaches let them know it would all come down to the last five minutes.
Neither Hendricks nor Lawler separated himself through the first half of the fifth round after trading close-proximity punches. Hendricks dug deep to find an energy reserve at the tail end of the fight to rock Lawler on the feet and take him down along the fence.
“I just needed to do a little more,” Lawler said. “He did enough to win, plain and simple.”
Hendricks dropped to his knees and screamed when UFC octagon announcer Bruce Buffer read the decision. He saved the celebration until then with the knowledge that the judges are capable of surprises.
But there was no controversy at UFC 171, not in regard to the winners. The heated discussion came on the topic of whom Hendricks should defend his belt against first.
Coming into the card, the assumption was that a challenger would rise from one of the other two main-card welterweight fights. Tyron Woodley and Hector Lombard each stated their cases with wins over Carlos Condit and Jake Shields, respectively.
Lombard took a unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28) over Shields in the most forgettable fight of the evening. Woodley’s bout also ended disappointingly.
He was clearly ahead but won via second-round injury TKO when Condit blew out his knee after a takedown and leg kick.
“This is what it’s all about,” Woodley said. “I stepped up to the plate when nobody would. I fought the toughest guy in the weight class, in my opinion, and it’s time for Tyron. It’s my time to reign.”
Two other competitors who didn’t fight at UFC 171 were thrown out as possibilities. No. 4 ranked Rory MacDonald began campaigning immediately after Hendricks’ victory for a title shot at UFC 174 in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.
A fighter would typically require more than MacDonald’s current one-fight win streak to challenge for the title, but that’s a better résumé than someone else who threw his name into the mix. Nick Diaz, who retired last year after losing to St. Pierre, proclaimed he was ready to return after UFC 171.
And then, of course, there will be the calls for an immediate rematch. Hendricks’ heart won out in the end, but Lawler gave him a war that might go down as the Fight of the Year.
“I promise you I’ll be facing him again,” Hendricks said.