Georges St. Pierre will enter the cage on a career-best 11-fight winning streak. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 20th anniversary party culminates with a loaded UFC 167 pay-per-view lineup on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
It is only appropriate then that Georges St. Pierre, long one of the company’s top draws and most recognizable stars, would take top billing. While he has been dominant, it only seems like GSP has been welterweight champion for the entirety promotion’s existence. Since his shocking loss to Matt Serra at UFC 69 on April 7, 2007, St. Pierre is unbeaten in his last 11 Octagon appearances, nine of which have been title bouts.
Enter Johny Hendricks, a decorated collegiate wrestler with cinderblocks for hands. The man known as “Bigg Rigg” has been on a bit of roll himself, winning six straight against top 10 stalwarts such as Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Martin Kampmann and Carlos Condit. Those who have grown weary of St. Pierre’s five-round consistency hope Hendricks’ blend of grappling and power will bring an end to the Canadian’s reign. Accomplishing such a feat would no doubt earn Hendricks a prominent place in the UFC’s next historical jaunt.
Here is a closer look at the UFC 167 card, with analysis and picks:
Sherdog Fantasy MMA: UFC 167 Free Fan Pick’Em
UFC Welterweight ChampionshipGeorges St. Pierre (24-2, 18-2 UFC) vs. Johny Hendricks (15-1, 10-1 UFC)
The Matchup: Last year at this time, the majority of questions surrounding St. Pierre centered on his ability to return to 100 percent following reconstructive knee surgery and close to a two-year layoff. The welterweight king removed all doubt that he was back with 10 largely dominant rounds in successful title defenses against Condit and Nick Diaz.
There will always be critics who complain about St. Pierre’s lack of finishing ability -- seven of his last eight bouts have gone the distance -- but the Tristar Gym representative’s consistency in such an unpredictable sport is nothing short of astonishing. At this point, competitive drive could be the most serious threat to his reign: trainer Firas Zhabi has stated that St. Pierre’s camps are not sustainable as the fighter enters his mid-30s, leading to speculation that “Rush” could be gone before he turns 35.
Retirement rumors were already circulating prior to this camp before they were summarily shut down by his team. Still, it is important to acknowledge that St. Pierre is not likely to be one to overstay his welcome. For now, however, it only makes sense to expect an even better St. Pierre than the one who appeared in his last two bouts for the simple fact that he has had more time to shake off the rust caused by the layoff.
Hendricks has been nothing if not a patient contender. Bypassed for the allure of a pay-per-view bonanza between St. Pierre and Diaz in March, “Big Rigg” simply kept his place in line with a crowd-pleasing verdict over Condit. It was his sixth straight victory within the promotion. Much of the interest in Hendricks as a No. 1 contender is based on his blend of numbing power -- see knockouts of Martin Kampmann and Jon Fitch -- and high-level wrestling, as he was a two-time national champion and four-time NCAA All-American at Oklahoma State University. Popular thinking holds that this skill set will allow Hendricks to thwart St. Pierre’s vaunted takedowns, allowing him more opportunity to land one of his fight-altering left hands.
There are a number of obstacles for Hendricks to overcome if he is to become the first man to stop St. Pierre with strikes since Matt Serra pulled off arguably the greatest upset in MMA history in April 2007. While it is undisputable that Hendricks, a southpaw, has heavy hands, his striking is usually one-dimensional. He is overly reliant on landing his left, rushing forward while doubling up on power strikes in hopes of the knockout. This strategy is quite effective if he can get an opponent moving backward, as he did with Fitch and Kampmann. However, St. Pierre is much more likely to circle out of danger than he is to back straight into the cage. Making matters more difficult is St. Pierre’s seven-inch reach advantage.
The 5-foot-9 Hendricks is accustomed to being the shorter fighter, but he has not faced someone who can keep him at range with the proficiency of St. Pierre. The champion has the best jab in MMA, and he throws it in such a manner that makes it extremely difficult to counter. His setup is impeccable, as well, as he makes ample use of feints and will often fake three or four jabs to land a single blow. The downside to this approach is that he rarely follows up with a right hand, often because he is out of position to land with much power but also because his jab is successful enough on its own. Effective body work when St. Pierre throws his jab, as well as kicks to the champ’s lead leg, will be key to Hendricks’ success in this fight.
St. Pierre is less likely to use high kicks and higher-risk attacks than he was earlier in his career, but he is still capable of mixing in lead left hooks, as well as kicks to the legs and body. Everything, of course, is set up by the jab. Hendricks, meanwhile, leaves himself exposed by dropping his right hand when throwing power shots; St. Pierre should have plenty of countering opportunities as a result.
There was some concern as to whether St. Pierre’s double-leg would be less explosive than it was prior to surgery. He showed no ill effects in his last two bouts, but Hendricks has much better takedown defense than lanky strikers like Condit or Diaz. However, Hendricks has not overwhelmed equally equipped wrestlers with takedowns in extended battles. In narrow victories over Josh Koscheck and Mike Pierce, the wrestling was often a stalemate. St. Pierre has rarely been taken down in his career, and he has faced his share of wrestlers. If Hendricks is able to close the distance, he must utilize dirty boxing in the clinch.
The Pick: When someone puts his entire weight behind his strikes as Hendricks does, a Hail Mary knockout is always possible. However, St. Pierre’s ability to transition between striking and takedowns will have Hendricks guessing all night. St. Pierre beats up his man with jabs, mixing in timely takedowns and ground-and-pound to win yet another decision.
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