Johny Hendricks has had a rough run of recent. Since winning the vacant title by defeating Robbie Lawler in a close decision, he has gone on to lose five of his last seven fights. And two of those losses were vicious knockouts, including his last bout.
What’s more, in three of his last four fights he was unable to make weight, including in his last fight, which was at middleweight. His once vaunted knockout power hasn’t been seen since 2012, and his output and cardio have both seemed to decrease in the last few years, which is troubling as his style was very much predicated on his work rate and his long, flowing combos.
So where does that put him? He said before fighting Neil Magny that he would retire if he lost that fight, which he did; but it was close enough that he decided to give it another try.
Due to his failed weight cuts, the aging fighter was forced to move up to middleweight, and after bouncing back with a fight at 185 against another natural welterweight in Hector Lombard, Hendricks was absolutely starched by Tim Boetsch, a true middleweight.
And now here we are. Maybe just one fight too many. Maybe a fight too far.
Now, waiting in the wings, is an undefeated knockout machine: Paolo Borrachinha, a 26-year-old killer from Brazil, whose 10 wins are all finishes, and only his last fight escaped the first round. And he is looking to tear Hendricks’ head off his shoulders.
In his last two fights, his only with the UFC, Borrachinha has shown excellent footwork, perfect balance, intelligent defense, clockwork timing and pinpoint accuracy. His kicks land like baseball bats swung by a fully juiced Barry Bonds. When he sees he has you hurt he pours it on like syrup on hotcakes. He is a full-sized middleweight, and he’ll have three inches of height, three inches of reach and a gigantic strength advantage.
His first fight with the UFC showed an aptitude to use every inch of his reach and to maximize his punching power without putting himself in danger. His second fight with the UFC was against a fighter with a six-inch reach advantage, and he punished him on the feet, repeatedly shucked off takedowns, and when he was finally taken down, he popped up like movie theater popcorn.
Often, in boxing, when a fighter suffers a knockout loss, he is given a rebound fight. Get a paycheck. Get your legs back under you. Get another win on your record. And even in the middleweight division there are better fighters to send Hendricks’ way. Ones with bigger names who are less likely to give Hendricks life-altering brain damage.
They could have given him Sam Alvey. It would have been a good scrap. They could have given him Dan Kelly. It’d be interesting to see how his Judo matched up with Hendricks’ wrestling. Nate Marquardt could have been solid–two veterans, maybe on their way out, fighting to stay in the world’s largest fight organization.
But they didn’t. And let me be clear: Hendricks has a path to victory. He may just have the wrestling acumen to bring it to the mat and force Paolo to work, landing hard shots from the top. Borrachinha may fade later in the fight because he’s a big, strong fighter with big muscles that need lots of oxygen, and due to his quick finishes, we haven’t seen him fight into the third round since he was on the Ultimate Fighter Brazil, a show on which he lost because he gassed. But he’s not anything like that fighter of four years ago. His stance has changed, his footwork is different, his striking has improved by miles, and on that show he primarily fought as a wrestler and ground-and-pound artist.
And if he doesn’t lose, the most probable road to victory for him is separating a much smaller man from his consciousness, a feat that has been achieved by fighters whose striking does not look as crisp, accurate and powerful. He will pressure “Bigg Rigg,” a fighter who doesn’t like to be pressured, who likes to get in the pocket and land combos and has always been hittable. If he properly sprawls on a takedown attempt and gets top position, well, even if you survive a guy like Borrachinha on top of you throwing bombs, it will likely dissuade you from trying again. And every time he fails he’ll get just a bit more tired. And eventually, Hendricks is going to find himself against the cage trading with a guy who throws much, much harder.
Hendricks has had a solid career. He deserves better than to be knocked out on a main card by someone people don’t even really know yet. I don’t know who to blame. The matchmakers? The UFC? Is this punishment for repeatedly missing weight? Is it Hendricks’ fault for not calling it a career sooner?
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe Hendricks will prove me wrong, go out there, wrestle the younger man down, tire him out, counter him, put on a clinic and look like a pure stud. I suppose we’ll find out Saturday.
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