Looking back on Hendricks’ mistake
A corner between rounds is usually a place of organized chaos. Simultaneously, there can be a head trainer trying to bring calm to a situation that is anything but, coaches in various disciplines shouting specific instructions, a cut man trying to address bleeding or swelling, someone delivering water to the thirsty, and regulatory officials monitoring it all. Among this maelstrom is the focus of their efforts, the one attempting to process the previous five minutes and make adjustments for whatever is to come.
Saturday night had one of those kinds of moments. As Johny Hendricks took one last breath before entering the final round of his UFC welterweight championship match with Georges St-Pierre, his head coach Marc Laimon tried to rally him to the finish line.
“The belt’s yours,” Laimon said. “Go get it!”
At the time, he had plenty of reason to be positive. Hendricks had clearly won the fourth round, and was either up 3-1 in rounds or tied 2-2. Either way, the fight’s momentum was in his corner. As he paced back and forth before the action restarted, Hendricks looked fresh. He sang to himself, and as ref Mario Yamasaki implored them to start, Hendricks clapped his hands together and moved forward to engage St-Pierre.
As St-Pierre met him, he appeared a beaten champion. He had cuts below both of his eyes, he had swelling on the left side of his forehead, his expression was visibly tense. The fight was clearly trending in Hendricks’ favor.
But minutes later, after the final scores were read, it was St-Pierre who escaped with the split-decision win. For all of the attention that has been hoisted on the judges’ decision, little notice has been paid to the fact that Hendricks let the fifth round escape him, making such a score possible.
How did it happen? In the final five minutes, Hendricks had not only the most inactive round of the fight, but one of the most inactive full rounds of his UFC career.
During the fifth round, he threw only 21 punches total and didn’t try a single takedown. Meanwhile, the battered and bruised St-Pierre threw 30 punches and tried four takedowns, successfully completing two.
In Hendricks’ career, he hadn’t had a full round in which he threw fewer strikes since he had lost his last bout, to Rick Story back in Dec. 2010. In fact, that was the only round in his UFC career in which he did less. Against Story, he had only thrown 13 strikes over the final five minutes, although he countered that lack of activity with five takedowns.
In nine full rounds with Mike Pierce, Josh Koscheck and Carlos Condit, and four more with St-Pierre, Hendricks had been more active. In seven full rounds with Charlie Brenneman, T.J. Grant and Ricardo Funch, he’d been more active. Hendricks had effectively had one of his worst-ever rounds at the worst possible time.
Part of that was because he was mostly in defensive mode. St-Pierre felt the urgency of what was at stake, and spent most of the round attacking the challenger. It’s not that Hendricks was cruising to the finish line, but he wasn’t sprinting to it, either, slowed down by a roadblock.
In the controversy over the decision, what was lost is that Hendricks could have sealed the fight then. He certainly appeared to be the fresher fighter of the two but let himself get outworked. He was effectively protecting a lead which he couldn’t really be sure he had.
This isn’t to absolve judges Sal D’Amato and Tony Weeks of their decisions. The key round in the scoring turned out to be the first. It was the only one of the five in which there was any official disagreement from the judges. (Glenn Trowbridge scored it for Hendricks.)
On paper, the first round was remarkably close. Hendricks landed 27 strikes to St-Pierre’s 26. Significant strikes went 19-18 to St-Pierre. Takedowns were 1-1. Yet afterward, conventional thinking was that Hendricks won the first. In fact, of the 16 media scores tallied by MMADecisions.com, all 16 scored the fight 48-47 Hendricks, and of the 12 who submitted round-by-round scores, all 12 gave Hendricks the first round.
The difference to most was power striking. While most of St-Pierre’s landed strikes were jabs or body punches, Hendricks landed eight power punches to the head to St-Pierre’s one. By the end of the round, St-Pierre was already bleeding. In a sport that judges a winner and loser with eyes rather than any kind of objective scoring tally, all of that usually matters. And Hendricks certainly appeared to be the more effective striker. But still, it wasn’t an overwhelming blowout of a round for Hendricks, not enough to have him 100 percent convinced that he was up 3-1 heading into the fifth.
If the judges deserve blame for their debatable mistake in the first, Hendricks also deserves some fault for his inability to push to the final bell. When Laimon implored him to “go get the belt,” he didn’t do it. And in the end, giving away that round cost him just as much as the one that two judges took from him.