DALLAS – Johny Hendricks was smiling and singing to himself in November as he awaited the start of the fifth round in his previous bout for the welterweight title.
As relaxed as he was, though, he fought as if on cruise control and it cost him the championship.
He vowed never to do that again after losing a hotly disputed decision to Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167 in November. On Saturday before a United States record crowd of 19,324 at UFC 171 at the American Airlines Center, he got another chance to get the fifth round right.
Hendricks figured, correctly as it turned out, that he needed to defeat Robbie Lawler in the fifth round to capture the welterweight title and he went out and took it.
He won the fifth on two of the three judges' cards, while Doug Crosby bizarrely scored the round 10-10, giving Hendricks the title that St-Pierre vacated.
He wasn't singing before the fifth round this time, but you can bet he was singing after it following the biggest win of his illustrious career.
"He hit me with some hard shots and I knew I had to come back in the fifth round," Hendricks said. "I knew that was my round that I lost last time. If I'd have gone out there and fought in that fifth round like I did today, maybe this belt would have been mine before this. It's a crappy situation to be in whenever you fight 25 minutes.
"I was in this situation once before and I knew I had to pull it out in the fifth round."
He did exactly that, getting the nod 48-47 on the cards of Crosby, Mike Gonzales and Aladin Martinez. Gonzales and Martinez gave Hendricks Rounds 1 and 2 and Lawler Rounds 3 and 4, setting up the decisive fifth.
Crosby scored the second 10-8 for Hendricks, but then scored a clear Hendricks fifth round 10-10.
"These guys never cease to amaze me," UFC president Dana White said of the judges.
The similarities to UFC 167 in November, when St-Pierre successfully defended the belt, were eerie. Not only did the fight come down to the fifth round, but just like in November, the winner was more badly marked up.
Hendricks was cut by his right eye, which was swollen badly.
Lawler, a noted power puncher, cracked Hendricks repeatedly with a stinging jab and also landed several hard right hooks.
"I'm lucky I have a thick skull," Hendricks said, beaming.
The victory capped an extraordinary run for Hendricks, a two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion who won a UFC championship less than seven years after he began to train in the sport.
But it wasn't easy, and many believed Lawler deserved to win. Yahoo Sports scored it 48-47 for Lawler, giving him Rounds 1, 3 and 4.
He dictated much of the fight with his jab and was able to ward off a number of Hendricks' takedown attempts.
He had Hendricks reeling in both the third and the fourth and his problem might be that he didn't press just a bit harder. Hendricks might have gone had Lawler pushed.
"I just thought maybe I could run him into something and I just didn't want to go overboard and press and walk into something," Lawler said. "I don't know. It's easy to look back now and look at the things you should have done, but I probably should have pressed a bit more to go for the finish."
He didn't and it left the belt around Hendricks' waist. He doesn't feel the need to defeat St-Pierre, who suggested he may return to action soon in order to validate himself as champion.
"But I'd like to fight him again," Hendricks said.
The challengers are lining up. Tyron Woodley was impressive in stopping Carlos Condit, using a vicious left kick to end it. Condit's right knee gave from the force of it.
After knocking out Josh Koscheck, Woodley believes he deserves the next chance at the belt.
Hector Lombard, though, put on a clinic in defeating Jake Shields. Nobody in Shields' long and illustrious career thrashed him about the way that Lombard did Saturday.
And then there is always the specter of a St-Pierre return. He hasn't said anything definitive, but has hinted about a return several times.
So that leaves plenty of work for Hendricks, who said he'll be the kind of champion who fights the man in front of him and won't seek anyone in particular out.
"I'm not going to call anybody else out," Hendricks said. "I'm not that person. I'm not that type of person. I always called the champ out, because I always wanted to be him. Now that I'm him, I'll keep my mouth shut and go about my business."
He's going to have his hands full keeping the belt considering the passel of talent at 170, and the title seems more in play than ever before.
There may be a lot of welterweight title fights now that come down to the outcome of the fifth round.
And you can bet that if Hendricks is in another one of them, he's going to know how to deal with it.
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- Johny Hendricks
- Robbie Lawler