DALLAS – There is a famous photo taken seconds after the final horn sounded that tells the story of the welterweight title fight in November between Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 in Las Vegas.
Hendricks is in the foreground of the photo, arms outstretched victoriously, his face a mask of unmitigated joy.
In the background, St-Pierre has his hands clasped on the top of his head, looking for all the world like a man who knew he just lost his championship.
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Seconds later, things changed dramatically, when ring announcer Bruce Buffer read the scorecards that showed St-Pierre had captured a hotly disputed split decision over Hendricks.
Hendricks gets another chance Saturday at the American Airlines Center here when he meets Robbie Lawler in the main event of UFC 171 for the title that St-Pierre vacated.
It won't be the same, of course, no matter the outcome. No matter if Hendricks dominates Lawler from start to finish and leaves the cage with the gold strapped firmly around his waist, he was forever robbed of the moment of victory that night in Las Vegas.
The history books won't show that Hendricks beat St-Pierre at the height of the French Canadian superstar's powers. He didn't get the chance to leap into his coach's arms and exult in a victory that many didn't think he could deliver.
He'll go into Saturday's bout as the uncrowned "People's Champion," a victor in the eyes of all but the judges. But it's still not the same.
Hendricks insists it's not that big of a deal, particularly because he's fighting for the belt again in his next fight. But after a little prodding, he admits it stung to a degree.
"It was never about Georges St-Pierre," Hendricks said. "It was about getting that title. I thought I did enough to win it – I know I did enough to win it – but I didn't leave with the belt. That's what hurts, you know what I'm saying? You work so hard and so long for something and then, boom, just like that, it's taken away from you."
Hendricks was so confident of victory that as he awaited the start of the final round, television cameras caught him grinning and singing.
He essentially took the fifth round off, and in a fight so short and with the scoring of mixed martial arts judges so routinely unpredictable, it's always a calculated risk.
Hendricks said he simply didn't want to make a mistake and get caught, thereby unexpectedly losing a bout he had all but locked up. While it's virtually impossible to go 25 minutes in a high-level MMA fight without catching a break somewhere, the fifth round is no time to do that.
But Hendricks said "circumstances" dictated how he fought. It turned out the fifth determined the fight, though, and the circumstances that Hendricks was trying to avoid, namely making a major mistake, shouldn't have been a factor.
All three judges' gave St-Pierre the fifth and that gave him the fight. Hendricks said the other day that he would have fought differently had he known how pivotal the fifth would turn out to be, but you can bet it's a mistake he won't make Saturday when he meets Lawler.
"I was standing there [waiting for the fifth to begin] and I literally thought I had won three of the first four rounds," Hendricks said. "And actually, you can make a pretty good argument that I won all four of the first four rounds. I was in the right position, and what you have to make sure you don't do is get knocked out or submitted.
"My mindset was, 'All right, just don't go out there and get submitted.' That was my main concern."
The primary circumstance Hendricks alluded to was in regard to his right knee. He checked a kick late in the fourth round and felt something pop.
It was unsteady and he didn't have the confidence to go out and attack St-Pierre in the fifth.
"I felt my knee pop, and it sort of buckled on me," Hendricks said. "When that happened, I knew I couldn't throw my left hand because I couldn't push off on the right knee. If I tried to throw the left hand and it gave out on me, that was trouble.
"You're trying to self-evaluate as you're in the middle of the fight, and that's so difficult. If I threw the left and my knee buckled and I went down, it's going to look bad. And then he's going to be on top ground-and-pounding me and, it's not good. So I decided to play it smart."
So a conservative approach to the final round and a right knee injury that turned out not to be much of anything conspired to cost Hendricks the title.
Against Lawler, a powerful puncher who is a knockout threat every single second of every minute of each of the five rounds, Hendricks vowed he won't leave anything to chance.
He had a brief grasp of the championship and liked how it felt. More than seven decades earlier, light heavyweight champion Billy Conn had the great Joe Louis beat in a heavyweight title fight but made the mistake going for the finish and got knocked out himself.
Later, Conn asked Louis jokingly if he could have the title for a while.
"You had it," Louis said, "and you didn't know what to do with it."
Just like Conn, Hendricks had it, too. He'll have to last 25 minutes against one of the UFC's hardest punchers, a tall order under any circumstance, but Hendricks is undeterred.
"I've got another chance, and I know what it's like to go 25 minutes and I know what it's like to fight for the UFC title," Hendricks said. "I just have to go out and finish the job this time."
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