UFC FN 82, originally billed as UFC 196 featuring a heavyweight rematch between current champion Fabricio Werdum and former two-time champion Cain Velasquez, goes down tonight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, NV. It’s a great card, and a true blessing for the fans – especially after being demoted from a PPV following the withdrawal of both Velasquez and Werdum. Consequently, Johny Hendricks and Stephen Thompson now supplant the heavyweight fight as the main event of the evening.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks compete inside the octagon. In fact, he last competed against the ultra-tough Matt Brown at UFC 185 on March 14, 2015, earning a unanimous decision victory over the resurgent contender. He was scheduled to face Tyron Woodley on October 3, 2015 at UFC 192, but pulled out last minute due to problems with his weight cut, including a kidney stone and intestinal blockage.
Hendricks pulling out of his last fight has many pundits wondering what to expect from the proud Texan pugilist, as he has made some dramatic changes to his training, opting to leave Team Takedown after his fight with Stephen Thompson. This begs the question of whether or not his relationship with Team Takedown – as well as the changes to his diet – will affect his training camp. His struggles with weight cutting are well known to the public, as he normally walks around between 195 and 218 lbs in between camps.
His opponent, Stephen Thompson, is a prodigious kickboxer who sports a kickboxing record of 20-0, and has demonstrated spectacular striking skills since he made his MMA debut almost exactly six years ago. He’s currently riding a five-fight win streak, including three by KO or TKO, culminating with a jaw-dropping spinning hook kick KO of Jake Ellenberger. Remarkably, he landed two spinning hook kicks in that fight, which we rarely see in MMA.
Interestingly, Ellenberger and Hendricks share quite a few similarities: both are stocky, 5’9″ power punchers with a wrestling base. Obviously, Johny Hendricks has faced tougher competition and has much fewer losses than does Ellenberger. Perhaps the most salient discrepancy between the two is that Hendricks has demonstrated a frightening ability to close the distance, enabling him to land a higher percentage of his striking combinations.
After nearly decapitating Martin Kampmann (now retired), he stated in his post-fight interview that he had worked on the lead right hook, straight left combination extensively, adding a step before the lead punch to cover distance. It’s this kind of technical detail that will make a huge difference in this fight, particularly for someone like “Bigg Rigg” who possesses that much power.
Johny Hendricks comes in at a healthy -225 favorite against the stalwart striker Thompson, who likely comes in extremely confident for this fight. It’s a difficult fight to pick for a number of reasons: we haven’t seen Hendricks face a striker of Thompson’s caliber before, and Thompson hasn’t faced anyone near the level of competition that is Johny Hendricks. Though both fighters are coming off a win, each of them competed only once in 2015, with Thompson last fighting in July compared to March for Johny Hendricks.
It’s unclear how much ring rust will play a role, along with Hendricks’ dietary changes and his impending departure from Team Takedown. Thompson’s key to victory is clear – he’ll have to stay on the outside picking Hendricks apart, especially during the first round where Hendricks is notoriously dangerous. He’s shown marked improvements in his counter-wrestling and clinch work, but it’s unlikely he’ll get the best of the four-time Division 1 All American and two-time champion wrestler in Johny Hendricks.
Physical strength might also play a role, though it likely depends on whether Hendricks employs more of a wrestling-based approach like he did against Matt Brown, or whether he plans on striking with “Wonderboy,” a multiple-time kickboxing champion.
There are so many “X-factors” in this fight, it makes for an oddsmakers nightmare. It’s a tough test for both fighters, and although Hendricks is coming off a win over a top-10 opponent, it feels like a must win. If Thompson loses, he’ll simply go back to the drawing board, heal up, and return against a slightly lesser opponent. If Hendricks loses, it might be the death knell for the former champions title hopes in 2016.