Johny Hendricks' middleweight debut did not light the world ablaze, but that was never really his intention.
The Oklahoma State University legend has been criticized for his recent lack of finishes, but this was not truly an issue, and simply a product of his more consistent, high-volume approach, in addition to the durability of his competition.
The #JohnyHendricks who smothered Matt Brown in a relatively uneventful affair was the best, most developed version we had yet seen. A string of three straight losses seemed to indicate otherwise, but “Bigg Rigg’s” real problem was never technical, or a case of being overly cautious. He simply looked lifeless.
An emphatic loss to #StephenThompson, a stylistic nightmare for a pocket-inclined kickboxer with a traditional wrestling game, said little decisive about Hendricks’ career trajectory, but following decision losses to Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 200 and Neil Magny at UFC 207, something seemed missing. There was a sense that, in some difficult to quantify way, he was somehow diminished, either physically or psychologically. Perhaps both.
In #HectorLombard, he was offered a dangerous but manageable opponent who posed a high knockout threat for a version of Hendricks who lacked drive or focus. It was a perfect measuring stick for his grit, if not for his prospects versus legitimate, middleweight-sized opposition. On that front, he performed about as well as one could hope.
Predictably, he had trouble taking Lombard down, but he remained measured and aggressive on the feet, undaunted by the Cuban’s power. Uncharacteristically, he also threw a lot of stepp-in knees.
While not the first time he has attempted it, it is unusual to see the stepp-in knee featured so prominently in Hendricks' game; as a technique which works best against shorter foes, it would seem an odd choice to unveil in the middleweight debut of a fighter who was already a short, stocky welterweight.
The step-in knee is thrown primarily as a counter, or sometimes as a lead when the opponent is in hand-fighting range. It’s an especially devastating technique when used against a foe who is ducking towards one’s hips, and is among the most powerful counters a human being can throw.
As a lead, we witnessed several fine examples in Gavin Tucker’s unanimous decision win over Sam Sicilia.
The Newfoundlander (who is not, in fact, from Halifax, as my Newfie friends angrily assure me) showed slick, active footwork and swift closing of distance throughout the bout, but it was most apparent in his beautiful knee strikes.
Towards the end of the first round, Tucker, from southpaw, threw a hard right hook. Moments later, he immediately motioned as if he were about to throw the same strike, but instead trapped Sicilia’s lead hand, before stepping in and burying his knee in the American’s gut, then slipping a counter left hook.
As a counter, we would see the strike featured just as prominently in both the main and co-main events.
Before receiving a visceral, irresponsibly late stoppage loss, Travis Browne spent an entire round battering Derrick Lewis’ body.
First hurting him with a front kick, digging his toes into Lewis’ gut, he responded to his opponent’s obvious discomfort by repeatedly targeting this same spot.
In one of the fight’s most significant sequences, Browne timed a telegraphed right hand to land a perfect counter knee which sent Lewis staggering to the cage as he clutched his body. The counter was, rhythmically, quite delayed, stepping in as Lewis first motioned to cock his hand, but only throwing his knee as Lewis’ arm quickly approached his face.
By contrast, Hendricks’ step-in counters were more immediate. Hendricks repeatedly caught the iron-jawed Lombard as he threw lean-in hooks or reached towards the former welterweight champion’s hips, landing several flush knees to the chin at the same instant tempo.
At the time, it was reminiscent of #DonaldCerrone’s recent victory over Matt Brown, as Lombard continued to absorb the same crippling strike, unphased and undeterred. Sensing this, he committed to punishing Lombard with this counter, baiting the level-changes and making himself susceptible to the Cuban’s wicked power punching in the process.
It seemed a question of when the cumulative effects would reveal themselves, rather than if. The finish, however, would not materialize for Hendricks as it did for Cerrone in his exploits at welterweight, but the precision and timing with which he stepped into each knee, his most significant strikes of the fight, bode well for his immediate future in the sport.
Notable Step-In Knee Knockouts:
- Ryan Bader def. Ilir Latifi
- Alistair Overeem def. Brock Lesnar
- Joe Duffy def. Julien Boussuge