Usually, when I write about combat sports, most of this column is concerned with unpacking various tidbits, ripple effects and societal implications writ large by a fight’s outcome. This “slice n’ dice, followed by cross-section examination” method has worked — admittedly, to varying degrees — for so long because most of the fights I write about have had definite outcomes: Chael Sonnen choking out Shogun Rua; Sergio Martinez routing chosen one cum entitlement poster boy Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.; Floyd Mayweather doing anything against anybody, ever.
Though their outcomes do succeed not just in getting the blood up, but in laying the groundwork for grander-scale socio-domestic issues, they do not suffer from ambiguity — which, truly, is the bane of functional analysis.
And that’s why it’s difficult to try and dissect just what happened this past weekend when longtime UFC welterweight champion Georges “Rush” St. Pierre defended his title for the ninth straight time by edging out Johny Hendricks via controversial split-decision at UFC 167. A little background: since KOing granite-chinned wrestler Jon Fitch in a ridiculous 11 seconds at UFC 141 and narrowly eking out a decision over faded perennial contender Josh Koscheck — himself the victim of a violent first-round KO at the hands of Tyrone Woodley on the same card — at UFC on Fox: Diaz vs. Miller, Hendricks has been on an absolute killing spree, knocking out Dutch brawler Martin Kampmann with his vaunted left hand at UFC 154, then winning a warlike, but clear, unanimous decision over Carlos Condit a few months later to earn his shot at St. Pierre.
St. Pierre — who needs no real introduction, so I’ll just rattle off a list of his victims: Matt Hughes (twice), BJ Penn (twice), Dan Hardy, Josh Koscheck, Jake Shields, Carlos Condit, Matt Serra, Nick Diaz — had heard the hype before. To him, this was nothing new: a sturdy wrestle-boxer with furious one-punch power was supposed to be the biggest test of his career. It was, seemingly, not just a paltry grasp at a marketing angle to sell a fight whose outcome was all but pre-determined, but one that had already been played out in the buildup to St. Pierre’s title fight with Josh Koscheck a couple of years before.
In the promos leading up to the fight, both fighters strode in dogged slo-mo towards the cage while Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” played over spliced clips of St. Pierre mauling opponents from top position and Koscheck turning hapless victims into tragic cartoons via his tank-stopping right hook.
Because that fight ended up playing out so predictably — St. Pierre broke Kos’ orbital bone in the first round and coasted to a comfortable decision — history was expected to play itself out again. It did not.
The fight was not one-sided; indeed, it won the coveted “Fight of the Night” honors for both combatants. And while St. Pierre was his usual calculated, durable, studious self, peppering Hendricks with jabs, leg kicks and coming out well in most of the scrambles, it always seemed like the challenger was just that much more effective.
It helped that Hendricks added a new wrinkle to his game: powerful leg and body kicks that visibly bothered the champion, something that St. Pierre had not been able to do to Hendricks, though outworking him on many occasions, throughout the fight. Hendricks also managed to land huge, thudding punches time and time again, putting to rest, if nothing else, the much-ballyhooed claims that St. Pierre cannot take a legitimate shot.
Really, the fight could have gone either way. A vast majority of observers (barring two of the three cageside judges) saw the fight for Hendricks, but nearly every round was nip-and-tuck. Close fights and controversial calls are par for the course in boxing and MMA, but that’s not necessarily what made the final outcome of the evening so frustrating.
See, for every organization or promoter, there is a way that things are “supposed to work.” Barring that, there are clear, though preferably avoidable, contingency plans. But the results of this past Saturday night threw a wrench into any concrete path for the UFC: normally, GSP retaining his title by the slimmest of margins would be excuse enough for an immediate rematch.
After the fight, however, GSP expressed reservations about continuing to fight in the first place, citing both psychological and physical deterioration, in addition to undisclosed “personal” problems. So there’s that. On top of that, his training partner — and No. 1 contender-in-waiting — Rory MacDonald was stopped in his tracks by a resurgent Robbie Lawler, to the tune of a split decision loss that was a smidge more decisive than the scorecards would indicate.
As a result, the UFC has lost out not only on the possibility of an immediate rematch of one of the welterweight divisions truly great wars, but on the guaranteed frenzy and storyline that a fight between GSP and Macdonald — the reluctant, but far from recalcitrant warriors — would have produced. Meanwhile, a new clear-cut contender in Robbie Lawler is left on the sidelines to wait the whole thing out.
Like it or not, we witnessed a passing of the torch on Saturday night. It was expected for some time, just not now, and just not this way. We believed in the reality of such an event, but we believed even more in its eventuality: the coming-to-fruition in a clean-cut manner. We were, as fight fans are so fond of saying when their favorite fighter gets the sour end of a close decision, “robbed” of such satisfaction.
It’s funny, isn’t it, to witness an event, to see it play out in front of you, and then to witness the world continuing on as it always has? It makes us question our grip on our daily lives, when the laws of nature continue to operate seemingly outside the boundaries of what certain events mandate. We find ourselves asking: the whims of who? Of what?