A lot happened over this past weekend in the world of combat sports: uber-prospect Deontay Wilder — though it gets to feel a little more disingenuous calling him a “prospect” after his roughly 156th straight first-round KO victory — knocked out Malik Scott in the very first frame, setting himself up for a shot at the winner of the upcoming Bermane Stiverne/Chris Arreola rematch. Johny Hendricks nabbed the vacant UFC welterweight title from Robbie Lawler in a technical slugfest for the ages. “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner Diego Sanchez continued his slow yet noticeable decline in a one-sided decision loss to surging lightweight Myles Jury. Danny Garcia, Mayweather opponent-in-waiting, barely squeaked by presumed tune-up Mauricio Herrera.
It was an interesting series of events, in that what happened was what most observers expected to happen, though, for the most part, not without controversy. We’ve often heard that “power perceived is power achieved” — though honestly I just remember that quote from Ernie Hudson’s corrupt high school principal in “The Substitute,” probably his greatest role, which sounds sadder than it really is — and it held mostly true this weekend, though in different forms, and with varying implications. I’ll look at two this week, and two next week.
1. Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler
Power Perceived: Both fighters are strong wrestlers who also punch like whatever can whip a jackhammer’s ass. Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler, combined, are responsible for more lost brain cells than Candy Crush — only meth has destroyed more teeth. But that’s about all they have in common, as their respective career trajectories couldn’t be more different: Hendricks came into the sport relatively late, and though he entered the UFC with an ultra-quick KO of TUF winner Amir Sadollah, any victory that quick is written off as a fluke. He then dropped a decision to Rick Story — who lost on the undercard of this same event — and barely eked out a victory over an already-fading Josh Koscheck, before resurging with quick KOs of Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann to earn a shot at Georges St. Pierre’s welterweight crown, where Hendricks ended up on the wrong side of a split decision, and not without some controversy.
Lawler, on the other hand, was pegged for big things from the get-go. A 20-year-old, blue-collar brawler out of the then-fearsome Miletich Fighting Systems camp, Lawler debuted in the UFC with vicious KOs and/or beatdowns of Aaron Riley, Tiki Ghosn, and Chris Lytle. An injury loss due to leg kicks versus Pete Spratt was a minor setback, but Lawler was cut from the UFC following consecutive stoppage defeats: an embarrassing knockout loss to Nick Diaz, and then a triangle choke submission loss to Evan Tanner at middleweight. Lawler would go on to reinvent himself at the new weight class in promotions ICON Sport, IFL, PRIDE, EliteXC and Strikeforce, earning KO victories over Falaniko Vitale, Frank Trigg, Scott Smith, Joey Villasenor, Murilo Rua and Melvin Manhoef, submission losses to Jake Shields and Jason Miller doing little to slow his momentum.
Power Achieved: The fight delivered. Oh my god, it delivered. Though it wasn’t the out-and-out ultra-violence of a Hagler-Hearns, Hunt-Sefo or Frye-Takayama, it was one of the best fights in all of combat sports in the past year, and neither fighter truly lost anything, though the decision came down 48-47 in Hendricks’ favor.
Here’s the rub: despite this being the fight that was supposed to cement the wide-open nature of the UFC’s welterweight division since the retirement of longtime champion GSP, it leaves the division in more disarray than ever. After all, a division exists solely to provide new challengers for the current kingpin, but the UFC still finds itself short: Hector Lombard took a dominant decision over Jake Shields, but in a rather tepid manner; Tyrone Woodley TKOd longtime contender Carlos Condit, but only due to injury; Rory MacDonald, a GSP protégé and training partner, is ostensibly the frontrunner after his thrashing of Demian Maia last month, but it’s not easy to forget his awful, stagnant win over Jake Ellenberger, or the setback against Lawler in his last fight.
As a result, we’re likely to see Hendricks/Lawler 2 signed almost immediately which, for fight fans, is a wonderful thing. Beneath the surface, though, it’s discouraging: in the face of tepidity, of hesitancy, a show of power perpetuates and fosters only itself, and the UFC could be looking at simply a new version of their GSP problem.
2. Deontay Wilder vs. Malik Scott
Power Perceived: Deontay Wilder hits hard. Like, really hard. A 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in heavyweight boxing, Wilder turned pro in November of that year, and has since recorded 31 knockouts in 31 fights, never fighting past the fourth round. He’s so good at crushing brains, Smuckers keeps him on retainer to corner the zombie market after the apocalypse. His signature is a nuclear symbol.
Malik Scott was obviously not on Wilder’s level, but he’s no scrub: you don’t get to a 36-2-1 record fighting giant men with ham hocks for fists without having some skill. He won the 1997 Junior Olympics, and boxed in the qualifiers for the 2000 games. He’s currently sporting a two-fight losing streak, but considering that those losses have come to Wilder and the chemically unbalanced but dangerous Dereck Chisora, you kind of have to give him the benefit of the doubt here.
Power Achieved: When you possess the kind of one-punch, city-leveling power that Deontay Wilder does, your reputation tends to precede you. Many viewers, live and on Showtime, were reminded of that when the two punches that apparently knocked Malik Scott down and out in Puerto Rico this past Saturday appeared to barely graze Scott, or even not hit him at all.
Late in the round, Wilder backed Scott up against the ropes and unleashed a left hook/right cross combination that put Scott down hard. The punches were delivered with such speed — a terrifying notion for the rest of the division — that they didn’t seem to land, and people have since been crying about dives and fixes. Two things: 1) Wilder’s left hook clearly landed (watch the slo-mo) on Scott’s temple. Even a glancing blow from a powerful striker to that area can throw off a fighter’s equilibrium — just ask Georges St. Pierre after his first fight with Matt Serra — and leave him more susceptible to the KO. Not only that, but the straight right broke at least partially through Scott’s defense and caught him full beneath the nose, a knockout button if ever there was one.
2) Scott may have thrown the fight, but not in the way that the loudest detractors are crowing about. Much like most of Anderson Silva’s opponents in his heyday, Wilder’s opponents — with a couple of exceptions — are so intimidated into shock by his reputation and highlight reels, they simply freeze up and forget to box. Even Firtha, who wouldn’t back down, was mercilessly hammered.
Power Achieved: What is to gain from standing up to power if, in the end, the outcome is inevitable? It’s a question that continues to plague fighters, philosophers, sociologists, and politicians today; it’s fairly evident we’re stuck with it. If it’s a question of personal legacy — the honor gained in a prolonged beating as opposed to a quick dispatching — then the best you can hope to be is a patronized footnote in the victor’s self-written history.