Gatekeeper or Contender? The Future of Johny Hendricks #UFC207

Life as a former champion in the UFC is anything but easy. Most former belt holders are relegated to gatekeeper status and often never return to championship form. Much like the case of Anthony Pettis, who has lost four of his last five fights, former Welterweight Champion Johny “Bigg Rigg” Hendricks is currently on the worst skid of his career. The man who unofficially dethroned George St. Pierre and holds perhaps the scariest left-hand in the 170 lb division has fallen victim to the post-belt life.

What does a win or a loss on Friday night mean for Hendricks’ career? At a minimum, a win might merely be a momentary staunching of his decline. At best, a win over Neil Magny could be a harbinger for a return to fortuitous circumstances. However, a loss to the tough Elevation Fight Team product could herald much worse for the Oklahoman.

As of late, the UFC has operated with relative restraint by neglecting to cut certain big name fighters. The organization has historically operated on a “3 loss policy” wherein a fighter on a 3 fight-losing streak is typically released. Recently though, the UFC has realized that big-name fighters on a skid still have immense value as both draws and in “gatekeeper” positions.

Anthony Pettis is prime example of a fighter who had he not been a former Champion would have been cut due to his recent showing. Even a relatively mid-level fighter like Jake Ellenberger, while close to being cut, has managed to remain in MMA’s premier organization despite losing six of his last eight fights. Welterweight Matt Brown too has lost five of his last six fights but likely won’t be released because of his cult following and fan-friendly performances.

Within this context, the possibility of going 0-3 no longer merits ostracism for Hendricks. The former champion simply has too much to offer the UFC – not to mention the opportunity cost associated with letting him go to a competing organization. For the time being at least “Bigg Rigg” needn’t worry about his place in the UFC. What a loss might spell for him is a long awaited move up to Middleweight.

The Team Takedown fighter has made no secret of his issues with cutting weight. After cutting ties with wizard nutritionist Mike Dolce, Hendricks famously landed himself in the hospital following a failed weight cut that left now Champion Tyron Woodly without an opponent. There is reason to suspect, as the cases of Donald Cerrone and Kelvin Gastelum have made clear, that a jump in weight classes can offer substantial benefits. It might be the case that a loss on Friday night could mean renewed success for Hendricks should he make the move to 185 lbs.

While Hendricks’ overall position within the UFC is more or less secured his ranking at Welterweight is nothing if not precarious. His last two fights have been textbook “gatekeeper” matchups in which he launched Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and Kelvin Gastelum into the ranks of the Welterweight elite. It seems as though the UFC has decided to make a change to that model by giving Hendricks a tough but, in my view, winnable matchup.

Neil Magny is coming off of a devastating knockout loss to Lorenz Larkin and while that might have motivated him to improve I find his four-month turn around to be a bit too soon. While Magny has excellent striking and good takedown defense, I don’t dislike Hendricks’ chances of closing the distance and landing the takedown. That being said, the length of Magny combined with his gas tank could easily contribute to the former NCAA Champion losing yet again. All this is moot though if Hendricks cannot win his first fight of the week: the weight cut.

Even if he manages to hit the magic number of 171, there is enough reason to fear the physiological affects of the intensive process. A smooth cut is essential to a good performance. So while the hard-nosed wrestler might be still be able to win in spite of a brutal cut it seems prudent to reduce as many obstacles as possible.

Full UFC 207 predictions

Much like in the main event of 207 (the return of Ronda Rousey) this fight hinges on what version of Hendricks shows up. Will we see the world-beater who smashed the greatest Welterweight of all time or the stepping-stone who has accepted his new place within the organization?

Ultimately, the former Welterweight Champion’s fight on Friday night will not be a do-or-die affair. Win or loss he will continue to fight in the UFC – unless of course he chooses to retire. But the trajectory of his career is entirely dependent on the outcome of this bout. A win could be a temporary reprieve or a sign of regeneration. A loss could simply be just another setback, it could provide an opportunity to move up a division, or be a confirmation of the decline of a once great Champion. Whatever the case may be, the future of the former Champion rests entirely in his own hands.

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