UFC 181: Lawler, Hendricks, and the Chorus
by Ryan Johann Perry
When Welterweight kingpin Georges St. Pierre fought Carlos Condit for the title, he left battered and bruised from elbows and punches from Carlos Condit's back, despite winning the fight and remaining champion. Judges are revealed often to be working with some algorithm, that does not necessarily reflect the passing reality of the moments in the cage. If we extrapolate the Condit/GSP fight to its inevitable conclusion, the damage incurred by the champion would have surely grown over the course of the fight and on a long enough timeline, would have led to a defeat.
Most of the time, this timeline is not the case, but rather, a fight is looked upon as a sitcom with a definitive resolution within the cage. PRIDE Fighting Championship eschewed this methodology, awarding the bout to the fighter who won the match overall. UFC, in it's desire to legitimize mixed martial arts as a sport, used rounds, like boxing, making each moment a vignette of a larger arc.
Sometimes however, like in UFC 181's main event between Robbie Lawler and Jonny Hendricks, the arc is evident – bolstered by the fan and fighter reactions. When Hendricks held on to Lawler, scored takedowns, but achieved nothing through it, the algorithms would have leaned towards Hendricks. Joe Rogan, the commentator, is often the best mouthpiece of these algorithms and by the fifth round, when he had essentially declared the fight Hendricks' to lose. The decision by the judges however, most closely represented the Chorus, and the soothesayers, like Rogan, like the trainers in the corners between rounds, were left to balance their soliloquies and the vestiges of the violence before them.
Weak King Hendricks, who despite losing his bid against GSP via points, had purchased some legacy stock in attempting to mimic the welterweight champions reign. But as quickly as time passed since that fight, time had also passed in the efficacy of such a modus operandi.
The re-up for the welterweight championship at UFC 181 was entailed by their previous match, but also by all the close matches that had ever been. In this rematch, we watched revisionist history enact itself.
We knew of the torn bicep, but we did not know to what extent it played in Hendrick's narrow victory in the first match. For me, this is where the interest of the fight lay. This rematch was the testing portion of the scientific method. We had our hypotheses, we had our claim. For me, this match was a match of in-fight strategy and the dissent of muscle memory. It was a case study, the observation of not only the impotence of luck in violence, but the inability to ever repeat the findings, to ever find a theory that can encompass human endeavor that hinges so much on the confluence of intelligence and physicality.
The first fight was won by a cog thrown into the machine. The nullified lead hand attached to the torn bicep in Jonny Hendricks not only limited the set up for his left, but removed the variable of the takedown from the match. This forced Hendricks to synthesize a new game plan, on the fly. Through this improvisation the game-planning of Lawler was rendered useless.
This new game plan was a game plan of necessity, not of intellect – a game plan that Lawler, surely preparing for a wrestle-boxer, could not calculate, could not process. What part of Lawler was preparing for the takedown that never came? What part of Lawler was waiting to counter the right jab that all but vanished? Muscle memory, like the Turing test, cannot synthesize and adapt well enough to be recognizable as anything that is not hardwired, scripted. The muscle memory of both was altered in the first match by injury. And what we saw in the first and the second fight were phantom limbs. These phantom limbs, in the eyes of the opponent, served as mental feints that altered not only the timing and reaction of that very night, but the timing and reaction of the “better man” of the competition.
These mental feints were most obvious by Lawler's ommitance of his kicking game in the first fight. While Hendrix was working around not being able to complete a takedown, Lawler was still adjusting to the mental feints and in ring visualization of the caught kick, the takedown, and the smothering that never happened. The muscle memory had Lawler parrying right hands that weren't there that Saturday, but were there in the long training camp, in the combinations thrown by his sparring partners, in the fight footage he admits to recently have begun studying.
So what differed between the two fights? How was the 'healthy' Hendricks less successful?
What prevented UFC 181 from being Groundhog Day was the lack of injury, was Hendricks resorting to his bread and butter, which was not enough sustenance. Like Dos Santos vs Velasquez I, it was an injury that defined the subconscious of the fight. It was an adaptation that changed the schema of the match, one that cannot be replicated. Because between the game-planning and the visualization lies the visceral, chaotic reality that is not beholden to any variable, a reality that cannot be articulated by merely approximated by the idea of providence.
The phantom limbs that Lawler parried in the first match were made manifest in the second. The blocking had substance, no longer was Lawler fighting against Hendricks fight footage. He was fighting Lawler in the flesh and knew that he had to hurt him immediately. When Lawler came at him viciously in the first, it was not to finish him, but it was to set into the muscles something other than memory, it was to implant pain in the movement, rather than rote.
You hurt the body, you hurt the mind, you make alchemy of confidence. Turn it into desperation, turn it into confusion. The equivalent of mma confusion is the takedown, is the holding up on the cage. Lawler fought that confusion the same way Condit did, by attacking relentlessly while the body of his competitor became dead weight in a desire to find a way out. There was something different though, some new wrinke.
The Chorus. There was a synergy between fandom, the collective unconsciousness desire to not simply continue the “just bleed” mentality, but to see the “Cinderella Man” reincarnate. What fans want more than anything is to see the edge, to see the ceiling in fighters. Some equate it to heart, others equate it to balls. But in every combative sport, there is a desire for risk and reward. Even in the matches where the fight ends quickly, there is some understanding that there is a preparation there, a daily risk of health and safety. It is the weight of these risks that are at play and there is an understanding that no victory, by knockout or submission, comes without a risk. This alchemical transference from risk to victory is the parallel between ourselves and the fighters. When we talk about fighting, we are talking about this.
The boo's of the chorus were the boo's of ourselves. The constant refrain that we may not be trying hard enough, working hard enough, or believing in ourselves enough in our daily lives. Our perfect selves are the others that we cheer for, our heros, our favorites. Oddsmakers are inhuman for this reason, they are the human resources of the sporting world, bureaucratic and ice cold. For better or worse, the boo's of the chorus were heard by the judges; it was undeniable. It was the hum of frustration and the hum of something coming to life. It was the static of monotony made ecstatic, made visible, to the fighters, the judges and ourselves. It was Lawler's internal monologue mic'd throught he crowd. It was a confluence between voyeur and participant. It was beautiful. WAR Lawler!