It was March 15th 2014 and the UFC Welterweight division was a very different place. On that night, Johny Hendricks was crowned the weight-class champion following a 25 minute classic against beloved blood and guts warrior Robbie Lawler. It had been a gradual but incredible rise for ‘Bigg Rigg’, a man that had climbed the ranks with ten wins out of eleven fights inside the octagon to earn a shot at the dominant champion Georges St Pierre. In the biggest fight of his life, Hendricks would use his excellent wrestling base and feared punching power to, in the minds of many, win three of the five rounds. However, the judges disagreed. Regardless, ‘GSP’s following voluntary hiatus created a vacancy and after defeating Lawler, Hendricks was now the champion.
The undercard that night featured two Welterweight contender clashes, the first of which saw then contender and now champion Tyron Woodley finish an injured Carlos Condit. The other was a battle between revitalised veteran Jake Shields and weight class newcomer Hector Lombard. Shields himself had only recently dropped back down to Welterweight but he had done so with great success, grinding out decision wins over the aforementioned Tyron Woodley and fellow grappling wiz Demian Maia. In just his second fight at 170lbs though, Lombard would absolutely dominate the former Strikeforce champion, using his frightening physicality to control almost all of the action for a clear decision win. As the curtain came down on UFC 171, Johny Hendricks was now the undeniable champion and Hector Lombard had emerged as one of the division’s top contenders.
Though both fighters left the cage with lots of momentum that night, injuries would keep both out of action for quite some time. In fact by the time Hendricks made his return, his last opponent Robbie Lawler had scored two big wins to secure another title shot, setting up a rematch for December 2014. This time though, the fight wouldn’t quite catch fire as the first encounter had and after some early success, Hendricks would fade and have the fight and his belt controversially stolen from him by a dramatic late Lawler flurry. In just the first defence of his long awaited title reign, Hendricks had come up slightly short to his rival and was now no longer champion.
One month later and Hector Lombard would also make his return, opening the UFC 182 main card against returning journeyman Josh Burkman. In what was a somewhat underwhelming performance, Lombard would come out the unanimous decision winner after chasing the cagey Burkman for the majority of the three rounds. The real disappointment though would come when Lombard failed his post-fight drug test, turning the result into a ‘no contest’ and leading to a one year suspension for the Cuban born fighter. Nonetheless, with one of the division’s top contenders now out of action, former champion Johnny Hendricks would return in March to take on Matt Brown. In an impressive rebound showing, Hendricks would score takedowns with immense regularity to dominate much of the action for a wide unanimous decision win.
Lombard wouldn’t be the only one inactive though as weight cut issues stopped Hendricks from fighting Tyron Woodley as was planned. ‘Bigg Rigg’s eventual return would come eleven months after his Brown victory as he took on Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson in a fight night main event. The favourite going in due to his proven credibility at the top level, Hendricks was shockingly dominated by Thompson who battered him on the way to a merciful 1st round stoppage. In under four minutes Hendricks had been absolutely vanquished and sent to the back of the contender’s line. Hendricks had lost three times before but this was the first via stoppage and almost startling in its one-sidedness.
A month later and Lombard would too be back, fighting rising contender Neil Magny. It was a pivotal fight for the returning contender, who had questions understandably surrounding him following the drug test failure. In fairness, Lombard would start as quick as usual, heavily dropping Magny early in the opening round. Overly anxious to finish, Lombard would soon fade and was battered with ground and pound by the now recovered Magny before the finish finally came. With his contender status seriously hindered, Lombard’s return had been an unsuccessful one as he’d suffered the first stoppage loss of his whole career. Surprisingly, it would be only ten weeks later that Lombard would be in the octagon, even though the quick turnaround didn’t seem to fit with the serious amount of damage sustained in that Magny defeat.
Regardless, Lombard would return to Middleweight to take on Dan Henderson in what seemed to be a favourable match up for the suddenly struggling fighter. To the surprise of many, Henderson’s power would be clear from the start as he wobbled the historically iron-chinned Lombard. As Henderson looked to capitalize though, his vulnerabilities would be extra prevalent and Lombard caught him, dropping him in the process. Just like in the Magny fight though, Lombard was unable to finish and only depleted himself before he was violently knocked unconscious in the second round. There is never any shame in being finished by a puncher as revered as Henderson but the sight of a motionless Lombard certainly had somewhat depleted his aura as a terrifying gunslinger, rightly or wrongly.
One month later and Hendricks’ sudden dip in form would continue at UFC 200, with a lacklustre showing against Kelvin Gastelum following a miss in weight. That whole scenario would repeat itself at UFC 207 too, as Hendricks again missed weight before dropping another decision, this time to Lombard’s former conqueror Magny. His performance this time was slightly more energetic but the recurring result and the circumstances surrounding it had left Hendricks at an absolute career crossroads or in some ways, arguably a dead end. Now forced up to the Middleweight division, Hendricks returns in an absolute must-win scenario. His opponent: a man in a very similar situation, Hector Lombard. Last seen in his devastating June defeat to Henderson, Lombard is now back with his career arguably on the line.
It’s surreal to think that less than three years ago, Johny Hendricks was the UFC champion and won the belt on the same night that Lombard solidified his spot as a top contender. Since that night, Hendricks has won just once, losing a stunning four times. Similarly, Lombard is officially winless and is coming off of two straight brutal stoppage losses. Now up at Middleweight, this has to be the last chance for both at the top level and that in itself signifies the dramatic fall that both men have suffered in recent times. Either way, inside the cage the desperation should make for some drama as these southpaw punchers look to revive their careers in last chance saloon.