On December 30, the UFC returns after a two-week hiatus and brings the big guns to bear at UFC 141: Lesnar vs. Overeem. Headlining the traditional UFC New Years card are two titanic heavyweights looking for a shot at UFC gold – former UFC champ Brock Lesnar (5-2) and Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion “The Demolition Man” Alistair Overeem (32-12). The lightweights will also see action as Nate Diaz (13-8) takes on “Cowboy” Donald Cerrone (16-4). Long-time middleweight contender “The Janitor” Vladimir Matyushenko (26-5) will face off with “The Mauler” Alexander Gustafsson (12-1) and the featherweights will open the night as Nam Phan (19-10) attempts to build his first UFC win streak against undefeated Jimy Hettes (9-0). The anchor bout for UFC 141 is a welterweight competition with potential title implications as Johny Hendricks (11-1) pits his 6-1 UFC mark against one of the most successful fighters on the current UFC roster, 13-1-1 former title contender Jon Fitch (22-3-1). The bout is made all the more exciting with the looming introduction of an interim welterweight belt, and both men will bring their A-game in the attempt to get a crack at it.
At First Glance: The initial impression of this fight is one that brings heated debate amongst wrestling purists and the fans of proven finishers and groans from the casual fan base. Both men are accomplished wrestlers who have a penchant for crushing top control. Fitch, for his part, enters the match with a serious chip on his shoulder after a 5-0-1 streak has failed to land him a second title shot. Hendricks stumbled a few fights back against “The Horror” Rick Story (11-4), but has since rebounded with a pair of solid, one-sided wins. Both men do share a tendency to win fights via decision by way of their superior wrestling. While the “lay-n-pray” stigma hasn’t settled on Hendricks like it has on Fitch, he still has seen the third round in all but three of his UFC bouts. This makes casuals and even some long-time fans a bit leery of the pairing, but the skill of each man cannot be denied.
In Depth: Fitch and Hendricks are both positional wrestlers first, fight finishers second. Though Hendricks has finished three of his seven UFC opponents, he still focuses on positional dominance first. Fitch, for his part, hasn’t finished an opponent since 2007, but has only met with three men in the last nine he has faced who were able to escape his suffocating top game. Where the real meat of this match-up lies is in the willingness of each man to take risks and deal damage from superior position. Fitch has never possessed true knockout power, but will do absolutely nothing to risk losing position once he has it. Hendricks has the ability to put out some serious punishment and isn’t afraid to open up in order to deal damage, however, this sometimes causes him to get swept or reversed and thus losing position and control of the bout. That is where the fight will go south for Johny Hendricks. He is the more accomplished wrestler of the two from a more prestigious wrestling school, but he is smaller and when he creates space to land heavier blows against Fitch, the larger man will be able to hip out and counter his position with relative ease. Once under Fitch, Hendricks will have a hard time getting his position back.
Wild Card: The biggest question mark in this bout is Fitch’s mental state. He has been out of the cage for almost a year during which he has faced constant criticism for both his long drought of finishes, his repeated complaints about not getting a title shot, and his less than impressive showing in his most recent bout. This may be enough to cause Fitch to abandon the lead blanket attack and push hard to finish the fight on the mat. Coupled with ring rust and recent injury recovery, that could create all the opportunity Hendricks needs to put Fitch away following a clean sweep.
The Verdict: While Fitch has expressed frustration at the claims some have made about his unworthiness to “decision his way to a title shot”, it is very unlikely that such a disciplined athlete will abandon the tried and true method that has built his career, especially when he knows he is coming off of a long lay-off and his skills may not be up to their usual level. Hendricks is the more damaging fighter and the more accomplished wrestler, but against a durable opponent like Fitch, it is likely he will be unable to sustain the necessary offense to carry him through the later part of the match. Look for Fitch to get handled early before reversing position and holding it through the second and third. Fitch via Unanimous Decision