Jon Fitch was forever the No. 2 welterweight in the field, even if he was treated like an incredibly successful banality the entire time.
So what happens when Fitch, who never loses, gets knocked out by a guy with fresh marketability and a mean left hand? Does knocking out a perennial No. 2 deliver Johny Hendricks to front of the line for the next crack at the interim belt?
That’s either very simple or very complicated in the "up in the air" welterweight division.
Start with the premise of just where the UFC’s 170-pound division is right now. Next week, a placeholder champion will be named while Georges St. Pierre (who’s been on top for almost four years) recovers from knee surgery. The fight will be between Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz, both of whom were booked for dates with St. Pierre before circumstances turned them on each other. After that it’s Jake Ellenberger, who is fighting Diego Sanchez in Omaha on Feb. 15, and Josh Koscheck, who just had a title shot a little over a year ago. Koscheck is set to fight Mike Pierce at UFC 143.
Given the rapidly changing scene, doesn’t Hendricks -- who already beat Pierce and then Fitch in a dozen seconds -- look like the next challenger to the newly accessible interim belt?
He thinks so. And he knows exactly how precious the situation he’s in right this second is.
“I’ve been telling everybody I really want the winner of [Diaz/Condit],” Hendricks told ESPN.com while in Chicago. “You don’t get this opportunity too often. Now that I’ve done it in the ring, I’ve got to do it outside the ring. If I don’t promote myself outside the ring -- I mean, there are great fights going on and now they’re happening almost every week. You can be forgotten. So if I don’t say in the news that I want that interim title shot -- there’s a fight this weekend in the 170 class, and [if Koscheck or Pierce] does good, I might get bumped. So I always got to be out there making my case. I want my goal. My goal is to be UFC champ some day, and I know I’m right there. I just need that shot.”
Hendricks has never been one to toot his own horn across media platforms or bad mouth the guy with the strap just to generate hype (they don’t call him Happy Bearded Guy for nothing). Yet since debuting at UFC 101, he has won seven of eight fights and four of them by TKO or KO. His left hand is his volume. He said after knocking out Fitch that “the good lord blessed me with a left hand,” and it’s no longer in dispute.
What might be up for dispute is whether Ellenberger -- who is looking to make it six in a row in the UFC with Sanchez -- might catapult over him.
As far as Hendricks is concerned, it shouldn’t. The Fitch knockout, as quick and anticlimactic and unforeseen as it was to witnessing parties, made him an obvious choice to fight the winner of Diaz/Condit. The timing would mesh schedule-wise for matching up with the next week’s interim title winner. And if he has to confess everything, the truth is Hendricks doesn’t want to roll the dice on fighting an Ellenberger or a Sanchez or a Koscheck in a title eliminator unless he’s made to.
“Here’s the thing. Unless the UFC says, ‘Johny, you have to fight -- we want you to get a shot at the title, but we have some questions, and you need another one first,’ then of course I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me. I’m going to do what they say.
“But if it’s up to me, I’d much rather go for the UFC interim belt. I’ve seen so many people who are right there, right there to get that shot and something happens ... it never fails, something happens, and they don’t win. And then it takes them three or four fights to get back, which is a year to a year-and-a-half back, and that’s if everything lines up perfectly.”
Not that he lacks confidence against any of those guys, but Hendricks feels he’s done enough to avoid unnecessary trappings. And after letting his fists do the talking, he says he’s going to go full throttle into making his case. The man they now call “Bigg Rigg” is about to launch the happiest campaign to get the title shot. And he started marketing himself by explaining to me that he was going to start marketing himself.
“You’ve got to,” he says. “The best example is Chael [Sonnen]. He’ll do it outside the [Octagon], and also sometimes in the [Octagon]. But if you can sell yourself in the ring, the less you have to do it outside the ring. I don’t want to be that kind of guy, like Chael. He does it awesome, but that’s not me.”
This is as good a time as any for a guy like Hendricks to quietly set up that next big left. And whether it’s Diaz or Condit, it doesn’t matter -- so long as they’re carrying the belt, he’ll continue to be the Happy Bearded Guy.