One of the main components of any MMA fight these days is the game plan or strategy. Long gone are the days in which fighters would just be able to train without much thought of what they would need to do inside the Octagon to get the win.

Head coaches are often given the task of devising a structure to their fighters’ training camps to ensure that by the time the fight comes around it won’t feel like they are implementing a predefined game plan, but it will feel like second nature.

In this feature, we will look to identify the underdog in an upcoming bout and examine what is required of that underdog in order to overcome the odds and predictions and get the all-important “W” in the win column. The point, then, is to step into the shoes of a head coach to break down the fight and provide a game plan for the underdog.

This week’s subject is Robbie Lawler, who squares off with Johny Hendricks at UFC 171 in Dallas on March 15.

This fight will mark the changing of the guard in the welterweight division, a division that has previously been dominated by Georges St-Pierre. St-Pierre is regarded as the most dominant welterweight of all time given his stranglehold on the division since 2006. His only loss during that period came against Matt Serra in what is considered the biggest upset in the history of MMA.

There is, however, a void in the division now, thanks to the fact that GSP stepped away from the sport in December 2013, vacating the UFC title in the process. The fight between Hendricks and Lawler will decide who assumes the throne in St-Pierre’s absence.

It is widely considered that St-Pierre went out on terms not befitting the incredible career that had gone before. At UFC 167, Hendricks stood across the cage from GSP and, in the eyes of many, did enough to leave Las Vegas with the belt. Despite the fact that the all-important three judges disagreed with that sentiment, Hendricks still has the feeling of a champion about him entering into this contest, albeit without the gold over his shoulder to add weight to those claims.

In Lawler, Hendricks will be facing an opponent who has risen from the ashes to assume the mantle of top contender when many had written off his chances of ever achieving this status. Lawler began his initial UFC career as far back as 2002, but he subsequently dropped out of the UFC whilst competing at middleweight earlier in his career after a loss to the late Evan Tanner in 2004. Despite being outside the elite organization, Lawler never lost faith and continued to work hard before eventually getting his chance to re-enter the UFC and test himself at his new weight class of 170 pounds in 2013.

When looking back at Lawler’s most recent fight with Rory MacDonald, it would seem that the stars had finally aligned for MacDonald, St-Pierre’s long-time training partner, to make the step that many had predicted he would make and take over from St-Pierre on his way out. However, nobody told Lawler of these plans, and on Nov. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas, Lawler got the decision victory over MacDonald. The win positioned Lawler as next in line.

Just a month later, St-Pierre announced his decision to leave the sport for an indefinite period, which would ultimately open the door for Lawler to step through.

The Breakdown

When reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of both Lawler and Hendricks, it is fair to say that both are equally adept on the feet, with the power advantage perhaps going to Hendricks. From a more technical standpoint, however, the edge goes to Lawler, who has honed his striking skills over many years at the top level of the game.

Whilst Hendricks may arguably have the better power and Lawler may have the better technical striking, there can be no doubt that Hendricks, a two-time NCAA Division I champion, has the better wrestling on paper at least. How that wrestling ability translates to MMA is a completely different scenario altogether. We have seen multiple times in MMA, primarily with GSP, that regardless of a fighter’s wrestling acumen, it means little in MMA if the “dominant wrestler” cannot transition effectively from striking to wrestling.

In Hendricks’ short career, he has shown the ability to do transition effectively. This is what largely got him across the line against Carlos Condit, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Lawler has been training with some of the best wrestlers in MMA for many years. It could be expected that Lawler is wise to pretty much all of the “tricks of the trade” that Hendricks could look to utilize against him.

Given the ability of both men, you would expect this one to largely take place on the feet. It will be a contest whereby technique faces off against power.

The Strategy

Lawler enters this fight as an underdog, given Hendricks’ impressive showing against GSP. However, it is safe to say that the fight against the long-time champion will bear little to no significance when it comes to UFC 171.

Yes, Hendricks will take confidence from the fight against GSP, but equally, Lawler could claim that he beat a younger, hungrier version of GSP in order to gain this title shot.

How the fight goes will ultimately depend on who is the first to the punch. Both men have good wrestling when it comes to MMA, and both have good finishing power. However, expect this fight to be a technical brawl with both men looking to engage from the start and the winner being dependent on which fighter can establish a rhythm and timing on the feet from the early going.

The key to victory for Lawler will depend on his ability to effectively strike with Hendricks without overcommitting. If he does overcommit on any of his strikes, then this leaves him open to one of the big counter punches that Hendricks has landed throughout his career, or, alternatively, it leaves him open for the takedown, which Hendricks has not been afraid to utilize in order to ensure victory on the judges’ scorecards (see Hendricks vs. Condit).

The odds may be stacked against Lawler, but do not count him out. His experience might just tell the story in this contest, and we might just see the realization of his entire life’s work and the coronation of a new welterweight champion in “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler.

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer
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Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.