Hendricks’ championship mettle to be tested at UFC 181

Johny Hendricks, right, beat Robbie Lawler in a five-round war at UFC 171 to win the vacant welterweight title. Their rematch headlines UFC 181. (Matt Strasen/AP)

UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks is set to defend his title for the very first time on Saturday night at UFC 181. And with that, he will face mental demons he has dealt with in the past, but this time the stakes are much higher.

The road to becoming a world champion is fuelled by hunger, the desire to be the best of the best and the unwavering spirit to achieve this goal by any means necessary.

Hendricks has long maintained that it was not as important to beat the champion (back when he fought Georges St-Pierre) as it was to win the title. The belt is the most important thing with the glory, the title, the accolades being the end result.

In his bout with GSP and subsequently when he earned the vacant title against Robbie Lawler, “Bigg Rigg” showed the ironclad mettle that comes from his years wrestling at Oklahoma State University. What he did there is what may prove to be the difference on Saturday night in his rematch with Lawler.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Watch UFC 181 prelims Saturday on Sportsnet 360 starting at 8 p.m. EST

In 2005, Hendricks won the NCAA Division 1 title, an incredible feat to say the least. But winning it proves he was the best. To do it again in 2006, proved he was a master at his trade and in doing so proved he was able to surpass the stepping stone from being a hungry challenger the year before, to a worthy kingpin the following year.

Ask Matt Hughes and the aforementioned St-Pierre about the difference between winning the title and defending it. There is a massive difference in mindset, with both saying it is far easier to win the title than it is to defend it.

Hendricks has reached the top of the mountain with blood, sweat and tears. He defeated Lawler with a torn biceps. He broke through the mental barriers telling him to quit, to stop, that it may not be all worth it. His health and sanity were more important. He scoffed at those thoughts, pushed them aside, double legged them in his mind and pounded them into silence.

At UFC 181, it’s a new level of hunger Hendricks may have to tap into. He will have to borrow from his wrestling experience in 2006 while dealing with a “Ruthless” man looking to knock his block off.

Lawler firmly believes he has learned from his mistakes in their first bout. He has stated his time is now. It’s his turn. He’s been fighting for a very long time and is the No. 1 contender in the welterweight division for a reason. He’s part finisher, part destroyer.

While Hendricks has been on the shelf recovering from biceps surgery, Lawler has fought twice, defeating fellow Top 10 fighters Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown. This activity could be a major difference heading into his main event bout against Hendricks.

With Lawler polished and having no ring rust, the same cannot be said for Hendricks, who will be coming off the longest layoff of his MMA career. He will have to push through that annoying physical pain of fatigue, taking the limits of his stamina to a whole new level. He is the champion, but it may be his heart that will be tested. He rules the division, but he must now prove it, by truly defending the top of the mountain, while battling the psychological warfare that will take place in his mind.

GSP told me one of the reasons he walked away from the sport was he simply lost that hunger — the drive to remain world champion. Hendricks is now entering that chapter of his career, with a boatload of contenders vying to take that belt away from him.

Rory MacDonald is on the horizon. Maybe a rematch with St-Pierre could be on the docket, but the task at hand is Lawler, who maintains Hendricks will pay for his Octagon transgressions on Saturday night.

Their first bout was a Fight of the Year candidate, but this one could surpass that if it also goes the full five rounds. Then again, it appears both guys believe they will finish off the other one long before the 25 minutes mark.

Whatever happens will happen and the whole world will be watching, as two of the sport’s best are set to cap off the 2014 pay-per-view schedule with an epic battle for the ages.

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