Welterweight champion Johny Hendricks is set to make his first title defense, this Saturday, December 6, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, as he faces Robbie Lawler in the main event of UFC 181.
Returning to action after surgery to repair a torn bicep, Hendricks (16-2, 11-2 UFC) first claimed the title in March at UFC 171, scoring a unanimous decision over Lawler (24-10 1 NC, 9-4 UFC). The two now meet for a highly anticipated rematch, after Lawler worked his way back up the divisional ranks with a pair of wins.
"More than anything I'm just excited to be back in the Octagon," explains Hendricks. "Now that I'm healthy... I'm super excited. The rematch with Robbie... is gonna be huge for my career for multiple reasons... because I have a feeling I might have a couple more rematches in my future."
A four-time NCAA Division-I All American at Oklahoma State University, Hendricks is an elite wrestler with tremendous knockout power in his left hand, who displayed improved boxing and low kicks during his last outing against Lawler. For Hendricks, this will be his third consecutive title fight, having dropped a contentious split decision to Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167 before winning the belt.
Lawler, who has been fighting MMA professionally since he was just 19, is an accomplished striker, known for his brutal knockouts and punishing style. Now in his second run with the UFC, Lawler demonstrated his durability and tremendous chin during his previous outing against Hendricks, withstanding early pressure from the champ, decisively winning the third and fourth rounds by landing heavy head strikes.
This matchup should go the distance, with both fighters damaging each other on the feet for the majority of the contest, although don't be surprised if it goes to the mat after a takedown or two. And while Lawler will come ever so close to capturing UFC gold, Hendricks will, once again, take this one via unanimous decision.
Co-main event: Anthony Pettis vs. Gilbert Melendez
A battle for the UFC lightweight title, this contest between incumbent champion Pettis (17-2, 4-1 UFC) and challenger Melendez (22-3, 1-1 UFC) has been building up for months now, as the pair have served as coaches on the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Pettis, a flashy kickboxer from Milwaukee, won the UFC title in August 2013; however, he has yet to defend his belt, sidelined for the last 15 months due to a torn PCL. Best known for his "Showtime" kick, that saw him jump off the cage wall and land a foot to the head of Benson Henderson, Pettis, who has never been finished in competition, returns to action on the heels of four straight wins, the last three via first-round stoppage.
For Melendez, a former Strikeforce titlist at 155 pounds, this will be his second crack at UFC gold, previously losing a razor-thin split decision to former champ Henderson in April 2013. A boxer with tremendous fight IQ, Melendez is also coming off a long layoff; his last outing came in October 2013 at UFC 166, where he took a unanimous nod over Diego Sanchez.
"I adjust well and I have a gameplan and a strategy; I impose my will very well, and I feel pretty confident about it," comments Melendez. "I'm not scared of Anthony Pettis... I feel like I'm more versatile. I know he's very athletic. I think I have better boxing... I'm more aggressive, I think I have better wrestling, I think I have better grappling."
Both Pettis and Melendez possess complete and versatile MMA games, and neither has ever lost via knockout or submission, so don't expect this contest to end before the final bell. And while Pettis has shown some of the most exciting striking in MMA, Melendez will use strategy and tactics to box and wrestle his way to the decision victory.
Travis Browne vs. Brendan Schaub
The featured bout on the UFC 181 main card pits a pair of heavyweights, as both Browne (16-2-1, 7-2-1 UFC) and Schaub (10-4, 6-4 UFC) look to return to the win column.
At six-foot-seven, Browne, the UFC's third-ranked heavyweight, is one of the taller athletes in the division, known for his high-level kickboxing and vicious elbows, which have led to six first-round stoppages inside the Octagon.
Schaub, who dropped a contentious verdict to Andrei Arlovski at UFC 174, is a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with knockout power, although his chin has often come under criticism after a trio of KO losses early in his career.
Expect Schaub to come out aggressively and force the contest to cage wall; however, Browne's takedown defense is too strong, and he'll catch Schaub in the clinch, taking the fight via first-round KO.
Todd Duffee vs. Anthony Hamilton
By the time heavyweight Duffee (8-2, 2-1 UFC) steps into the Octagon on Saturday night, it will have been nearly two years since his last MMA outing -- a first round "Knockout of the Night" performance at UFC 155 -- and once again, his game plan will be to employ the heavy-handed boxing that has led to eight knockout wins, including one in just seven seconds, a UFC record.
Hamilton (13-3, 1-1 UFC), who is coming off of a TKO win over Ruan Potts at UFC 177, is a powerful wrestler out of Albuquerque's Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA, who likes to ground and pound.
While Hamilton may have more recent experience and momentum, it's impossible to deny Duffee's power.
Don't blink during this one, as Duffee pushes the action to the cage perimeter and lands yet another first-round KO.
Abel Trujillo vs. Tony Ferguson
A powerful and punishing wrestler, Trujillo (12-5 1 NC, 3-1 1 NC UFC) returns to action for the first time since February, when he took "Knockout of the Night" and "Fight of the Night" honors for his performance against Jamie Varner at UFC 169.
Meanwhile, Ferguson (16-3, 6-1 UFC), a crafty Jiu Jitsu practitioner and boxer, looks for his fourth straight win and third of 2014.
Featuring two very different fighters, stylistically, this matchup of lightweights will come down to whoever is able to employ and execute their gameplan. And while Trujillo possesses the athleticism and aggression to move into close range and use his power, Ferguson's unorthodox striking style and slick ground game off of his back will open the door for the submission win.
Best of the Undercard: Urijah Faber vs. Francisco Rivera
Faber (31-7, 7-3 UFC), who returns after a win over Alex Caceres at UFC 175, has long been touted as the UFC's most popular fighter under 155 pounds, known for his frenetic pace, athleticism, and trademark guillotine choke.
Rivera (10-3 1 NC, 3-2 1 NC UFC) is a durable and brutish slugger with knockout power, who is coming off of a decision loss to Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 173.
This contest could go into deep waters, as Rivera should be able to thwart Faber's early offensive threats. But eventually, Faber will move in for the submission and take the fight via tapout.