Hendricks: The great contender

Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Welterweight Johny Hendricks is a nice, easygoing family man. And the most powerful title threat Georges St-Pierre has ever faced.

Ask Johny Hendricks anything. How he met his wife, for example. He’ll give a sheepish chuckle but quickly tell you, “Facebook.” A buddy’s wife said, “You should creep my page” to check out her friends. Hendricks thought: “That sounds sort of weird, but sure.” And so he found Christina. Ask him about his extra padding—the five-foot-nine welterweight walks around at 220 lb. “I’m fat—I’m not goin’ to lie,” he’ll say in his easy Oklahoman drawl. “I enjoy food.” Ask about his abundant facial hair and he’ll get existential: “If you shave your moustache, then it’s really not a beard. Is it?”

Ask why he’s been spending time at his alma mater, Oklahoma State—where he won two NCAA Div. I wrestling championships—ahead of his Nov. 16 title fight versus Georges St-Pierre, and you’ll get uncommon candour for a hype-heavy sport where growling fighters say as little as possible about their strategy. “This fight’s going to be a wrestling match,” he says, as breezy and wide open as the plains around his hometown of Jones, Okla. Uncommon candour is fitting, really, since Hendricks, 30, has set out to do something even rarer: Beat the all-time greatest welterweight.

Nine men have tried to best GSP over the past five and a half years. All have failed. But Hendricks, who’s 15-1 in his career, promises to shake things up, win or lose. Because despite his accomplishments on the mat, Hendricks is best known for his power. In his first UFC fight in 2009, he TKO’d Amir Sadollah, a previous winner of The Ultimate Fighter, in 29 seconds. Two years later, he handed Jon Fitch his second loss in six years just 12 seconds into the fight. And last year, Hendricks faced Martin Kampmann, a Danish kickboxer with a three-inch advantage in height and reach. At the 46-second mark, Hendricks sent his left fist soaring into Kampmann’s jaw. A moment later, Kampmann free-fell backwards, his head bobbling on the mat as Hendricks screamed and pounded his chest. “Nobody’s ever hit Kampmann like that before,” gushed one of the ESPN commentators of Hendricks’s sixth knockout win.

Hendricks has been chasing championships since he was five years old, when he first took up wrestling. He dreamed of competing at the Olympics. But in 2006, he became the villain of college wrestling, thanks in part to his wild celebration after upsetting No. 1 seed Ryan Churella of the University of Michigan. Publicly, Hendricks blew off the boos, even claimed he fed on them. Privately, he turned to his pastor for support. Then he lost the final match of the 2007 championship—his first loss in 56 matches—and quit the sport. “Why would I want to represent this community that suddenly hated me?” he told Fight! Magazine last year. “My mind switched. I stopped caring about wrestling. For two weeks after my loss, all I did was pray. I didn’t know what to do with my life.”

Luckily, someone else did. Ted Ehrhardt, a Texas-based businessman, wanted Hendricks to join Team Takedown, an upstart company that was located in Las Vegas whose mission is to help elite amateur wrestlers transition to the octagon. Not particularly interested, Hendricks nevertheless went to Vegas for training. After getting knocked out for the first time in his life, he decided it wasn’t so bad. Before the year was out, he’d signed on with Team Takedown.

Soon, he was working with Marc Laimon, a jiu-jitsu coach who saw great potential in Hendricks’s athleticism. Less so in his routine of late nights playing video games and late mornings. “I had a business I was running, and I wanted to work with him,” says Laimon. “Johny was very upset at me in the beginning and had a strong dislike for me. But once he understood I had his best interests in mind, he was a little bit more accepting.” For his part, Laimon learned how to work with Hendricks rather than argue with him. He tweaked his schedule to accommodate the fighter, and followed him to Texas when Team Takedown relocated in 2010. By then Hendricks was undefeated with six pro wins—three by KO.

That December saw the one low point in Hendricks’s steady rise: his defeat by decision to Rick Story. Laimon says it was a tough transitional time and “big coaching errors” were made. But he sees it as a one-time glitch in the career of a man who “always finds a way to win.” Laimon says Hendricks has had the hardest road to a title shot of any welterweight. “Man, he fought the toughest dudes in the division and he beat them all.”

Though many MMA watchers felt Hendricks owned the No. 1 contender spot after his stunning blow levelled Kampmann, he had to take a ringside seat to Nick Diaz, who fans were frothing to see face GSP. Hendricks complained but eventually focused on his opponent, who turned out to be Carlos Condit. Hendricks seems to have come around to understanding how critical the entertainment side of UFC is. “I want to oblige [the fans] because they’re paying money,” he says. “[The more] I can play to the crowd and win, the more they’ll like [me].” Still, though Laimon says he and his fighter are hoping for a “spectacular finish” against GSP, they’re “preparing for an ugly, ugly five-round fight.”

Hendricks is more than willing to do the dirty work to win—these days he’s got more on the line than ever. This summer, his wife gave birth to the couple’s third daughter, Avin. His older daughters—Abri, four, and Adli, two—are frequent visitors to the gym where Hendricks trains; Abri, who inherited Hendricks’s sunny grin, describes her daddy’s job as “throwing punches.” Hendricks takes his family along with him in a camper when he trains at OSU, too; having them around helps keep him motivated. Though he sometimes tends to the theatrical about fighting for his children’s sake—“I beat up my body so they don’t have to”—Hendricks can also be blunt: “If I win that belt, that changes my kids’ future.”

Protecting that opportunity is the chief reason Hendricks gives for declining GSP’s offer to pay for both fighters to undergo extra drug testing through the Las Vegas–based Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA). After initially agreeing, Hendricks became concerned about GSP’s affiliation with VADA (St-Pierre’s photo, along with those of other athletes, appears on VADA’s website) and some miscommunication over who was actually paying for the testing. Hendricks’s camp suggested an alternate route of testing, and for a few weeks, the two sides pointed fingers back and forth, the underlying implication being: What’s Hendricks got to hide?

Hendricks, of course, is adamant: nothing. “If [you] had a body like mine, and you’re on steroids, then you might want to get your money back,” he jokes, referencing his beefy physique. He’s indifferent, he says, to any trash talking, about doping or anything else. It’s a takeaway from the wrestling experience, and a sign of his faith that the world sees him for who he truly is: a laid-back guy. A professional who waited his turn for a title shot. A man who puts his family first and wants to give them the world.

But also—and this has been there all along—a savage competitor. He was a junior in high school when he discovered that part of himself, what he calls the “Johny who can’t wait to control his destiny.” He understands now that this meant not always being liked. “My goal wasn’t just to win, it was to crush, it was to dominate,” he says. “It was to make sure that the next time I wrestle this kid, he doesn’t want to wrestle me.”

But Hendricks definitely doesn’t want this to be his last battle against GSP. Because, he says, after he beats him at UFC 167, he wants to do it again. That way, there won’t be a shadow of a doubt as to who’s the best welterweight fighter in the world. And for all his friendly good manners and wide-open smiles, Hendricks will tell you unequivocally, right now, who that is. Just ask him.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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