For members of the Jackson-Wink MMA fight team, the Sandia Mountains are heartbreakers, not because of their beauty, but because running them will test everything – mind, body and soul.
Welcome to Albuquerque, Johny Hendricks.
“It sucked,” the former UFC welterweight champion said of his first time going up the mountains. “I’m not gonna lie. It sucked. But my cardio, just from running it once, felt like it shot through the roof because you push yourself that hard.”
It’s Wednesday, October 25, and Hendricks is winding down camp for his UFC 217 bout against Paulo Borrachinha this weekend. The fight is ten days away, but he’s still putting in the work.
“We’re not going hard today, but we’re going hard, if that makes sense,” said Hendricks as he sat in his truck and looked at the mountains that awaited him. When this interview was over, he would look at the picture of his family he has in the vehicle and he would run again.
“Why did I do this in the first place?” he said of his fight career. “For my family. I miss my family, and every time I miss my family, I think of them and I go train. I look at that picture and I say, ‘I’m not tired, I’m gonna push that much harder.’ That was the motivation I needed.”
It took him a while to get to this point.
On top of the world after beating Robbie Lawler for the 170-pound crown in March 2014, Hendricks soon began a downward spiral that saw him lose his belt and go 2-5 in his last seven bouts. Battles with the scale led him to the middleweight division this year, but after a win over Hector Lombard in February, he got stopped in two rounds by Tim Boetsch in June. Now the 34-year-old is heading to Madison Square Garden to face an unbeaten Brazilian knockout artist intent on making his name off his.
But he’s not worried about all that.
“All I can say is that I’m excited, I can’t wait to see improvements I have made and how much better have I gotten in just four weeks. That’s what I’m excited about. I’m getting reborn in a sense.”
He owes it all to his decision to train with the Jackson-Wink MMA squad in New Mexico. For an established UFC veteran and former champion, the options are endless when it comes to a change of training scenery, but after losing to Boetsch, Hendricks and his coaches in Texas decided that the ABQ was the right spot for him.
“(Greg) Jackson knows me, in a sense,” he said. “He’s been across the Octagon from me. So does (Mike) Winkeljohn. My coaches were telling me, ‘Hey, we need to find somewhere else to go. We have to.’ That last fight opened my eyes. I can’t do it with just my boxing coach, my jiu-jitsu coach or my strength and conditioning coach. I gotta have partners. And if I can’t get partners, then I’m screwed.”
A friend offered to call Winkeljohn, and the renowned striking coach agreed to have Hendricks come in, but on one condition, and that’s if the team gave the green light. They did and “Bigg Rigg” decided to test things out for a week.
“I gave myself a week because I didn’t know if I’d like it or if I meshed well with the guys,” Hendricks said. “And every day, my dad would call me and he was like, ‘Well, how’d you like it?’ (Laughs) I said, ‘Dad, it’s gonna take more than one day to figure out if I like a place.’ But one thing I tried to do is I tried to stay after practice and talk to people and let them get to know me and I just feel like it’s a great home.”
What made it great for Hendricks is that now he had hungry teammates who wanted to push him and get him better. It was something that was sporadic at best back in Texas.
“Two guys stayed after practice to help me,” Hendricks said. “How cool is that? Back home I’m struggling to get a partner, but here, I have people that want to help me. They want to get better and whenever we’re sparring, if I do good against them, guess what, the next day of sparring, guess who says, ‘Wanna go?’ You want to beat me this time, and if I get beat, I walk up to them and say, ‘Wanna spar?’ And they say yes. That’s the way this gym is.”
But then there are the mountains. Yet even that turned into something Hendricks took as a positive.
“We ran the hill on Saturday and I said to Greg, ‘Coach, is it weird that all I look forward to is my next workout?’ He said, ‘That’s what we need you to have. For you to get back to where you want to be, yes, I know you love your family, but you’ve got to have that drive.’”
He’s got it, and he’s ready to show Borrachinha that he’s not the same fighter he’s been over the last couple years. It took him some bumps and bruises to get here, but that’s the wrestler’s mentality. If things go bad, work them out in competition. For guys like Hendricks there are no breaks.
“What I really should have done is went up to ’85 two years ago,” he admits. “Two years ago, I should have came out to Jackson’s. That is what I should have done. Because let’s be honest. I’ve been a competitor since I was five years old. All I know is how to compete and how to push myself. I wish I knew other things, but one thing I know is that if I want to do something, I’ve gotta do it right.”
Now he’s here. All that’s left is the fight.