Johny Hendricks occupies a unique place in the world of mixed martial arts. Yes, it’s imperative that to be successful, one ideally should be well-versed in all aspects of the sport, but we know that’s usually not the case. Everybody has a favorite, a go-to, a happy place where they would like to keep the fight for 15 (or 25) minutes or less.
Hendricks, though, he has options. He has one-punch knockout power in his left hand, so he can stand with anyone, and he’s also a two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion, so if he wants to put you on your back, nine times out of ten, he will.
That should be a good problem to have, but as he heads into a Saturday main event against Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson in Las Vegas, he has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. The devil says, “Stand with the striking specialist from South Carolina.” The angel counters with “Take Thompson down, ride out the win and remain in the running for a chance to fight for the title again.”
The former UFC welterweight champion laughs.
“You know me too much.”
It is an issue for Hendricks though, simply because he doesn’t think he has anything to fear against any striker, even if using his wrestling might be the best path to victory. And that stubborn nature has him thinking knockout, not decision, this weekend.
“What makes me more mad is that everybody’s like, ‘Oh, (Thompson) has got better stand-up,’” Hendricks said. “Every time I fight a striker, they’re like ‘Johny’s gonna get beat on the feet.’ They forgot all the knockouts and where did I beat Carlos Condit? On the feet. Where did I beat Martin Kampmann? On the feet. Against GSP, everybody said I had T-Rex arms and I wouldn’t be able to touch him. (Laughs) I’ll eat a jab to land a left hand. But they said you won’t be able to touch him with your left hand because his jab is so long. Guess what? I got through it, and he didn’t touch me with his jab, did he? So whenever I hear stuff like that, it just gives me more motivation.”
A motivated Johny Hendricks is one of the most dangerous welterweights in the world, if not the most dangerous. Unfortunately, the 32-year-old Oklahoma native’s focus has often been on his weight and not his game plan as of late. First, he nearly missed the mark for his title-winning effort against Robbie Lawler in March of 2014. But it was at UFC 192 last October that it really hit home, as his weight cut for a bout against Tyron Woodley was complicated by an intestinal blockage and a kidney stone, and the fight was canceled.
Following the incident, Hendricks basically started fresh, parting with his longtime group at Team Takedown and taking career and training matters into his own hands. It’s a big switch for any fighter, especially one at the top of the sport, but Hendricks is doing just fine so far, even if he has to deal with setting up his own interviews in addition to everything else.
“Some of you guys, I don’t mind talking to,” he laughs. “But I’m super happy. This will be the best I’ve looked. And what’s nice with having (nutritionist) Louis (Giordano) on my side is that now I’m not gonna blow up to 210 or 205 (pounds). My goal for the rest of my career is to stay at 185, 187 and that’s gonna make it easier on my body too. Then I can start really playing with everything that I think is gonna benefit me. I’m going back into that wrestler mode. Instead of ballooning up in the off-season, I’ve got to think, ‘Hey, I’ve got to make weight soon, so I’ve got to keep my weight low.’”
With his weight one less concern, Hendricks can focus on his fight game once again, and that may translate into a return to the form that saw him knock out Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann and engage in crowd-pleasers against Condit and St-Pierre and in his first fight with Lawler. That same Hendricks wasn’t around for the rematch with the current 170-pound champion and Matt Brown, even though he clearly won the Brown bout.
“I lost track of the wrestling,” the former Oklahoma State standout said. “For example, the great one was Matt Brown. I really focused more on the wrestling, and I really wasn’t thinking I was going to take him down. I just let my body go with what it needed to do and that’s what I’m starting to realize. I’m starting to throw away some technique to get back to the raw power that I used to use.”
Here’s where the devil on the shoulder meets the angel.
“Why did I knock all those people out from the start?” Hendricks asks. “Because they were all scared of my wrestling. Well guess what? Those two work hand-in-hand, and if I can get people to fear my wrestling again, I have a feeling that more knockouts are gonna come.”
This time though, it will be on Hendricks’ terms, and not to appease folks who have been deriding him on social media.
“They’re ruthless,” he laughs, referring to those firing at him on Twitter. But at this point, Hendricks is doing what he’s doing for himself, and no one else.
“You just have to tune it out,” he said of the criticism. “People who have never been there, who have never been looking down the barrel of a gun, it’s easy for them to want to see the knockout. And don’t get me wrong, I love knocking people out. But what I’ve learned is that I can’t be too focused on one thing. And I was so focused on knocking people out that I lost track of everything else. And if you’re looking for a knockout, they don’t come. So I have to take a step back and say ‘I’m gonna be a complete mixed martial artist,’ and when I do that, then everything else will start falling into place.”
Just like those five-round fights he is happy to be getting this week, and hopefully every time from here on out. Yes, you read that right.
“Hey, I need ‘em,” he said. “I don’t like threes. I like fives, because if you’re doing fives, that means you’ve got the belt.”