Last Friday, the reigning UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre walked away from fighting (at least for now) and relinquished his title (possibly forever). That same day, while visiting Disneyworld, Johny Hendricks -- whom many thought beat St-Pierre at UFC 167, save at least two Nevada-issued judges -- got a phone call from Dana White.
The crux of the conversation? Not only would be fighting once again for the title, something he half-expect…but he would be fighting the heavy-handed fighter Robbie Lawler, a fellow southpaw. Oh, and the fight would happen in his native Dallas, Texas at UFC 171 on March 15.
How did he feel about that news?
"Super-excited," he told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. "Who wouldn’t be? You’re sitting there and doing stuff and you find out that you’re going to fighting Dallas, your own backyard…you find out you’ll be fighting a very tough opponent, Robbie Lawler -- who wouldn’t be excited for that? I know the fans are. I’ve seen some posts that the fans are very excited for this fight, and I am too. This is going to be a great fight. This is going to be a fight for the fans and I can’t wait."
Hendricks (15-2) lost a very narrow split decision to St-Pierre in November, which set up a rematch scenario. But, as St-Pierre alluded to in the cage afterwards and in the post-fight press conference, he needed to take some time away from the fight game. On Friday, St-Pierre it made it official by vacating his belt. Now, as one of the UFC’s greatest and stingiest champions steps aside, the 170-pound belt is up for grabs. And even though Hendricks felt like a shoo-in to fight for the vacated belt, many felt that Carlos Condit might be his opponent. Hendricks and Condit fought a highly competitive three-rounder at UFC 158.
When the UFC announced it would be Lawler, who defeated Rory MacDonald at UFC 167, some people were surprised. Hendricks being among them.
"I was a little bit, but you know what? Like I say all the time, that’s above my pay grade," he said. "I’m there to fight whoever they throw at me. I’m just grateful they gave me another shot for the belt. That was the biggest thing of all."
In some ways, opposites literally came together when Hendricks and St-Pierre fought, at least on a motivational plane. St-Pierre was miserable in his station, with the pressure of six years as champion taking a vast toll on him, while Hendricks wanted nothing more than to carry that weight.
In fact, the man they once called the "Happy Bearded Guy" (but now is better associated with "Bigg Rigg") says the more pressure the merrier, because the escalating sense of pressure is the reason he fights.
"I want the target on my back," he said. "I want everybody to come after me. That’s been my goal since I started fighting. Is that I want the gold and I want everybody to sit there saying, ‘I want to beat that guy.’ And that’s been my whole thought process through this whole time, [because] I need that. For some reason I enjoy that kind of pressure. The more pressure you can put on me and get me out of my comfort zone, the better I shine. And that’s what I wanted."
And for Hendricks, the symbol of the belt itself has always carried greater significance than defeating an icon in the game. He made that clear before he fought St-Pierre at UFC 167, and he sticks by that idea now. When a future rematch with St-Pierre was brought up -- the magnitude of which would be severe if Hendricks was reigning 170-pound champion as he returned -- Hendricks reiterated his patented the-title-means-more-than-the-man mantra.
"I don’t care about that," he said. "Here’s the thing, if I fight GSP again I fight him again. If I don’t, I don’t. My world doesn’t revolve around him. It revolves around that belt. And that’s what I’ve been saying this whole time. I’m not fighting GSP, I want what he carried around to all those press conferences, that’s what I was fighting for, and that’s still what I’m fighting for."
And as for whether or not he was surprised that St-Pierre walked away when he did, Hendricks said no, because, "he knew he’d have to fight me again." Asked if he thought that the idea of fighting him again was a catalyst that played into St-Pierre’s decision to take a break, he elaborated further.
"You know, I don’t know if he realized what he was saying after the press conference," he said. "I think he was still out of it. And that’s the thing; I didn’t really hit him that great. And he realized that. Now he can go out, he won the fight -- to the judges, the judges scored it that he won -- why not go out on top? Who’s to say that one day I can’t defend the belt and get him back out? You just don’t know what the future’s going to hold, is what I’m trying to say. And my goal is to get that belt and to hold onto it as long as I can."