After cruising through early career, it's 100 mph for Johny Hendricks in chasing GSP

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Johny Hendricks cannot contain his anticipation. How can he? Since the first time he walked into a mixed martial arts gym with the intent of being a professional fighter, he has been training for one thing. He's been building towards one man. Georges St-Pierre has been his focus. It's nearing now. He can feel it. The fight isn't yet officially announced or booked, but he is sure that it's coming, that GSP can't avoid him any longer.

He is sure, because Hendricks is about as positive a person as you will find in sports. This is a man who can see the favorable side of nearly any scenario. For example, he first decided he was going to go pro after being knocked out. Beforehand, he wasn't so sure. But afterward, yes, that was the moment when everything crystallized. After he came to, he found a new perspective. If that was as bad as fighting could get, it wasn't that bad at all.

So, waiting for GSP? It's not the worst thing he can imagine. It's bothersome. It's inconvenient. But it's not negative, not when you're still learning things about yourself, and closing the gap on the longtime divisional ruler. That's what these next few months are about for Hendricks. Taking things to the next level in training, so he has a next level when he fights St-Pierre.

"The funny thing is I train at about 80 percent," he said recently. "And that’s the way I fight. This next one is going to be different. This next one, already, guys don’t like it so much that I’m working out with. I’m using all the power I have. I’m training as hard as I can. So only exciting things can come."

Hendricks said his last fight, a decision win over Carlos Condit, taught him a lesson. There was still plenty of room for improvement. In typical Hendricks fashion, he found that exciting.

One of the things he realized was that his training wasn't as intense as it needed to be. He was rightly concerned about the health and safety of his training partners, but maybe a little bit too concerned. He would fight at their speed, not his own. He wears massive 18-ounce Winning gloves, the largest offered by that manufacturer, in order to slow himself down. He'll frequently shift off the gas pedal.

Cruise control got him this far but he's not sure it will get him past St-Pierre. Or to put it another way, if he puts his foot on the gas pedal -- if he floors it -- he's not sure St-Pierre can keep up with him. After all, he's proven his edge in knockout power, and he now believes he's proven his wrestling might be superior, too. Against common opponent Condit, St-Pierre managed seven takedowns. Hendricks took Condit down 12 times, and did so with an injured hand.

There are those who the philosophy is simple. Too simple. He wouldn't really disagree. As far as he's concerned, it's a winning combination.

"Wrestling, that’s my bread and butter," he said. "If this was a kickboxing match, you might tend to lean towards him. But everybody said that I couldn’t strike, everybody said they’re a better striker than me, but here I am. I got the power. And to nullify the wrestling, that’s easy. I got a lot up here (pointing to his head) to nullify wrestling. I think he’s going to come out and sort of the same game plan as Josh Koscheck. Jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab and get you to overcommit. He’s going to try to sweep underneath you, drive you against the cage and take you down."

In other words, he thinks St-Pierre can be predictable, too. Recently, St-Pierre's boxing coach, the esteemed Freddie Roach painted Hendricks with a broad brush, saying that when it comes to striking, he only has a left hand.

Hendricks might actually concede that's true. At least right now. But he warns St-Pierre that if that's what he and Roach are strategizing around, there might be a surprise in store. He says his coaches tell him that his right hand is even better than his left. The natural southpaw just needs to gain confidence in it. That's where all the extra time to prepare comes in.

The way he sees it, St-Pierre is a finished product. He's 32 years old and has been fighting for over a decade. All he can do is make refinements. But some of this is still new to Hendricks. He can still learn new things, add fresh weapons into his arsenal. He fully expects he'll need it all. He even believes he'll have to face St-Pierre twice, that he'll owe him a rematch after taking his title from him.

It's all fine for Hendricks, MMA's eternal optimist, the fight game's blue-collar brawler. Every night, he says he dreams about fighting St-Pierre. All day he thinks about signing the contract to fight him. When he finally sees it, he says he might have a heart attack or go crazy. Very soon, it will all be real.

Hendricks can't contain his excitement at the prospect of it all. The man supposedly limited by a minimal skill set is coming for arguably the most well-rounded fighter in the sport, and Hendricks likes his chances.

"I’ll tell you my game plan," he said. "I’m going to hit you with my left. If that doesn’t work, I’m going to try to take you down. If that doesn’t work, I’m going to find a way to win, Georges. Easy as that. I wrestled. All I had was a single leg but I had different ways to set it up. One thing that he cannot prepare for is my heart, my speed and my determination to win. He says to everybody, 'You have not faced anybody like me.' Well, guess what? He's never faced a 208-pound welterweight that has power and is a true wrestler."

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