While some collegiate wrestlers segue into MMA as a way of monetizing (and perpetuating) one-on-one competition, Johny Hendricks just sort of drifted into it. The one-time "Happy Bearded Guy," who was a D-1 wrestling champion at Oklahoma State, had no intention of knuckling up.
"None, whatsoever," Hendricks said on The MMA Hour, where he was an in-studio guest on Monday. "I watched it, but I didn’t want to be it. I just did not see myself as a fighter. I thought of myself as being the guy who still watched it, but never in a million years would I have ever thought I’d be here where I’m at now."
Hendricks, who will fight Robbie Lawler for the vacated welterweight title on March 15 at UFC 171 in Dallas, says he started watching MMA in 2001. And like so many of the time, his go-to fix for transferrable violence was Pride, the Japan-based promotion from whence Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, Mauricio Rua and Quinton Jackson sprang.
"I watched a lot of Pride and it's probably one of the reasons I didn’t want to a fighter -- I didn’t want to get kicked in the head." He said. "We would stay up late, me and King Mo [fellow OSU Cowboy, Muhammed Lawal], we would watch Pride."
Soon the OSU wrestling team was gathering for UFC pay-per-views. And by the time he graduated in 2007, with no great prospects on the horizon, Hendricks got a call from his manager, Ted Ehrardt, which changed the direction of his life.
"He said, hey, would you like to be a fighter? And I was like [nervous giggle], okay," Hendricks told Ariel Helwani. "I said 'okay' to get flown out. We flew out to Vegas. I trained with Tyson Griffin, and we were doing small gloves and we were supposed to go like 10 percent, 15 percent, but I’d never been punched in my face my entire life. I’ve wrestled, but I’d never been hit. We were wearing small gloves, light, then all of a sudden [somebody said] 'hey, you two need to chill out.' I’m like, ‘he’s hitting me’…Now I realize he was under control, but I wasn’t."
He wasn't sold right away.
"I really didn’t like that too much," he said. "I came back, prayed about it for two weeks, [Ehrardt] called me up again and said would you like to go back? I said sure. I went back, got knocked out, came back home, prayed about it and said alright. I’m going to do it."
Fast-forward to 2014, and Hendricks is fighting -- once again -- for the UFC’s welterweight belt. He fought for it once already at UFC 167 in November against the long tenured champion Georges St-Pierre, and lost a very close split decision (which many, including UFC president Dana White, thought he won). Since then GSP has vacated his belt and walked away from fighting, thus giving Hendricks a second chance.
Hendricks reiterated his stances on the UFC 167 fallout, Hendricks saying that he has put the fight, the judging controversy, and the WADA/VADA drug-screening stuff behind him. And at this point, he said he has found the silver linings, even in defeat.
"We know GSP, his turn around rate sucks," he said. "It takes him six months to come back. So I’m actually grateful that he ended up turning over the belt, relinquishing it, so soon. Very grateful for that. And that ended up making me be able to fight in Dallas. So if that doesn’t happen, do I fight him in Dallas? I’m probably fighting in April or even May."
Dallas is where Hendricks is living and training, thus making his next title bid a homecoming of sorts.
Among the other topics that Hendricks touched on in his 40-plus minute interview was fighting through pain and broken hands. Not just broken hands that occur in the fight themselves, as happened in his WEC 39 against Alex Serdyukov -- but broken hands that occur in training. Like the one he suffered on his left hand on his next fight, which happened to be his UFC debut.
"I fought Amir Sadollah [at UFC 101] with a broken hand going into the fight," he said. "The fight lasted 29 seconds, thank god. Realistically, a week before the fight I broke my nose and then I broke my hand."
When asked how he kept the Pennsylvania commission from finding out during his physical exam ahead of time, Hendricks said, "Whenever they checked they wiggled my nose, I didn’t flinch. And when they did my hands, I didn’t flinch."
Since that fight Hendricks has gone 10-2 in the Octagon, with his only losses coming to Rick Story and St-Pierre. Now on the verge of capturing the 170-pound title, Hendricks also expounded on what he’d like to do in the future.
One of the things Hendrkics said he’d like to do, if all goes as planned, is move up to the middleweight division -- as the defending welterweight champion -- to go after that belt, as well.
"Yeah, that would be great, wouldn’t it?" Hendricks said. "Here’s the thing -- what do I fight now? Everybody’s six foot, six-two. There’s no height difference between 185 and 170. Everybody’s a giant.
"Here’s what I was thinking: Who in today’s age is…wanting should I say, definitely in my weight class…wants to go up a weight class and try to have two belts? Two different weight classes? I want to win [the 170-pound belt], defend it, do whatever the UFC wants me to do…hopefully I can get it, defend it a couple of times and say, ‘hey, can I move up to 185?’"
Hendricks says he normally walks around at 220 pounds, and that the weight cut would be a lot easier for him. When it was mentioned that a fight between him and current middleweight champion Chris Weidman would be interesting, Hendricks readily agreed.
"It would, wouldn’t it?" he said. "We’re both wrestlers, both strong people. And if I get six months to really lift weights, and my body just loves weights, I know I can change myself to where 185 would be…not a hard weight cut but a lot easier than making 170."