NEW YORK -- Johny Hendricks' appearance has become so intertwined with his bushy, brown beard that when he shaves it off, he can walk around unnoticed in an arena full of mixed martial arts fans. He's done that very thing on at least one occasion, when he knocked out Amir Sadollah in just 29 seconds at UFC 101, took to his razor in the locker room, and then spent the rest of the night watching fights basically unbothered.
Its main purpose though, is not to serve as a disguise, or even to make him appear older than he would clean-shaven, even though he admits he looks closer to 18 or 19 than his real age of 28 when whisker-free.
For Hendricks, who fights Josh Koscheck at Saturday's UFC on FOX 3, the beard means business. It's been a training camp ritual since 2008; whenever he gets an opponent, the razor blade goes back in the drawer for a couple of months. The thicker it gets, the more time he's devoted to the pre-fight work.
"What it does, it reminds me that I have something, a goal that I'm trying to reach, and that’s a fight," he said. "Whenever I go in there and do my job, win or lose, I go home and then I shave it. And then the next morning, I wake up, and I’m still in fight mode, and I get to the bathroom and check the mirror, and I’m clean shaven. At that moment it hits me, and everything goes away. I become a dad, everything's over, it's time for family. It’s a good stress reliever."
Hendricks is coming off the biggest win of his career, a 12-second knockout of Jon Fitch at December's UFC 141. For some, that win was a fluke. Hendricks, of course, doesn't see it that way, rhetorically wondering, "Is it luck that I have power?" But even Koscheck has suggested the punch was more lucky than good.
Given his 12-1 overall record, and 7-1 mark in the UFC, you can understand why Hendricks would take umbrage to such a suggestion, but he also acknowledged that a victory over Koscheck would further validate what he did against his former AKA teammate, Fitch.
"Nothing matters now except for Josh," he said. "If I go out there and I beat Josh, then I did something great. And it doesn’t matter what I did in the past because if I go out there and lose, they’re going to say, 'He lost to Josh Koscheck. He could beat Fitch, but he couldn’t do this.' So nothing matters except for this next fight."
That is true in more ways that one. Elsewhere on Wednesday, around the same time Hendricks was talking to the media, Dana White was on a conference call, confirming that Hendricks was likely to earn a title shot with a victory.
That's a long way from where Hendricks was just four fights ago, losing a decision to Rick Story in a fight in which he was a strong favorite going in. Hendricks says now that he lost the fight because he got complacent. Camp was too redundant, and he wasn't pushing himself.
The defeat caused him to take a step back, reevaluate, and change his approach to camp. He also went back to his wrestling roots, quite literally, spending time at his alma mater, Oklahoma State while working with their wrestling team. He says that having younger, fresher athletes trying to beat him out and grind him down brought back some of the competitive edge that he had lost somewhere along the way, a trait that he has brought with him to his MMA preparation as well.
"It sucked," he said. "It sucked bad, and I got that meanness, that wrestling attitude back, of 'Hey, that's not going to happen.'"
As he says this, you can't help but think he doesn't seem mean at all. After all, he's willing to talk about his beard for several minutes, even ranking it among the all-time MMA beards, saying Kimbo Slice's is better than his while noting that he re-grows his each time while Kimbo simply trims.
But that's all part of it for Hendricks. Every day he looks into the mirror during training camp, he's reminded of where he's headed.
"I know that Josh is a tough opponent," he said. "If I overlook him at all, I’m an idiot. I’m stupid. I know I want a title shot, but just because I’m thinking it doesn’t mean it’s going to take place over Josh. Everyone thinks that. When you first start fighting, you're thinking title shot. When you get closer, every fight you’re like, 'I’m getting closer, I'm getting closer.' And if they say they’re not thinking that, they’re not telling you the truth. I’ll just be open with you. That’s my dream. Put that belt right here. But I’ve got to get through Josh."
Welterweight title shot be damned, this beard isn't for gold, it's for Koscheck.