When Georges St-Pierre finally emerged from getting medical treatment after his controversial title defense of his long run as welterweight champion against Johny Hendricks at UFC 167, he noted that he had never felt that kind of power before.
"He hits like a truck," St-Pierre said repeatedly.
Someone who has the kind of thunder in his left that Hendricks does is partially God-given. In his case, there were remnants of it early in his UFC career, such as in a 2009 win over Amir Sadollah at UFC 101. But the scary power of Hendricks really emerged in 2011, with devastating knockouts of T.J. Waldburger and Jon Fitch.
The game change can be attributed to better technique, from training with boxing coach Tony Cabello and Muay Thai coach Steven Wright, as well as more power and stamina from strength and conditioning coach Adrian Ramirez. Hendricks' head coach is Marc Laimon, who is a jiu-jitsu master and his cutting to 170 pounds is overseen by Mike Dolce, who actually cut weight with him during the latter stages of camp.
In the case of Ramirez, the idea going into the St-Pierre fight was to do something no opponent had ever been able to do, which was physically overpower St-Pierre. Not just early, but for the duration of a five-round fight. That meant not just power, but the ability to still harness that power deep into a long fight.
Ramirez, who devised Hendricks' conditioning program noted that a lot of it came from going back to a program Hendricks had thrived in years ago, long before he came into MMA.
"I can't take credit for everything," Ramirez said about the power that enabled Hendricks to physically thrown St-Pierre to the mat in the fourth round, and give him a beating on the ground like none he had ever taken in his career. "Johny came to me as an incredibly strong athlete."
Hendricks had thrived as a college wrestler at Oklahoma State University, winning national titles at 165 pounds as both a sophomore and junior, in 2005 and 2006. He won 56 matches in a row in 2006 and 2007 before losing in the national finals as a senior. While training under the legendary John Smith, the wrestlers did heavy lifting during the off-season to get as strong as possible, with the idea of maintaining as much of the strength as possible while constantly cutting weight during the season.
"We translated that philosophy over to my methods," said Ramirez. "Before we even hear about a fight date, during the off-season, we're in the gym lifting three times a week, pretty heavy. When we get close to the fight, six to weight weeks out, we transition to circuit training. That's how he starts cutting (weight)."
Ramirez said that Hendricks is a quick gainer, which certainly has its advantages. But as an MMA fighter, there's actually a problem involved in having that level of favorable muscle and strength building genetics that most would love to have. Hendricks' optimum weight class is 170 pounds, and at 5-foot-9, he's short even for that division. Naturally, Hendricks weighs about 210 pounds in the off-season. He's not looking like a bodybuilder, but he packs a lot of muscle on, and they actually have to almost hold back his muscle mass gains because he can't afford to gain too much new muscle and still be at his best when having to cut the day before a fight to 170.
"If Johny lifts for two weeks hard, he can add 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, so we have to be careful," said Ramirez.
During the strength and power cycle in the off-season and early fight camp, Hendricks concentrates on increasing the weights he uses on heavy dead lifts, power cleans, clean and jerks, full snatches, shoulder shrugs and really heavy one-arm dumbbell presses for building power from the core that strengthens punching power. But aside from traditional weightlifting, they also utilize unique movements, that Ramirez culled from strongmen training.
Among those exercises is the farmer's walk, which is essentially walking while carrying a bar filled with heavy weights, an exercise that is killer on the legs, the lower back and the all-important grip strength. It's also beneficial because it's not about just strength, but teaching the muscles to be able to maintain power under long periods of exertion and gets the athlete use to working through muscle pain and exhaustion. There is also a yolk bar that he puts on his shoulder almost like from a squat rack and walks with it while carrying 315 pounds of added weight. They constantly add more weight. Like St-Pierre is fond of, they even incorporate some gymnastics movements.
Another key to the training is to grapple in a gi. While on the surface, no gi grappling would seem to be more effective for an MMA fight, given that's the circumstances you fight under, it's the hand fighting and constant holding and tugging of the gi in long sessions that builds the necessary grip strength and grip stamina.
Ramirez felt the methods worked.
"Everything is done to transfer to MMA," he said. "I think that was proven in the fight. In the majority of positions, he could out power St-Pierre."
The training is heavily tailored toward the opponent. To earn the title shot, Hendricks had to get past Carlos Condit, who has very different strengths as St-Pierre, so it was an entirely different game plan.
"Condit was the more dangerous striker. You have to be more careful. On the ground, Condit's guard is a lot more active than Georges' was. That's what you have to look at. Range plays a difference. Condit wasn't going to try and take us down. I don't think he tried one takedown in the fight. Against Georges, we had to prepare for the wrestling, and had to tighten up our wrestling as much as possible as well as let Johny work on his hands. His hands get better every fight. From the last fight, he striking looked better. His boxing has gotten stronger, his kicks and knees are stronger. His wrestling from the training at OSU really got him in the best shape of his life."
Ramirez said they went to Stillwater, Okla. six times during the GSP camp, and got more priority instruction directly from Smith, one of the greatest U.S. wrestlers in history.
"Yes, he was taken down, but every time he was taken down, he got right back up. Those trips played a huge factor. I thought Johny looked good in his takedowns. They were very technical. Those are the things you need to work on. We'll go back to OSU and bring the footage of the fight and he'll learn from his mistakes. OSU is a huge part of Hendricks' wrestling success, both in the past and the present and we still try to utilize them for our training camp as much as we can."