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After pondering middleweight move, leaner Johny Hendricks feels like he’s ‘back in college’

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

DALLAS -- Three months back, when Johny Hendricks was in the throes of defeat, watching the golden strap he worked so hard to collect now rest before Robbie Lawler's nameplate, he realized that something had to change. What that something meant exactly, Hendricks wasn't sure. But one thing was certain: the absurd weight cuts, the living hell that saw Hendricks lose up to 40 pounds in less than a week, those had finally betrayed him, sapping Hendricks of his strength as he faded down the stretch of his December loss against Lawler.

"It was a thought process. It was," Hendricks admitted on Wednesday. "Did I want to change my lifestyle, or did I want to just move up to 185? 185 is a tough weight class. I'd be the shortest guy in there. I think I hit as hard as they do, I'm probably as strong as most of those guys in there. But I want to be champion."

Rather than abandon the welterweight division he once reigned over, Hendricks arrived at UFC 185's open workouts looking leaner and healthier than he has in years. His bulldog frame replaced by a trimmer sort, Hendricks said he weighed just 181 pounds -- a far cry from the 190+ he normally sports in the opening stages of fight week -- and the payoff was apparent from the outset, as Hendricks fielded an impromptu and extended Q&A with his hometown fans while putting the fruits of his labor to the mitts.

It was an electric energy rarely seen from Hendricks, whose fight week enthusiasm usually shades towards a ghostlier ilk rather than any kind of man happy to be there.

"I sort of pulled back and said, ‘Hey, if we're going to start pointing fingers at anybody, I want it to be on me,'" Hendricks said.

"I'm the guy that, when it's the offseason, I want to have fun, I want to get away. But I don't have that luxury. I only have so long I can fight for, right? Do I want to look back and say I lived my life fun, but I could've accomplished so much more in the three or four years, whatever I got left? Would I rather say, ‘hey, I got to where I want to be, I'm satisfied with that, I'll be comfortable with that?' No. I want to be the champion. I want to remain the champion. And I'd like to go out as being the champion.

"That's why I'm making this change and hopefully it works. I believe it's going to work. I feel like I'm back in college. I'm busting my butt everyday because I have something that I want. It got taken away from me, and I don't want that to happen again."

The scale will remain at the forefront of his discussion until Hendricks can prove that all his talk wasn't for naught. This he knows. But where he generally goes to sleep on Friday nights weighing anywhere from a bloated 198 to 200 pounds, this time around Hendricks wouldn't be surprised if he topped out at 185 pounds, and he certainly won't force the weight to flood back onto his body like he's done in the past.

That's ultimately why he accepted his UFC 185 match against Matt Brown in the first place, despite already sitting on a golden ticket for trilogy fight against Lawler. He'd have to wait until the summer to cash that ticket in -- meaning half-a-year of wondering whether he even could make the necessary changes to his lifestyle. But the three-month turnaround forced Hendricks' hand.

And besides, his job is to fight; not sit on the sidelines.

"UFC came to me and they said, ‘Well, you're about 10 weeks out, would you like to fight Matt Brown? You can wait for Robbie in July, or you can get another one?'" Hendricks said. "I'm sitting here going, well, if Rory MacDonald puts on a good performance or Hector Lombard knocks out Rory MacDonald, there could be an argument they steal it from me, right? Because I'm sitting on the shelf.

"If I fight and I get an impressive win, or I win in general, then they can't take it (away from me). So you've got to sit there and weigh out the options. Matt Brown is a tough dude. Robbie fought him to get back to me, so who am I different to get in there with somebody like him and hopefully win and get back to my belt?"

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