Johny Hendricks may have retired from mixed martial arts, but he could be a long way from being done with combat sports entirely.
A former UFC welterweight champion, Hendricks is slated to make his bare-knuckle boxing debut on Nov. 9 against one-time Bellator title challenger Brennan Ward at World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation’s inaugural event. It’s a brand new adventure for Hendricks, who announced his exit from mixed martial arts this past June following a 1-5 slump that ended his Octagon career. And at the age of 35, with a clean slate in front of him, Hendricks is looking at his bare-knuckle move as potentially much more than mere one-off.
“Man, you know what? I have a feeling I could do it for a while,” Hendricks said recently on The MMA Hour.
“My first coach ever in MMA, he was a bare-knuckle world champ in Thailand. ... He showed me a lot of techniques, how to strengthen your hand and all of that kind of stuff, how you can actually punish the body and where to hit on the arms, this and this, what to look for. So I’m sort of going back to that stage as well, where to hit on the arms, how to make sure that after the first round — let’s say it goes past the first round — that he can no longer use his right arm because it hurts too bad, or his left arm, because I keep punishing it the way [I want to with] some of the gameplans I have in my head already. Those things can help.”
Hendricks will kick things off as part of a Nov. 9 event that features a host of his fellow UFC veterans, from Chris Leben and Phil Baroni to Josh Neer and Isaac Vallie-Flagg. His first test will come against Ward, a 30-year-old longtime contender in Bellator’s middleweight division who announced his own retirement from mixed martial arts in early September.
“I don’t know a whole lot [about] him,” Hendricks said. “These next couple weeks are really — what I’m gonna start doing is I’m gonna start focusing, getting a gameplan together.
“I think what’s going to happen is he’s going to be looking to land that right hand, just as I’m looking to land my left hand. The only difference is that, with bare knuckle, you can’t throw as hard as you want to. It’s about accuracy, and that’s what really makes me excited about this, because I am a very accurate puncher. My accuracy is very well whenever it comes to seeing where the punch lands, where it needs to land, and sort of what comes next. … This is what [my coach Tony Cabello] has done forever. He grew up boxing.”
Hendricks was once revered as one of the foremost knockout artists in all of the UFC. His rise up the welterweight ranks was highlighted by a slew of brutal stoppages, including a pair of memorable one-punch knockouts of Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann. Those sort of stoppages dried up in his later days — one would have to look back to 2012 to find Hendricks’ last KO/TKO win — but “Bigg Rigg” believes his turn to bare-knuckle could help him reclaim his old power-punching ways.
“The reason why my knockout power left is, alright, so if you’re sitting here doing this and this and this, and you’re knocking everybody out — right? — let’s say you’re knocking everybody out, what are they going to start worrying about? Are they going to worry about my wrestling or are they going to worry about my left hand?” Hendricks said. “So everybody I started fighting, they would circle to their right and they would stay away from my left hand. But with MMA, you can’t just charge in there because there are four-ounce gloves. You’ve got to worry about knees, you’ve got to worry about kicks. There’s a lot that plays into that factor. Whereas, boxing, I can still use my power.
“Nowadays there’s so much footage, you’ve also got to think, alright, Robbie (Lawler) used to knock people out. He doesn’t do it anymore. Does that make sense? There’s a certain point where you hit hard competition day-in and day-out. You can’t win every one by knockout. And I think that’s what sort of pushed me, sort of hurt me in my sense, is that I didn’t fall back on my wrestling. If I’d have fallen back on my wrestling after I knocked out a couple people ... started making people fear my wrestling again, I think my knockouts would’ve been back, because then they would’ve been like, ‘Oh, well he might take me down, or he can knock me out. Which one would I rather get done? Would I rather get knocked out on the ground or would I rather get knocked out on my feet?’
“But I didn’t play it that way, and I should have. But that’s something that I’m also teaching my guys right now, is, don’t fall into that. If you get a knockout, don’t fall into that. Keep every tool at your disposal, and that’s really what I should’ve done.”
Hendricks said on The MMA Hour that he was excited by the new opportunity that awaited him. He said he grew up watching the exploits of boxers like Mike Tyson and he wanted to try something different after the rough run that ended his UFC career. But although things may have ended differently in MMA than he would’ve liked, Hendricks still accomplished more than most fighters who don the four-ounce gloves. He captured the UFC welterweight title in 2014 and very nearly dethroned legendary 170-pound champion Georges St-Pierre in a result that is still debated to this day.
But even despite everything he achieved, Hendricks said the one moment that stands out to him above all the rest in his Octagon career came all the way back in his 2009 UFC debut against Amir Sadollah, which Hendricks won via 29-second TKO.
“My fondest UFC moment was probably my very first one,” Hendricks said. “You’re walking in there and you sort of see, you know you’re in the best league, you know you’re doing this, you know you’re doing that, and you look around and everybody’s there, they can’t wait for the excitement of the fight. You step into the Octagon, you’re looking across and whenever you see that guy, you’re just like, ‘Man, this is it. I have to perform now.’
“Like, that first fight, the pressure was so high that it was hard to compete against it for the rest of my career, because you’ve got your shot. If you lose, you’re most likely out. If you win, you get to keep fighting. And that was sort of my defining moment for me, of, as soon as they said ‘fight,’ everything went away. It was weird. Like, nerves, everything — it just slowed down, and whenever it slowed down, the next thing you know you’re knocking him out and you’re going, ‘Wow, I need to do that more.’”