Johny Hendricks: The Road Less Traveled

A lifelong wrestler, Johny Hendricks never considered trying to be a mixed martial artist. Much less making a career of it. For someone who never considered being an MMA fighter until his mid-20s, Hendricks is pretty darn good at it.

After concluding a stellar wrestling career at Oklahoma State that included back-to-back NCAA championships in the 165-pound weight class and a cumulative record of 103-12, Hendricks found himself at a bit of a crossroads. Roughly 18 months after his final collegiate wrestling match, in late September of 2007, Hendricks made his MMA debut—going directly to the professional ranks rather than take any amateur fights.

Fast-forward seven years, and Hendricks is one of the biggest stars in the entire sport of MMA. He won the UFC World Title in the welterweight division on March 15, and with a 16-2 record, the Edmond, Oklahoma, product known as “Bigg Rigg” in the world of MMA is considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

“I never thought I'd be a fighter. It just sort of happened to fall into my lap,” Hendricks told Go Pokes during an exclusive telephone interview. “After my senior year, I didn't know if I wanted to try to go to the Olympics or what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My management group, they called me and said hey, would you like to be a fighter? … I guess it was another way for me to compete. And also, being able to compete without having to quit wrestling.”

The way Hendricks saw it, he could give MMA a try and, if it didn't work out or he didn't like it, he always could go back to wrestling and start preparing to make the United States team for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Hendricks didn't just exist in MMA; he thrived. He reeled off nine consecutive wins to begin his pro career, earning a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the premier MMA promotion in the world. Hendricks has a 16-2 record, with both losses coming by decision. He's yet to be finished—meaning he's never been knocked out or submitted.

For Hendricks, defeating Robbie Lawler by decision at UFC 171 to win the vacant title obviously was quite a feat.

How did it compare to those national titles at Oklahoma State?

“They're both special,” Hendricks said. “The UFC thing is special because I went and did it in such a short amount of time.”

Whereas, Hendricks had been wrestling since he was a small child, making an NCAA title more of a lifelong goal.

Hendricks is the second UFC champion to come out of the Oklahoma State wrestling room; the other is Randy Couture, one of the pioneers of MMA. This exclusive club of UFC champs could add a third member on January 3, when Daniel Cormier challenges UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones in the main event of UFC 182.

As for Hendricks, his first defense of the welterweight title will come December 6, when he rematches against Robbie Lawler in the headline bout at UFC 181.

To Hendricks, the success of himself and his fellow OSU wrestlers in MMA—a who's who of MMA that includes “King Mo” Muhammad Lawal, Don Frye and the Rosholt brothers, Jake and Jared--is awe-inspiring.

“It sort of says how well Coach [John] Smith teaches that mental and that physical toughness that they need to succeed, other than just in wrestling,” Hendricks said. “Wrestling, it's a tough life. It's a hard life. But it shows people how to push themselves. He does a great job of managing how to push myself, to know my body and how to make it better. Knowing your body is so key to so many different sports. Wrestling is one of the few things that allows you to do that. If you get injured or something happens where you have to take a little bit of time off, you know what you can train through and what you can't train through.”

Wrestling—specifically, Oklahoma State wrestling—remains a key component of Hendricks' training regimen. He said he returns to Stillwater a handful of times during every fight camp, going against the current crew of Cowboy grapplers to help maintain his skills on the mat.

“It's hard to beat wrestling as a cardio base, and not only that, it's good to keep yourself grounded,” the champion said. “Between my wife and my friends and wrestling, you don't have a chance to let your head get big. You go back and start wrestling kids or those young men that are 20, 22 years old, they want a piece of you. You're the fighter, you're the national champion. You've got to go in there and work hard and grind. That's all I've known pretty much my whole life.”

Wrestling is considered a popular base for an MMA fighter—many individuals have made the transition from the mat to the cage—but Hendricks thinks only the elite of the elite wrestlers are prepared to make the transition to mixed martial arts. To him, that means finishing in the top eight in the NCAA tournament.

“The NCAA is such a hard tournament, that if you can get through that and you're an All-American or you become a national champ, you're going to have to overcome a lot of adversity. Just like in MMA. You get rocked. You break a hand. There's so many things that happen. How do you overcome it?”

Hendricks made a steady rise through the ranks of contention in the UFC's welterweight (170-pound) division, losing a controversial majority decision to champion Georges St. Pierre in the fall of 2013. Many onlookers, pundits and fight fans felt that Hendricks had defeated the champion—especially when considering that Hendricks did much more visible damage to his foe than the other way around.

St. Pierre later vacated the title, and Hendricks defeated Robbie Lawler on March 15 to become the new champion.

Hendricks insisted that winning the belt hasn't changed his life very much. He was already rather established as one of the more recognizable fighters on the UFC roster, picking up many fans with his performance against GSP. His first title defense will have to wait at least a few more months. Hendricks took the title fight with a torn bicep and is still recovering from surgery. Although he already has resumed regular training, with the current schedule of UFC pay-per-view events he's not expected back until February or March of 2015, at which point he's slated to defend against Lawler in a rematch.

“The last two years of my life, I started getting on everybody's radar and I started having fans come around,” he observed. “I started having fans through this. Fans wanting pictures with you, autographs. That was fun, and that's something that I learned, too. Embrace that, enjoy that. Now that I'm champion, it's pretty much the same.

“Don't get me wrong, you have to do a little bit more, meaning interviews and stuff like that. But again, it boils down to how you want to look at it. How you want to roll with it. What I've learned is, enjoy the moment, because one day, people aren't going to want to talk to you. One day, people don’t care what you're doing with the rest of your life. Enjoy it as it's here and give it all you've got. That way when it does disappear, you don't look back and say, 'what did I miss?'”

Maximizing an opportunity is a message Hendricks tries to pass along to the current Oklahoma State wrestlers every time he returns to Stillwater.

“Hopefully I can show them a good path. Go get you a national title. Go get that college degree,” said Hendricks, who graduated with a degree in education. “No matter what you do in life, that college education means everything. And, that's something that no one can take away from you. Fighting, things happen and you can't fight anymore. Things happen and you can't wrestle anymore. But you can always get a job with a degree.”

The OSU campus remains a special place for Hendricks. Not only was it the wellspring of some of his greatest feats in athletics—UFC hardware notwithstanding—those visits back to his old college town keep those memories fresh.

“One thing that I tell everybody still today, is what made our team so good is that we did everything together. We went out together. We cut weight together. We were around each other almost year round, and those are some of my greatest memories of being around the guys,” Hendricks said. “I still love going to wrestling reunions and going to Oklahoma State.

“I could go on and on and on. I loved Stillwater. Stillwater was a great place for me and I hold it high in regards of what kind of person it helped me become.”

NOTE: THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE WINTER 2014 ISSUE OF GOPOKES MAGAZINE

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