In the UFC, things are rarely simple these days. Fighter injury has created chaos at every turn, forcing entire cards to be reshuffled and divisional pictures to be slowed to a crawl.
It would be easy for fighters, especially surging contenders, to become frustrated, but Johny Hendricks doesn't allow himself to get wrapped up in things he can't control. Instead Hendricks plunges deeper into the grind, knowing the hard work of today will bring him closer to the ultimate goal of holding championship gold.
Becoming a UFC champion has been the one constant on his mind since he made the decision to become a professional fighter. With his upcoming fight with Martin Kampmann at UFC 154 set to decide the next contender to the crown, Hendricks has the opportunity to take one step closer to making his dream a reality.
“I believe a win over Kampmann gets me the title shot but I’m looking forward to proving it,” Hendricks told Bleacher Report. “I have to prove I want that belt. People always say if you think about becoming a champion too much it will cause you to overlook people. I disagree. I think about it every day. I’ve dreamed about it for the past four years or going back to when I started this.
“I didn’t think I’d be any good at MMA but I still dreamed that one day I could be a UFC champ. All that does is provide more fuel to the fire and make me push to become that much better. Going out there and winning the belt is the only thing that matters.”
The former Oklahoma State wrestler is no stranger to accolades. Hendricks won two national titles during his collegiate career and has parlayed his talent and work ethic into a solid start in MMA.
“Big Rig” has found success in 14 out of his first 15 fights. On the strength of those performances, he has solidified himself as a top contender in a revitalized welterweight division. Hendricks has steadily picked up momentum during his climb, but it was his two most recent victories over upper-tier staples Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck which have cemented Hendricks’s place amongst the divisional elite.
While Hendricks is proud of his achievements thus far, he’s on a mission to prove he’s the best welterweight in the world.
“Nothing is ever given to you and you have to earn everything,” Hendricks said. “That is the way I was raised. I want to go out there and earn it. That is what I’ve been doing this entire time. I’m trying to put myself in the position where I can earn that opportunity.
“The good Lord blessed me with a lot of things and the only thing I have to do is wake up and train. Knowing that is pretty amazing. I see plenty of people who still have to go out there and work a full-time job on the side of their fighting career. I’m ecstatic to be where I’m at in my career but I’m not satisfied. Nobody cares who you are until you get that belt.”
Following his win over Koscheck earlier this year, Hendricks believed he was going to be next in line. But due to the injury to champion Georges St. Pierre and the UFC instituting an interim title into the mix, the traffic atop the division came to a grinding halt. The situation ultimately pushed Hendricks to the sidelines where he was forced to wait for the action to resume.
“I think things stalled a bit in the division but I can’t blame Condit for the choice he made,” Hendricks said. “I was standing on the sidelines but when people started calling out Kampmann, I had to step up and say something. I believe I’m the number one contender outside the Interim belt and I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. I figured GSP would be back sooner but he wasn’t and things kind of turned into a crap shoot.”
When Hendricks received word he would be fighting Kampmann at UFC 154, everything began to fall into place. He could now see his road to the top, and mixing it up with a tough opponent the likes of Kampmann has Hendricks fired up.
“I’m looking forward to this fight with Kampmann,” Hendricks said. “He’s a tough opponent. I know the guy so I’m pretty excited to see how I do against someone I know and have trained with. That’s thrilling to me. For some reason I’ve always wanted to fight someone I know and see how I overcome those challenges.
“In the past, Kampmann’s opponents have overlooked him when he gets into the Octagon. They do very well against him in the first round but the first round doesn’t mean anything. You see it time and time again. He gets beat up a bit in the first round and his opponent will get over-confident. Next thing you know Kampmann is getting his hand raised. That’s one thing he does very well. No matter how the fight is going, he is always in the fight.
“Nothing excites me more than knowing the guy I’m facing is coming out there to fight. That is absolutely Kampmann’s mind set. My past couple fights have been that way. I know the guys I’m facing are going to bring the fight. That’s exciting to me. You know you are going to be in front of someone who really wants to fight you. It’s not always that way. Sometimes you get in with someone and you really don’t know if they want to fight you. When it happens that way it can quickly turn into a boring fight. I don’t have to worry about that with Kampmann because I know it’s going to be a great fight.”
A Hendricks victory at UFC 154 should put him in the position to be staring down the barrel of his long-awaited title shot. Several weeks ago the only factors in the equation were the 170-pound fighters involved, but now there is talk of a St. Pierre vs. Anderson Silva showdown if GSP gets past Condit. Hendricks certainly understands the appeal but doesn’t believe the weight class is by any means cleaned out.
“If the same guys who are at the top of the division now are the same guys St. Pierre has already fought; I can understand him venturing out,” Hendricks said. “Now there is a new wave of guys who have made it to the Top 5 and I believe if I beat Kampmann, GSP should have to stick around. He has never fought me before and it is an interesting matchup. I also understand the entertainment side of the sport and why people talk about super fights, but I really can’t worry about any of that.
“After my fight with Kampmann, maybe then I’ll start worrying about it. Right now that super-fight talk doesn’t mean anything to me because if I don’t win, then who cares?”
While Hendricks’ wrestling skills are matched by few in mixed martial arts, it has been the power in his hands which has made the difference as of late. In a division where the majority of the action takes place on the canvas, Hendricks has displayed one-shot put-away power. His big left hand is a force to be reckoned with and the power is on his side every time he steps into the cage.
“I do my power is a big advantage in this weight class,” Hendricks said. “Every fight I’m in I know I’m one punch away. No matter what the situation, I’m one punch away from finishing it. It could be the third round and my corner is telling me I have to knock this guy out; I know I don’t have to go out there and rush. I have to stay calm and focus on hitting someone as hard as I want to.
“You can’t over-think or be over-confident that you can’t be taken down. If you watch some of my fights I’ve been taken down. For example in the Koscheck fight, I shouldn’t have thrown that knee. I should have backed away and thrown an uppercut but I saw a window to throw the knee and he was able to get a take down off of it. Even though you think you are a better wrestler, all it takes sometimes is one take down and you could get finished on the ground.
“You can prepare all you want for a fight but as soon as the bell rings; everything changes. It all takes a different shape where everything you’ve worked on and done to prepare might change in an instant. You might do something a little different and throw your opponent off in some sense where he doesn’t move the way you anticipated. You have to go out there with a bunch of different game plans and just see what happens. You have to live for the moment, be present in the moment, and be ready to capitalize on whatever opportunities come your way.”
As Hendricks continues his journey through the sport, he makes sure to appreciate every minute of the ride. He takes the time to appreciate the fans because he knows it is the fans who make everything in his life possible. Hendricks approaches every interaction with new-found excitement. He believes it is the relationship with the UFC fanbase which will push the sport to greater heights.
“I think interacting with the fans is a big part of what makes the sport grow,” Hendricks said. “We don’t have to be these brutes people once believed we were. We don’t have to be those people to sell tickets. Nowadays you see a lot of guys fighting who have college educations. They are educated but they didn’t want to spend their lives sitting behind a desk. I have a college degree and I didn’t want to live in an office with a 9 to 5 job. I was young, knew I still wanted to compete and fighting was the path I chose. That is what I see is the biggest difference.
“Fans are starting to get to know the fighters and not just wanting to see brutal fights. Not only that, but the press is getting so big on it, you guys in the media are giving us the opportunity to show people who we are. People are getting to see us on a different level and not just as guys who go in a cage and beat people up.
“I have children and I want them to be able to look back on my life and know I was a nice guy. I want them to know their father was genuine and wasn’t afraid to go out of his way to help someone out. I live that way because I that’s what I want them to be. I want them to be humble and to do that I can’t be out here doing one thing and teaching them another. What good is it if they can look up the things I did and it was opposite of what I taught them?”
Outside of his impressive record and talents displayed in the cage, Hendricks has recently gained notoriety in another aspect. The welterweight contender has sported one of the most tremendous beards in recent memory. It is quickly becoming his calling card and fierce as it may be, Hendricks uses the beard to signal his start down the warpath towards Kampmann.
“The beard will be there on fight night,” Hendricks laughed. “As soon as I found out I was fighting Kampmann and started training, the beard started growing. I’ve been training for awhile but it’s difficult when you are in the gym but don’t know who you are preparing for. Now I know and the fun is about to start. The beard is growing and I can’t wait to showcase it.”