When the final second ticked off the clock in the main event of UFC 167, Johny Hendricks felt his heart start pounding. In his mind, he had just accomplished what few believed he could: defeat the long-reigning welterweight king Georges St-Pierre.
It was that strange ethereal moment in an athlete's life when a dream he had chased and sacrificed for started to materialize. As Hendricks waited for the official announcement, he stood wide-eyed and anxious. He was ready for those 12 pounds of gold to be strapped around his waist and his time as the UFC's welterweight champion to begin.
But that's not how it played out, and the championship belt has been on his mind ever since.
To much debate and commotion, St-Pierre took the split-decision victory on the judges' scorecards. The former two-time national champion wrestler from Oklahoma State University—despite shock and disbelief—has been forced to accept that he came up short in the biggest opportunity of his career. While his performance on Nov. 16 was considered by many to be enough to dethrone the champion, two of the judges gave the fight to St. Pierre, and that was all it took for a loss—only the second of Hendricks' career.
And that is the definitive element of the situation. Hendricks can believe he won the fight all he wants, and swarms of fans can agree with him, but he still had to exit the Octagon in Las Vegas without the welterweight title.
That has him fired up.
"After the fight it never felt like a loss," Hendricks told Bleacher Report. "I know that it was a loss, and now I'm 15-2, which sucks, but usually after certain things you sort of know what you can do to make it better. You have big things to improve on. This one, we are going to improve on some things going forward, but realistically there aren't a lot of things we could have done differently.
"I spoke with Marc Laimon today about the things we are going to change going into this next fight, but there isn't too much we can look at the last fight and say we could have done differently. Everybody is human, and everybody has their own thoughts. You just have to live with them, and what we've focused on isn't the negative, but the things we can make positive. We look at what we can take out of that situation that will make our camp that much better. That is what we are focusing on."
While setbacks in a high-pressure moment can force some athletes into a state of doubt, Hendricks is a gamer through and through. All he wants is that welterweight strap, and he's determined to do whatever it takes to get it.
With St-Pierre throwing the immediate rematch and the trajectory of the 170-pound crown into limbo with the uncertainty of his career in the aftermath of the fight, "Bigg Rigg" could have endured a long waiting period until things shook out.
Fortunately for the Team TakeDown staple, St-Pierre's decision to vacate the title came quickly, and now Hendricks can set about moving onto the next step. On the heels of the pound-for-pound great's announcement that he would be stepping away from the fight game indefinitely, UFC president Dana White revealed that Hendricks would face fellow heavy-handed slugger Robbie Lawler for the vacant welterweight title at UFC 171 on March 15 in Dallas.
He was on a family vacation at Disney World when everything was set in motion, and the "happiest place on Earth" took on a new meaning for the bearded powerhouse. While another title shot is an opportunity for Hendricks to realize his dream of being a champion, the Texas venue is the icing on the cake.
"Disney World was tough because you do a lot of walking, but it was worth it," Hendricks said. "To see the smiles on the faces of my kids and the memories that we made makes it all worth it. That means everything. To see the smiles on the faces of my two oldest girls Abri and Adli when they saw the Magic Kingdom; I wouldn't change anything in the world for that.
"I was very stoked when I was told about the fight. It's pretty amazing that Zuffa and Mr. White are giving me another shot at it. It's very humbling, and I'm not going to let this one slip by. There are some things we could change on the last one, but we are going to do everything in our power to make sure they say my name at the end of this fight. And to know that it's in Dallas, I'm super-stoked about that. It's great to be able to fight in Dallas, but to be the main event for a fight card in Dallas is an honor in itself.
"I was very relieved it all moved quickly," he added in regard to St-Pierre's decision. "I'm very thankful that GSP came back quickly because he could have taken two months to do this and come up with his decision. But he did it quickly, and now we can move forward. I'm very grateful for that."
With the title fight now set for UFC 171, Lawler will become the recipient of Hendricks' focus for the next three months. The former Elite XC champion put on one of the year's best runs, as the resurgent veteran notched three impressive victories in 2013—all against gritty competition.
The American Top Team product knocked out Josh Koscheck in his long-awaited return to the Octagon at UFC 157 in February and then crumbled journeyman Bobby Voelker at UFC on Fox 8 in July. While those wins built a buzz around the Iowa-based fighter, it was his victory over highly touted prospect-turned-contender Rory MacDonald at UFC 167 that put him on the doorstep of a title shot.
While Hendricks and Lawler possess numerous strengths in their respective games, the matchup in Dallas will feature two of the most prolific power punchers to ever compete in the welterweight division.
"I'm trying to think, but I really don't know," Hendricks said. "I see myself as a power puncher, but for some reason I can never sell myself that I'm one of the elite. Does that make sense? I'll downplay myself before I compliment myself. I know [Lawler] is very talented. I know he has some power in his hands, and that's what makes this fight exciting. Who is going to touch who and who is going to counter the other's power? That's what we have figure out. I'm happy to have coaches I have on my side, and they are already figuring out great ways we can win this fight. And we'll move forward from there.
"I'm hungry for every fight I go into. Every fight I go in thinking I'm 0-0 and I'm fighting for my livelihood. We are very blessed to be in the organization like the UFC. I want to make sure I do everything I can and lay it all on the line in each fight—not only to make the fans happy—but to make sure the Fertitta brothers and Mr. White are happy with me. That's my goal. If I can keep everybody happy, I'm doing my job. Not only is my job to put on a good show, but to win fights in the process. That's what I strive for.
"I can't wait for this fight," he added. "I'm super-excited. I just start laughing and smiling when I think about fighting in Texas. And it's even better because it will be for a belt. I'm super-appreciative and very excited to have this opportunity."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.