In this exclusive interview with MMA Nation Senior Editor Luke Thomas, UFC welterweight Johny Hendricks talks about reconnecting with coach John Smith and the Oklahoma State wrestling team as well as the desire to get back to wrestling more in his fights. This time, however, he doesn't want to be the villain. All he wants is to be the winner.
At Oklahoma State, Johny Hendricks was nearly unbeatable. The NCAA Division I wrestler won two national titles, three Big 12 titles and four All-American honors. Even in his senior year where he lost to Mark Perry in 2007 in the finals, he walked into that bout with a record of 56-0.
Hendricks is certainly accomplished in MMA and the UFC, but has yet to achieve that standout, elite status in the ultra-stacked UFC welterweight division. He's only suffered one loss, a surprising and tough defeat at the hands of Rick Story, but hasn't fulfilled the promise his NCAA wrestling career foretold.
At UFC 133, Hendricks will fight in his ninth fight under the Zuffa banner and seventh in the UFC, yet, is competing on the undercard. Worse, his opponent, Mike Pierce, is widely-regard among insiders as a bull capable of giving even the most elite welterweights difficulty, yet carries little to promotional name value. It's a test for Hendricks as a fighter and a potential disaster for him as box-office attraction.
But if you let Hendricks tell it, that's why things have changed for him. He no longer lives in Las Vegas. He's still with Team Takedown, but is closer to his Oklahoma State roots. He's also realized that despite all of his many wins, he believes he must get back to his wrestling, but with one caveat: he doesn't want to be the villain again. Hendricks claims he wants to make his mark through dominant victories over credible opposition, one at a time, until there's no one left to fight.
Johny Hendricks: I'm doing wonderful, how are you doing tonight?
Luke Thomas: I'm good, sorry about all the mix up we had in getting you here so I appreciate getting time out to speak with us tonight.
Johny Hendricks: No worries, morning after, it didn't really matter. Thank you for having me though.
Luke Thomas: No worries. Johny, let me ask you though. Before we get into your fight with Mike Pierce, which I think is a dangerous and very important fight in your career, talk to me to what extent - and if it hasn't had a big one then tell me it hasn't had a big one - to what extent has the UFC insurance policy impacted your life?
Johny Hendricks: I was on a business insurance type thing but now it's easier to get stuff checked out knowing that I don't have to worry about the co-pay or those kind of things. I don't have to worry about that I don't get injured at the workout facility. Those things are really huge. It's playing a huge factor right now because look at a lot of the fighters, they don't have that luxury and they're getting injured in training. That's the fight part. You don't get injured that much in the fight. It's leading up to the fight.
Luke Thomas: Do you get injured in MMA or more when you were training for wrestling?
Johny Hendricks: Probably wrestling because what we had to do when we were injured is tough it out. You had to wrestle every weekend and at Oklahoma State, we were always against some of the toughest opponents out there. One time I shot a broad head and split three fingers open and I still had to wrestle. I split three fingers open and still had to wrestle because we couldn't allow for me to be out of the line up. Here if you get hurt, you can try and take a couple days off to let it heal but if you can't and it happens within three weeks, you only get one shot every three or four months to prove you're worthy to be in the UFC. If you get injured and go out there and have a horrible performance and you get beat, who's to say you're still gonna be around to prove that was just a bad night?
Luke Thomas: Do you believe there is any - I don't have any quantitative evidence but I have a hunch - that the UFC's insurance, while a blessing for all the fighters, do you believe it is impacting fighters being more willing to withdraw from fights because they're doing much more inventorying of their own injuries?
Johny Hendricks: You know, I don't think so. What I think is that a lot of fighters are starting to train that much harder. Look at the UFC, you've got so many fighters. Look at the card I'm on, it's stacked. Everyone is known on that card and they've been around for a while. Here they are sitting here training their butts off. If it's a little bitty injury, I don't think that's gonna play any factor in it. I think now if you tear up your knee and you're like "man it's hard to walk", they might go in there and get it checked. They shouldn't fight on that. Or they dislocate their elbow and they're not gonna be healed 100% going into the fight. I think that's what it is. It's like I said before, if you lose a fight and you're not supposed to lose it, who's to say you'll be around for the next one?
Luke Thomas: We'll talk about Mike Pierce in just a minute but I want to talk to you about Rick Story. An interesting guy I think. A guy you went three rounds with. You have in all of the UFC and particularly in the Welterweight division some of the best wrestling credentials of any fighter: two time Division I National Wrestling champion in addition to a wide array of accolades. But that was a fight I thought he was able to win because he got takedowns when he needed them. And yet, Rick Story goes and fights a guy like Charlie Brenneman on admittedly short notice, who is not the kind of wrestler you are, and he is able to take him down at will. Tell me what is so different with wrestling for MMA that enables something like that to happen?
Johny Hendricks: Well, first off, me and Charlie Brenneman and Rick Story, Rick Story's a grinder. He's a guy who like's to stand in there, throw shots, take a couple, get you to the ground, and just wear on you. Charlie Brenneman is more of a guy who really wants to get a takedown. Rick Story's kind of in between. He can get the takedown but he also doesn't mind standing. Whenever I went into most of my fights, I had the mindset of getting my hand raised by TKO on the feet. That's what it was, what my mindset has been. After watching that fight and the success Rick Story has had, you gotta be a whole fighter. That's one thing that I'm trying to do after that loss to Rick Story. I was like "You know what? He does it all. He has good stand up and he does good takedowns." That's what I'm trying to integrate into my stand up is to also use my wrestling.
Luke Thomas: That's interesting. So you feel like you weren't using it as effectively as you could have in some of your more recent fights?
Johny Hendricks: I know I haven't. My first motto was to knock you out and pray to go that it happened. If it didn't happen then I didn't really care about the takedown, all I really wanted to do was really hit someone in the face and see what happened. That was my whole mindset going into every fight. I'm gonna punch you and hopefully all I gotta do is touch you, it doesn't even have to be in the right spot...if I get a clean shot, I know that they're gonna go down.
Luke Thomas: You're taking on a guy in Mike Pierce who is, I'm sure the casual fans didn't know who he is but I'm sure you did even before this fight. Mike Pierce is a very tough bastard. Gave Jon Fitch all that he could handle. Strong. Aggressive. Has some wrestling ability. Also is heavy handed. Would you agree this is, despite the fact that he may not have the promotional value of a Tito Ortiz or Brock Lesnar, this is a super dangerous fight for you, is it not?
Johny Hendricks: Oh yeah. You know everybody who steps into the cage, every time I step into the Octagon I know it's my toughest fight.
Luke Thomas: Yeah, but this ain't Amir Sodollah in fairness to Mike Pierce. I think that Mike Pierce is better than some of those other guys.
Johny Hendricks: Oh yeah, I don't disagree with you at all. You gotta look at two different factors. One, he is heavy handed and when he throws them he does try to lay you out with them. Two, he's gonna try and get you down to the ground. Those are his two main objectives. Whatever else happens in between that, it doesn't matter, that's what he wants to do. What he really showed that on the Jon Fitch fight is that even in the third round he can still come hard. So that's one thing that I've really been training for is just an all out 15 minute war because I know that he's tough, he can take a punch, and it's gonna be a grinding match.
Luke Thomas: Let me ask you about your Oklahoma State past. Certainly the fight with Pierce is interesting but one thing that folks who may not realize your background...you're certainly very accomplished, they may know that...but you were something of a villain. How would you characterize who you were at Oklahoma State and what you meant to rival wrestling teams. Were you a villain?
Johny Hendricks: Well yeah. He's the thing. They did see me as a villain. What I did was sell myself as someone who wanted to go out there. Whenever I wrestled, you have 10 matches in college and I wanted to make sure that whenever I left, they were talking about my match and not the other nine. That was my whole mindset. Whoever they put in front of me, I wanted to show my dominance and show that I was meant to be there. If they want to walk away saying "Johny's this" or "Johny's that" that means that I'm sticking in their minds. It came off as a little cocky and a villain and all that other stuff. I never did any interviews so it is what it is.
Luke Thomas: Would you like to recapture that in MMA?
Johny Hendricks: Eh, no because I'm really not that. Don't get me wrong, whenever it's fight time I'm a totally different person. Whenever I have somebody set in front of me that's who I have to defeat no matter what. Whatever it takes to get my hand raised, that's the way I'm gonna do it. That's the way I was in wrestling. Am I gonna sit here and say that these guys are douche bags? No, because a lot of the guys that I've met - guys like Rick Story, T.J. Grant - a lot of the guys I've fought are really nice guys. That's talking to them right after our fight. I don't want to sit here and say "oh that guy's a prick. He beat me. Blah Blah blah." No, he was the better fighter that night and that's how I look at it.
Luke Thomas: Jonny, let's talk about some of the other fights on this card. I'm curious to hear what you think. Two guys with a wrestling back ground. Who do you like in the main event Ortiz vs. Evans? What's your pick?
Johny Hendricks: Tito's a tough fighter. Rashad Evans is quick. He's quick and he's got quick hands and he's got heavy hands. Tito is more of a guy to try and take you down and lay some heavy ground and pound. I just don't think he'll be able to get Rashad down. That's the only reason why I won't go with Tito. If Tito can somehow get him to the ground which, anything can happen in MMA then Tito can win the fight. But I think that Rashad's gonna play the distance game, moving in and out, throwing a couple punches, bounce in and out. That's how the fight's gonna go.
Luke Thomas: I'm a little all over the place here because I definitely want to ask you this, to what extent are you still involved with Oklahoma State wrestling team? I guess what I'm more interested beyond that is your opinions on Jordan Oliver and if you watched him compete. Is he a guy who has a future after college in maybe international wrestling or MMA?
Johny Hendricks: Oliver, he's a tough dude. He's actually a really nice guy. I'm starting to get reconnected with all the guys because I live closer now so I'm starting talk to them and talk to coach [John] Smith. All the former Oklahoma State wrestlers that I knew and I go up there and hangout with them sometimes. Jordan, he is a tough dude. He's got a great mentality for it and he's got the great skill set for it. So I do see him going for the Olympics.
Luke Thomas: To what extent is there MMA interest on the Oklahoma State wrestling team?
Johny Hendricks: John Smith isn't real big on MMA. The guys that he recruits, he wants guys that are going to be trying out for the Olympics and sticking around to help coach. But he's starting to warm up to MMA because like I said, I'm starting to go around there more and talk to him and reconnect with everybody. That's what I wanted to do. Perfect example, whenever I start getting to these higher up guys, they're great wrestlers. That's what I have to resharpen because I got away from it for so long. That's why I want to keep that good relationship so I could maybe steal a couple of those guys or go up there and train with them.
Luke Thomas: What is your relationship with Team Takedown at this moment?
Johny Hendricks: It's great. Jake just had a fight a couple days ago, he beat Horwich. It's great. It's nice to have people that are going through training camps and also are there for you as well. They're still gonna come back and help me train for my upcoming fight. That's sort of what helps build a team and helps build a better fighter.
Luke Thomas: But you're not in Las Vegas at Cobra Kai anymore, are you?
Johny Hendricks: No, we're not related to Cobra Kai anymore. Marc sorta gave that up whenever he came over here to Dallas and just started training us. Whenever we bring in people, he works with them as well.
Luke Thomas: Okay, I hadn't heard an update about how things were, I'm glad I got the chance to get one.
Johny Hendricks: It's great, love Texas. Love the people. It's just hard to be in Vegas.
Luke Thomas: Yeah, Vegas sucks. It's a terrible city.
Johny Hendricks: It's a fun town to visit. You got three days? I could tell you some fun places to go. To live? No.
Luke Thomas: I think 72 hours is like a perfect time for Vegas. After that it's hard to get the stink off. Johnny Hendricks thank you very much and best of luck to you.