UFC 167: Johny Hendricks Ready to Capitalize on the Opportunity of a Lifetime

Duane FinleyContributor INovember 11, 2013

Nov 17, 2012; Montreal, QC, Canada;  Johny Hendricks reacts after knocking out Martin Kampmann (not pictured) during first round action of their Welterweight bout at UFC 154 at the Bell Centre.  Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

There is a genuine enthusiasm pulsing through Johny Hendricks.

As a reporter who has covered the sport of mixed martial arts closely for the past several years, working with fighters specifically, seeing an athlete carry excitement is certainly nothing new.

Whether it is the next fight, their increasingly visible profile, or something new they've added in their preparation, a fighter being revved up over the moving parts of their career is a pleasant side effect of the business. 

In this regard, Hendricks is no different from his peers in the MMA world. But when it comes to the fashion in which that enthusiasm is carried, "Bigg Rigg" is in a league of his own.

The 30-year-old has a wide-eyed, thrill-of-the-moment essence to him that tells you he's simply happy to be here—wherever "here" may be. At present, "here" is the doorstep to a long-awaited title shot against welterweight king Georges St-Pierre that will go down this Saturday night at UFC 167 in Las Vegas.

While a championship fight against one of the most dominant titleholders in UFC history and the flashing lights, pomp and circumstance that come with such an event are certainly enough to put a charge in anyone, these elements are just another reason for Hendricks' elation to continue.

Make no mistake about it, his upcoming bout with GSP is the biggest moment of his athletic career by a long shot.

In the same turn, the fight is one more entry atop a pile of reasons the Oklahoma native  and Texas resident has to be happy these days. His visibility as an athlete is at an all-time high, and because of it, he's landing big sponsorship deals with companies like Reebok. These windows come and go, but at this moment in time, life is good for Mr. Hendricks.

Dec 30, 2011; Las Vegas, NV, USA; UFC fighter Johny Hendricks (right) celebrates after defeating Jon Fitch during a welterweight bout at UFC 141 at the MGM Grand Garden event center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

"You have to enjoy it," Hendricks told Bleacher Report. "You have to enjoy the ride. You can't let it go to your head and that is really how I've been approaching this. You have to have fun, because you don't know how often it's going to come around. Enjoy the moment and live it up.

"This means everything to me. It seems like a long road and one that didn't seem like it was ever going to come to this point. All of a sudden, here we are and I'm one fight away from being able to get that title. That means everything to me because everything I've wanted to try to accomplish is right here.

"I've earned this," he added. "I could have taken the easy road and not fought—let Georges do what he did. But I feel like the fans want to see me fight and that's my job. My job is to fight and push forward the best I can. Taking that approach also helped me learn and I'm still developing. Most of these guys I'm facing have 30-40 fights. I have 16 and I'm still learning and trying to understand what kind of fighter I can be."

With that said, on Saturday night, the goal Hendricks has been doggedly chasing for the past two years will come front and center. He will step into the Octagon to take his shot at toppling the most dominant welterweight to ever compete in the sport and will have 25 minutes to try to break one of the most methodical fighters in UFC history.

Where the challenge in itself is daunting, this is where Hendricks' zest is truly unique. He is absolutely pumped to face St-Pierre and all the life-changing rewards that would come with a victory are beyond appealing. But it is the perspective in which he sees the moment that is absolutely refreshing.

For Johny Hendricks, it's all about finding out if he has what it takes. He truly wants to know if he's as good as he believes he is and is willing to put himself through the grinder to find those answers.

Some people take comfort in speculation. Hendricks is not one of them.

His self-confidence has been validated every step of the way through his brief time in MMA. Six years and 16 fights under his belt and already he's risen to the top of the sport. He's claimed elite-level status in one of the most competitive divisions under the UFC banner, and he's done it one thunderous step at a time.

During the six-fight winning streak that delivered him to title contention, he's solidified himself as one of the most devastating strikers in the current MMA era.

His left hand spells destruction—a bolt of lightning, cold, dark destruction—and he's built a solid reputation off the magic it has produced. Being a two-time NCAA Division I champion wrestler and four-time All-American made it a given that he would use that pedigree to find success inside the cage, but the fact that he's tucked it away and decided to make his money on his feet is impressive in its own right.

Every new challenge is a fresh opportunity to put his evolution to the test, and that is what has him excited. 

"Every fight is a chance for me to find out," Hendricks said. "This fight has a little more on the line, but I'm truly excited. I can't wait. You don't know what's going to happen, and let's get in there and find out. That is pretty much the way I've been living and it's got me here. The more you do something, sometimes you tend to change. I don't want to change. I want to make sure whatever got me here keeps me here.

"What I do in a fight is adapt. Moment by moment, second by second, I adapt to what is happening in there. One thing I've learned is if you have a game plan...game plans can fall to crap really quickly. I know what his game plan is going to be realistically. He's going to throw a lot of jabs. He's going to throw a lot of check-hooks to keep me at bay. And he's going to try to take me down a lot. That's what he wants. As for me, I don't know what I want.

"I don't go in there with a set game plan or saying I'm going to take him down or throw certain strikes," he added. "I'm starting to blend myself as a fighter that has become sort of unpredictable, and that is what I think is going to win me this fight."

While Hendricks hasn't spent nearly the time the champion has logged competing on the sport's biggest stage, he isn't necessarily lacking in big-moment experience. In 2005 and 2006, the Team Takedown fighter proved to be the top collegiate wrestler in the nation at 165 pounds, as he brought back-to-back titles home to Oklahoma State.

Though striving to reach the top of the collegiate wrestling mountain has extreme differences from the journey he's currently on, the battle to win those championships provided tools he will carry into the battle ahead.

The prizes at the end of those roads may carry different face value, but what they represent to Hendricks is a greatness he's been chasing for as long as he can remember.

"To me, it's big, but they are very different," Hendricks said. "This fight can change my children's futures. This fight has the potential to allow me to provide everything I want to provide for my kids in their lives. Wrestling was all for pride. That's it. You didn't have a check or that belt waiting in front of you. All you had was the will and desire to be the best. That is something that has helped me in this sport and helped me get to where I'm at, because I remember what it's like to do these things. I remember what it is like to chase those goals.

"That being said, now I know it's my turn and I have to grab it."


Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.