If anything has changed for Johny Hendricks since he became the UFC welterweight champion in March, it's that dang UFC championship belt.
This seems obvious, so let's clarify: remembering the belt is the problem.
Hendricks is used to hopping in his massive Ford F-650 truck and driving places, whether it's to the gym or personal appearances or Rudy's, a gas station that doubles as a barbecue joint. Nowadays, though, people want to see the belt. They want a picture with the champ, and they want to hold the belt, and so Hendricks has to try to remember to take the belt everywhere he goes.
This is easier said than done. He has forgotten the belt at home. There are occasions when Hendricks will jump in the truck and drive halfway to his destination, only to realize he left the belt at home. So the UFC welterweight champion will turn the truck around (easier said than done with a truck of this size), drive back home and retrieve his precious hardware.
Hendricks is recognized more when he goes out in public these days. He's always had a certain level of fame, but being a UFC champion in MMA-starved Texas means more attention, whether you want it or not. Hendricks, who was born in Oklahoma but fits right in with Texans, doesn't mind it one bit.
In fact, he welcomes it.
"It's nice that they want to approach me. I want people to come talk to me, because it’s nice to get that recognition," Hendricks says. "What’s funny is that people recognize you, and then other people come up and go, 'should I know you?' I'll ask them if they watch MMA, and they say no, so I'll tell them 'you probably shouldn't know me, then.' But then they'll start talking to me anyway."
Hendricks has been on the shelf since his title win over Robbie Lawler, and he'll likely remain there until the end of the year, when he'll face the winner of next week's UFC on Fox main event between Lawler and Matt Brown. In the meantime, Hendricks has kept up a busy promotional schedule for the UFC, which means little downtime to enjoy the many fine things Texas has to offer, like the aforementioned barbecue or Mexican food.
"Mexican food is probably my biggest downfall," he says. "Chips and salsa. If they have spicy red salsa and chips? It’s all over."
Hendricks is a large welterweight. It is easy to imagine him moving up to middleweight at some point, and he says that one of his major career goals is to move up and challenge himself against the bigger fighters that middleweight has to offer.
"When I think the time is right, that’s when I want to go after my second goal at middleweight," he says.
But first, there is welterweight, where Hendricks hopes to turn back a growing list of challengers that includes Brown, Lawler, Rory MacDonald, Tyron Woodley and more. After spending time as the man chasing Georges St-Pierre, Hendricks has comfortably settled into a role as the man everyone is chasing. It is a position he says he's familiar with because of his days as a top collegiate wrestler at Oklahoma State.
"In college, I was the guy being chased, so it feels normal and it feels good. That’s where I want to be. People have to look at my game and figure out how to beat me," Hendricks says. "That’s what makes me excited. Doing those things keeps me going."
One man who won't be chasing Hendricks anytime soon is St-Pierre. The dominant former champion handed his belt to the UFC and walked away, citing the need for a break. He now seems comfortable on the sidelines, at peace with himself in a way he never allowed himself to be during his fighting career.
Hendricks came agonizingly close to dethroning St-Pierre in 2013; many onlookers believed he was robbed of the championship that night. Many fighters would want a second chance to right the wrong, but Hendricks says he's fine if St-Pierre never returns.
"Georges did some great things for the division. You can’t take anything away from him," he says. "But if my legacy comes to an end and he never comes back, I’d be perfectly fine with that. Because I’m not trying to crush his legacy. I'm trying to build my own. If he’s involved, awesome. If not, that's awesome, too."
Hendricks will watch intently when Lawler and Brown face off in San Jose next Saturday. He has his own history with Lawler, and he knows how dangerous the longtime veteran can be, even when he is seemingly down on his luck.
"You can’t count Robbie out of any fight. Even in my fight with him, he could have possibly done something to finish me. Even though I crushed him the first two rounds, he came back strong. But then I was able to get the takedown to get the win in the fifth," he says.
"The same thing I’ve seen, he’s done that multiple times," Hendricks continues. "You’re like, 'holy cow.' He might be losing a round, and then boom! It's over."
But Brown, riding a prodigious seven-fight win streak, remains a dangerous opponent, especially when he is facing long odds. In May, Brown was in trouble early against Erick Silva but rebounded to secure the TKO win in the third. Hendricks says that the key for Brown lies in a refusal to be drawn into Lawler's game.
"Matt has to keep his distance. He has to use kicks and punches from the outside range. He has to fight his own fight. But Robbie gets guys to fight. It could be quick night for Matt. Both have a chance to win."
No matter who wins, Hendricks will be watching and waiting, biding his time for a return to the Octagon.
And you can bet your last dollar he'll remember to bring the belt with him when he steps back in the cage.
Quotes obtained firsthand.
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