(Destroys some of the UFC’s toughest welterweight contenders; still afraid of spiders. / Photo via Esther Lin of MMA Fighting)
At the end of 2011, UFC Magazine (now known as UFC 360) released their Complete Fighter and Event Guide for 2012, highlighting who they thought were the movers and shakers in each division. Surprisingly absent from the list was welterweight wrestler-turned-knockout-specialist Johny Hendricks. Fast forward a year and he’s next in line to face Georges St. Pierre for the gold. After his 46-second KO of Martin Kampmann at UFC 154, Hendricks’ emergence as a legitimate threat to and rise to the top of the 170lb. division is undeniable.
Although this past year has seen the Oklahoma native’s stock price triple — thanks in large part to his powerful left hand — he was anything but an overnight success story. To hear Hendricks’ diehard supporters tell it, he’s always been this good; we’re just now noticing it. One quick Google search is all it takes to confirm; the two-time NCAA Division I National Champion (2005, 2006) has been just as dominant in the cage as he was on the mats, though he no longer seems to be interested in playing the bad guy.
Starting his professional MMA career in 2007, Hendricks only competed on regional cards in Oklahoma at first, racking up a 3-0 record with all wins by stoppage. That was until he signed a multi-fight deal with the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting where he continued his winning streak against Justin Haskins by TKO in December 2008. Three months later at WEC 39, Hendricks was featured in the last welterweight bout in company history, defeating Alex Serdyukov in a Fight of the Night performance. After Reed Harris and company announced their intentions to focus solely on the lighter weight classes, Johny Hendricks was in need of a new home. Although his fights in the blue cage were few, they were the perfect appetizer for the next stage of his slow-cooking career.
It wasn’t long before the UFC came calling, looking for a relatively unknown prospect to throw in against Amir Sadollah at UFC 101. If they were hoping to bolster The Ultimate Fighter season 7 winner’s record with an easy win, they were in for a rude awakening. In less time than it takes to nuke a Hot Pocket, the OSU graduate had improved his undefeated record to 6-0 after punching Sadollah until the ref pulled him off.
The Team Takedown product went on to win his next three fights, most notably TKO-ing Charlie Brenneman in the second round. Now at a perfect nine wins and zero losses, Hendricks’ would face his toughest challenge to date, Rick “The Horror” Story. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it what you will, but no one can remain undefeated forever. Story took home the unanimous decision victory at the TUF 12 Finale, serving the four-time All-American his first defeat in the cage.
They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but they don’t know what it’s like to lose a fight in front of thousands in attendance and millions watching at home on live TV. That’s the sort of thing that sticks with a guy, regardless of where it happened. The sour aftertaste must have been a fearsome motivator, considering the five-fight win streak and three Knockout of the Night bonuses the welterweight has racked up in the wake of the solitary blemish on his record.
Since that UFC publication hit newsstands, “Bigg Rigg” did what BJ Penn and Georges St. Pierre could not — finish Jon Fitch. It took only twelve seconds for the southpaw to stamp his trademark on the fight and turn off the lights with a left straight. A full training camp later, perennial contender Josh Koscheck showed up to derail Hendricks’ hype train — one that was steadily gaining steam. Promoters will tell you that styles make fights and in this case, it almost bought another mark in the ‘L’ column.
The judges scored the bout 29-28, 29-28, 28-29. Luckily for our hero, two of the judges gave Hendricks the nod thus furthering his win streak. That’s not to say, however, that the fight couldn’t just as easily have went the other way. Both Hendricks and Koscheck had moments of dominance. The momentum shifted back and forth throughout the duration; as soon as one fighter appeared to have the upper hand, the holes in his game were exploited only to have the same thing done to him. In the end, it was Kos who went home upset.
It’s fights like this that make writers everywhere thankful they’re not judges.
Speaking of judges, Hendricks gave them the night off over the weekend in Montreal. In what many considered to be a title-eliminator, the twenty-nine year old utilized his best-in-class left hand to quickly dispatch Martin Kampmann, effectually declaring himself the number one contender to GSP’s welterweight championship. If a 46-second knockout isn’t a compelling enough argument in support of that, I don’t know what is.
Looking back on the past 12 months, it is clear that Johny Hendricks is not only a highly-skilled fighter with an elite wrestling pedigree worthy of gracing the pages of UFC 360′s 2013 power list, but he’s also the most qualified, well deserving challenger for the welterweight crown. But that doesn’t mean he’s who I want to face GSP next.