Year of the Beard: UFC 141's Johny Hendricks wants to push Jon Fitch to the limit

Photo of UFC 141's Johny Hendricks by Scott Peterson via MMA Weekly.

UFC welterweight Johny Hendricks has a huge opportunity in front of him to close out 2011 with a bang.

It's an opportunity that 15 other men have had before inside the Octagon, but only one (Georges St. Pierre) has ever successfully accomplished: Defeating Jon Fitch.

The Team Takedown fighter has had a strong year, destroying T.J. Waldburger in little more than 90 seconds before earning a decision against the always-game Mike Pierce. He was in a similar situation more than one year ago against Rick Story, fighting on the main card of The Ultimate Fighter 12 (TUF) Finale where he came up short.

And it's been eating at him ever since.

He's put in the time and made the necessary changes to hopefully enter the elite tier of UFC welterweights. If he can pull off the upset over Fitch, who's coming off a 10-month layoff because of a shoulder injury, he will explode into the proverbial "mix" alongside the likes of Jake Ellenberger, Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz.

But first thing's first, he's got to defeat Jon Fitch on Friday night (December 30, 2011) on the main card of UFC 141. Hendricks was recently a guest on Bloody Elbow Radio, talking about just that. He also discussed bringing in Ben Saunders to get inside information, raising his intensity and how changes in his diet could affect his performance.

Check it out:

Matt Bishop: You're fighting Jon Fitch at UFC 141 on Friday night. Would you say this is the biggest fight of your career?

Johny Hendricks: Oh yeah. It's a huge fight right now. This can make my career, you know what I'm saying? That's what it's all about when you get opportunities like this. How am I gonna handle it? Am I gonna fold or am I gonna come out? That's what I like more than anything, that kind of pressure because, let's face it, Jon Fitch, we know how he's gonna fight and we know what he's gonna do. Did I do everything I can to prevent that and did I come up with a good enough gameplan to stop him? That's what's fun about it.

Matt Bishop: When you got the call from the UFC and they said, "Hey, we've got Jon Fitch for you next." Were you expecting to get a bigger fight like that? Were you surprised at all by it?

Johny Hendricks: No, I was hoping. I was praying that I got somebody like that because how else do you get to your end goals? You don't keep staying on the undercard. Sometimes you have to make that jump and whenever you do make that jump, you've got to make the best of it and whenever they said, "Jon Fitch," I was like, "Hey, I've trained for him before!" Mike Pierce is a tough athlete. I think he's a better wrestler than Jon Fitch even though he lost against Jon Fitch, I think Pierce had more weapons and that's one thing that I've already trained for for three months and then I get another 3-4 months to train for the exact same fighter which is nice.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You mentioned how you like to change things up with your training. Can you tell me about your work with Ben Saunders? I know that you did a lot of training with him in the lead-up to this fight and he's fought Jon Fitch before. What was he able to do to help you prepare for Fitch?

Johny Hendricks: Pretty much, he is a lot of things. Not only is he a great guy to be around, but he's also taller than Jon Fitch. He's got a better clinch game than Jon Fitch. His striking is definitely than Jon Fitch and if I can get to where I can understand where he can hit me from and where he can clinch me from, how to get out of the clinches, how to get takedowns off a taller guy, there's a lot of things that you can work off and I'm so thankful that he's able to come in because it helped me out a ton.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Yeah, plus the fact that he's fought Jon Fitch before. Did that help as well?

Johny Hendricks: Yeah, the fact that he fought him. He could tell me certain points and certain things that he felt that Jon Fitch did and whenever he spoke, I would listen. That's really what it boils down to. Every time he would say, "We'll this is sort of what I felt like he was doing to me," well, I'd say, "Alright, do it on me. Let's try to figure this out." The whole week was just a lot of nitpicking and every situation that you could think of, we tried to go through.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): From your study of Jon Fitch, he's a guy that's befuddled and neutralized a lot of fighters. Is there something you learned from watching him, like what's something that stands out about Jon Fitch that you really respect or that you even think he does better than you?

Johny Hendricks: Well, what he does better than me? Man, I don't think he does. The only difference between me and Jon Fitch is that at any given moment, I want to either knock you out or finish you by submission. I think Jon Fitch, what he does in his own way and he does very well, is he gets his hand raised. He knows what he has to do to get his hand raised. He knows that he's very athletic enough to get the takedowns and he knows how to control you on the ground. That's what he does. Nobody's seen my ground game because everytime I take somebody down, I don't really try to hold them down. I'd much rather stay on the feet.

Also, people have taken me down and I'm able to close my guard and I haven't gotten to play too much jiu-jitsu because when somebody is throwing down elbows on your face, you'd much rather tie them up than try to do something else. That's one thing that I'm excited to prove to the world that my jiu-jitsu, I've competed with some of the best jiu-jitsu guys out there and I've beat them. I know he's a black belt and I know he's very tough but it's my time to shine. That's my focus. It's my time and that's all I care about.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Fitch is the kind of fighter that gets stronger as a fight wears on but he also tends to get off to slow starts. Especially with him coming off this shoulder injury, do you think this first round is an opportunity for you to really take advantage if he comes out slow?

Johny Hendricks: Well, the reason why he does so good in the second and third rounds is because of where he's at 98 percent of the time. It's not on the feet, it's on top of somebody, grinding them, making them work. Anybody can have good cardio when you do that. I think that that's gonna be the deciding factor because that's what I want to do. I want to push his cardio. I want to see how good of shape he really is and other than that, I don't know. I just can't wait. Every opportunity, I talk about it. Every opportunity, I think about it. Friday gets closer but not quick enough.

Matt Bishop: So would you say the most important thing for you this fight is to push your pace and not let him push the pace? From what you were saying there, that's a very big thing for you.

Johny Hendricks: Well, like I said, it's not secret what Fitch does. He likes to get in there and whenever he sets his tempo, it's very hard to break and what you have to do is raise your intensity above his and you have to push back. What's gonna happen is Jon Fitch is gonna push back and fight and what happens in most fights is whenever they raise theirs and all of a sudden Jon Fitch pushes back, they're like, "Oh, I can't keep this pace for three rounds," so the thing is, I've trained, I know my cardio and that's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna push him and every time he tries to raise his level, that's what I'm gonna do and that's gonna be the determining factor of this fight. Who can actually keep their level at the highest and still be able to control everything in the third round?

Matt Bishop: So it's a big game of one-upsmanship?

Johny Hendricks: I don't think there's a thing that I can do, if we're shooting BB guns, it always becomes a competition for me. I can't even go swim without it being, "Let's do races, let's do this." I love competing and this right here is not so much of competing for a win but it's competing to be able to mentally and physically crush somebody. That's what I want and that's something that I've lost through not wrestling for the last four years and that's one thing that I went back and did. I used to watch my films and I just mentally and physically crushed people and that's what I want to do on Friday night is mentally and physically crush him.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): It seems like your technique in stand-up has been something that's taken over during that period that you were wrestling. Reading your UFC profile, it says your favorite technique is to, "Punch people in the face." Joe Rogan commented during your Mike Pierce fight that your technique in your stand-up has improved drastically. Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of your striking game and how you want to set things up against Fitch and not let him get inside and take you down or try to?

Johny Hendricks: Well, that's what I want. I want to play the close game. I want to stay right in front of his face because I know that's where he's the toughest. He's toughest whenever he stands in front of you and that's where I want to be. I want it to be where I'm right there, he's right there, I can see every movement and I can feel every movement. That's what I want him. If we have to play the outside game, that's fine with me too.

I've prepared pretty much everywhere and that's something that I really just can't wait for is to showcase my stand-up skills. He's a taller guy, he's lankier and it's easier to see the punches and harder for them to return it faster. I've watched a lot of Tyson, he's one of the greatest at that. He's not very tall but man, can he pack a punch! He's awesome at making people miss and landing one fatal blow and that's sort of what I want to do.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You're using the Dolce Diet in the lead-up to this fight. Is that something you've been using or is this one of the first times using it?

Johny Hendricks: This is my first time using it. It's my first time ever using it. I know how to cut weight. I know everything but I think that's one of my chinks in my armor is my cutting weight technique. Eating bad, doing everything because Dolce was telling me that in his mind, I was only fighting at 80 percent because of the way I cut weight. My body couldn't recover the way I needed it to and here I am, two days out from weigh-ins and I feel like I did when I did it my way a month out. That's the difference. I'm pretty excited. Even if the last two days are pure hell, it's way better than doing it for a month.

Matt Bishop: Jon Fitch on Friday night. Are we going to see the best Johny Hendricks yet when you step into the Octagon?

Johny Hendricks: Oh yeah. You better believe it. I tell people this all the time. I didn't sacrifice my family time and my sweat and tears and my partner's time to not improve and me and my camp both feel like we have improved so much in the last three months that I can't wait to show the world what I've got. It's so excited for me because for one, I'm excited to fight somebody for once and two, to showcase what I can actually do. I think I'm at the tip of the iceberg. I haven't hit my true potential and that's what I'm excited for.

So what do you think, Maniacs?

Is an upset brewing in Las Vegas? Is this the perfect storm for Johny Hendricks to make the leap to the elite tier of UFC welterweights?

Sound off!

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