UFC welterweight Johny Hendricks was toiling away in the middle of the pack.
Despite his accolades from wrestling (two-time national champion at Oklahoma State), despite his nearly spotless record (11-1 at the time), he just couldn't break through to the casual fans. "Big Rig" wasn't getting the televised fights and the attention he deserved.
But one punch changed everything.
That one punch, a powerful left hook, sent then-consensus number two-ranked Jon Fitch crashing to the canvas where he would be finished in just 12 seconds. Fitch had been a long-time thorn in the UFC's side, beating everyone in front of him except UFC champion Georges St. Pierre and the world's biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion has made sure to repay Hendricks in kind.
Now, he's getting a marketing push, extra media appearances, UFC fan Q&A's, spotlights cageside during UFC events, talk of title contention and he'll be getting a huge fight on national television this weekend (May 5, 2012) against Fitch's friend and former teammate Josh Koscheck at UFC on FOX 3.
Hendricks spoke with MMAmania.com during a guest appearance on The Verbal Submission about his life-changing left hook, entering the welterweight title "mix" and his upcoming fight against top contender Josh Koscheck this Saturday night.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You had a terrific performance against Jon Fitch and you said you were fueled by people counting you out for that fight. So I've got to ask, what's fueling you for this fight against Josh Koscheck since everyone knows who you are and what you're capable of now?
Johny Hendricks: Easy. Josh is gonna be doing what he does best, making sure to talk enough hate out there that he actually hates me and he wants to beat me up. It's easy to fight someone like that. I don't have to do any of the work. All I have to do is sit back and train and let him do what he has to do. That's fun. It's gonna be an easy way to train because he's already started off running his mouth. I'll let him do that and I'm not too worried about it.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You're a wholesome type of guy and Josh Koscheck is kind of the opposite. He kind of plays to the negativity. Do you feel like a victory over him would just completely put you over the top with all the MMA fans out there, especially all the people who are cheering against Josh Koscheck hoping he loses?
Johny Hendricks: That's one thing I'm getting out of the fans. Everyone is like, "Please beat up Josh for us!" and that's something I really hope I can do because I want to make the fans happy and I need to get to my goals and the only way to get to my goals is to beat Josh.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What I think is a really interesting dynamic for this fight is, I'm not 100 percent certain but I think this is the first time that two national champion wrestlers are meeting in the UFC cage. You were a multiple time national champion at Oklahoma State and Koscheck was a national champion at Edinboro. Do you think that's pretty wild seeing two guys so credentialed in wrestling finally meeting?
Johny Hendricks: No, that's awesome! Now maybe some people will start wrestling in high school and college. Look what wrestling is doing in this sport. A lot of people are getting to the top who wrestled in college. Hopefully that helps the sport out and gives it some recognition. If you wrestled in high school and think that makes you tough enough and go through college, give me a break. It takes two years just to feel comfortable and confident in yourself that you can compete with some of these guys and then it takes some people just until they're senior year before they do something. That's just the grind of being a wrestler and the mental toughness that you have to have. I think it's gonna be fascinating. I can't wait to see what happens.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Something I'm very interested in. A lot of people thought that Josh Koscheck lost to Mike Pierce. Now you've faced Pierce before and I don't know if you had a chance to watch his fight with Mike Pierce but I had it scored 29-28 for Pierce. Did you think Koscheck beat him?
Johny Hendricks: I think that Pierce did a great job. I'm not gonna say anything bad about the judges (laughs) because they're probably gonna be looking over my fight. All I'm gonna say is that fight right there sucked. That's a fight that it sucks to be a judge because no matter which way you go for it, it was a close fight. It was a close fight and it was a tough fight. I'm just glad I don't have to be a judge.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Since this awesome knockout of Jon Fitch, the UFC has really given you a push. They did a fan Q&A which the UFC doesn't do unless it's an important fight. They brought you out to an event and had you shown on the big screen during the pay-per-view. Does it feel like you've got everybody behind you right now?
Johny Hendricks: Yeah it does. One thing that I wanted and I feel like the UFC worked with me, is let me develop as a fighter. Let's be real. When I got to the UFC, I was not ready to make a charge at the belt. After that first win, I still wasn't ready to make the charge. I talked to them and said, "Hey, I'm not UFC material yet," and that's my opinion, I'm not ready to face these bigger guys yet and I told my manager that.
They worked with me really well to let me develop and find myself and each fight I got tougher opponents. So I had to pick up my game each fight and each fight and each fight and they helped me develop as a fighter. It might not be that way, but in my mind, that's the way I look at it and that's just something that's awesome. In my opinion, I felt like they worked with me and let me develop and let me work with that.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I want to hear about this awesome new post-fight tradition you've got going. Immediately after your knockout of Fitch, the cutman Stitch came in and just started slicing off a big chunk of your beard right there in the cage. is that gonna be a new crazy post-fight ritual for you?
Johny Hendricks: You know what? I hope so. Stitch is an awesome dude. I love the guy to death. What happened was I fought against Mike Pierce and he's like, "Dude, that's such an awesome beard and I know you shave it after every fight. Can I cut a little bit of that to help you start it off?" Well he cut a big chunk out of one side and then I had to go do interviews. If you look at the post-fight interviews, one side is shorter than everything else. I thought, "That's pretty cool."
I'm just different. It's not a normal traditional post-fight thing and after this last fight he came up to me and said, "Can I do it again?" and I'm like, "Hell yeah, man." Not only that but it makes the fans talk. Nobody else has done that and it's pretty cool.
Gerry Rodriguez: Let's say you beat Josh Koscheck and you destroy him, you run right through him. Should you be next in line for a title shot? If so, why?
Johny Hendricks: Yeah, I do believe so. If I beat Josh Koscheck, I'm looking at Fighter of the Year. I don't think anyone else could have that good of a resume for the year. Beat the number two-ranked guy, beat the number four ranked guy and not have a chance at that. Now, my thoughts are not so much at a title shot, but I'm looking at Fighter of the Year. Like I've been telling everybody, after the Josh Koscheck fight, I'll answer any of those questions but now my goal is, I've got to win. No matter what, I've got to win.
Two, let's put a little more pressure on me because I love pressure. I want the Fighter of the Year award. That's my main focus right now, to get those two and I think if I can go out there and I perform like I know I can against Josh Koscheck, the title thing will answer itself.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Do you feel your striking or your wrestling is going to be more important against Koscheck? He's pretty solid at both and so are you.
Johny Hendricks: I'll tell you this, it's gonna come down to gameplannin, figuring out what he does. I've watched some videos of his and I'm picking out every little detail I can. I'm gonna continue doing that because the more I try to be Josh in the room, the more I can understand what I'll be able to do and what he'll be able to do. I can understand what he's doing. I have all of his fights.
I'm still developing. I've only had 13 fights. That's not that many. I feel like I'm starting to scratch the surface of of what I'm able to do. That's what gets me exciting. Every day I go into the training room, I'm still learning new things and now that I have the confidence and I believe I can do those things, that makes it more fun. Every day is a learning curve and I'm constantly gonna be doing that and maybe one day I can have my dream come true.
Johny would like to thank his trainers Mark Lehman, Steven Wright, Chris Pike, Team Takedown, Ecko, his wife and kids and God. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnyHendricks.
So what do you think, Maniacs?
Will Hendricks be able to pull off another huge victory against a top five ranked opponent this Saturday night? Do you agree with him that he'd be in "Fight of the Year" contention if he can win impressively?
To listen to the complete audio of our interview with Johny Hendricks, click here (audio begins at 22:00 mark).