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How Reebok gambled -- and won big -- by investing in Johny Hendricks

Consider the trail officially blazed.

Josh Hedges

"I really wanna be welterweight champion."

That was it.

That was all Johny Hendricks could muster up when I asked him why he was destined to defeat Robbie Lawler in the UFC 171 pay-per-view (PPV) main event, which blew the roof off the American Airlines Center earlier this month (March 15, 2014) in Dallas, Texas.

Not even a screwy decision loss to Georges St. Pierre could get a rise out of the bearded brawler.

"I can't dwell on the past because if I think about those judges now, then I'm already losing the fight," Hendricks said as he warmed up for another pre-fight workout. "It's a fresh start and realistically, its a blessing, because now I get to win the welterweight title in Dallas."

But "Bigg Rigg" wouldn't be heading to "The Lone Star State" empty handed.

Joining him would be Reebok, one of the largest and most recognizable sports apparel brands in the world. In addition, Hendricks would hold the honor of being the first mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter to enjoy a full sponsorship from the sneaker giant.

Yet I still had a hard time figuring out why.

After all, on a roster that is fast-approaching 500 fighters, surely there was a combatant with more pizzazz, or at the very least, a bigger mouth. The soft-spoken Hendricks, with his country-fried good looks and aw-shucks personality, struck me as an unusual choice.

"Johny is a perfect ambassador for our brand," Reebok's on-site representative told me. "He's more than just a good fighter and a good athlete, he's also a good person."


Hendricks has been able to keep himself in the headlines based solely on his performances, which include eight wins by way of knockout/technical knockout. It's a refreshing change in a time when most of the online chatter revolves around the latest failed drug test, or the next run-in with Johnny Law.

"Bigg Rigg," who called the flexible ZQuick the closest thing he could get to training barefoot, was quick to credit his relationship with God, as well as what he referred to as an "obligation" to be a good role model for his kids. But that doesn't mean his investment was not without risk.

What seemed like money well spent was 1.5 pounds away from becoming buyer's remorse.

That's because Hendricks (uncharacteristically) missed weight on his first attempt at the UFC 171 weigh ins. A shocking turn of events for an athlete who captured two NCAA Division-1 national championships as a wrestler out of Oklahoma State University.

If there was one thing this man knew how to do, it was cut weight.

"What happens if he doesn't make weight?" Team Reebok wondered aloud. "Then we can say goodbye to his title fight," I replied as matter-of-factly as possible.

After a long and tense 60 minutes, Hendricks finally made his mark.

While the bullet was officially dodged, "Bigg Rigg" was not out of the woods just yet. He still had to survive 25 minutes locked inside a cage against a man with a staggering 19 finishes in 22 wins. A former middleweight with great takedown defense, Lawler earned the nickname "Ruthless" for his devastating knockout power.

And the last thing Reebok wanted was to have fans remember its first and only UFC-sponsored fighter as the guy who got put to sleep in front of his hometown crowd.

That said, it should come as no surprise to learn that no one from Team Reebok was relaxed in their cageside seats, sucking down soda pop and gnawing on pretzel bites at the end of the fourth frame. Despite a strong showing in the first and second rounds, "Bigg Rigg" was in big trouble for the second half of his championship fight (watch it).

That's what makes an MMA sponsorship so unique.

If you sponsor a baseball player and they put up the golden sombrero, so what? 24 hours later they're back on the diamond with a fresh set of at-bats. But imagine if the only time you could sponsor them was when they came to bat with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, in game seven of the World Series.

Go yard, and you have six months to celebrate. Strike out, and you have six months to beg your sponsor to give you another chance.

And six months is how long Hendricks will spend recovering from his bicep surgery, following the injury he suffered in his unanimous decision win over Lawler, which was also named "Fight of the Night" and an early candidate for "Fight of the Year."

A sound investment.

In spite of his near scale fail, and five rounds of "Ruthless" abuse, nearly 20,000 fans in attendance and over 300,000 watching at home got to see UFC President Dana White strap the welterweight title around his new division champion, who was standing in the middle of the Octagon -- smiling ear-to-ear -- under the Reebok logo.

That will be the lasting impression from now until November, when the champ is expected to make his first title defense.

But for Reebok, it was more than just money well spent. It was a chance to break into a new and growing market while providing its athlete something he can actually use. By contrast, one of MMA's more prominent sponsors deals with sheet metal and related construction materials.

A paycheck is nice, but nobody is building a warehouse during training camp.

Hendricks, on the other hand, will directly benefit from state-of-the-art sneakers and compression wear, as well as exposure under the Reebok banner. Not only that, but a win for "Bigg Rigg" is a win for the next generation of stars, who may have seen another door unlocked in a time when even the savviest athletes can find it difficult to attract sponsors.

"Reebok has done some amazing things for me," Hendricks told me after the fight.

And based on what I saw when the cage door closed on March 15 in Dallas, it appears to be a two-way street.

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