Johny Hendricks' road to Georges St-Pierre started with a simple phone call
LAS VEGAS – Johny Hendricks picked up the phone and listened as Ted Ehrhardt described a vision.
It wasn't long after Hendricks' spectacular senior season on the Oklahoma State wrestling team had ended in a devastatingly unexpected manner.
Hendricks had won the NCAA championship as a sophomore and a junior, then reeled off 56 consecutive wins heading into the finals of his senior year in 2007.
But Hendricks was upset by rival Mark Perry of Iowa, a devastating blow to a man who had known almost nothing but success from his earliest days at Edmond High School.
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Ehrhardt asked Hendricks: Do you want to be a fighter?
Now, as speeches go, this was nothing to compare to UFC president Dana White's famous "Do you want to be a [expletive] fighter?" speech during the filming of the first season of the reality series, 'The Ultimate Fighter.'
White's speech was powerful and emotional, passionate and memorable.
Ehrhardt was looking to start a mixed martial arts fight team, and his was a quiet question on a polite telephone call between friends.
But just as White's speech changed the course of UFC history, so, too, did Ehrhardt's.
After contemplating the offer for a while, Hendricks agreed that he'd give it a shot. And thus was born one of the great fight careers in recent UFC history.
Hendricks barely missed a beat as a fighter. He wasn't very good in the early days – "To say the least," he says, laughing at the memory – but just as he did as a wrestler, he quickly picked up the fight game.
He's now 15-1 and set to meet the seemingly unbeatable Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight title Saturday in the main event of UFC 167 at the sold-out MGM Grand Garden in the promotion's historic 20th anniversary show.
St-Pierre is one of the sport's great athletes. He played hockey, basketball and sprinted when he was young, and said he knew early that he had a special gift.
"I was fortunate that I had this athletic ability and I was good at whatever I did," St-Pierre said.
And that athletic ability has lifted him to unprecedented heights in the UFC. He's arguably the greatest fighter in UFC history and, alongside former middleweight champion Anderson Silva, one of its two most dominant.
St-Pierre has made eight consecutive successful title defenses, the second-longest streak in UFC history behind Silva's 10.
He's outwrestled the strikers and outstruck the wrestlers and has won so convincingly that not even the frequently questionable judging has been able to cost him a win.
Now, it's Hendricks' turn to try. At the time Hendricks received the call from Ehrhardt, gauging his interest in a fight career, St-Pierre was preparing for his first UFC title defense.
"I know how great Georges is and all that and I respect who he is and I respect what he's done," Hendricks said. "None of that, though, makes a difference in this fight. I know, you know and he knows what can happen when he gets hit with this."
He sticks out his left fist, then slams it into his right hand.
He's a guy who never was in a street fight as a kid, who had never thrown a punch in his life until he walked into a gym after Ehrhardt, an MMA manager and the founder of Team Takedown, got him to agree to try fighting for a living.
It was a foreign experience that first time.
"I was always raised not to start a fight," Hendricks said. "So it was weird to me to go into a fight to start it. But now it was my job. It was a little weird. I was wired a certain way – don't do this, don't start fights – and now here it is, it's my job to go in there and do what I had been taught all my life not to do."
He learned it well enough by doing what he'd done for so many years as a wrestler. His father, Kevin Hendricks, was a wrestler as well, and decided when Johny was five that he would wrestle.
And so, when Hendricks tried to learn to punch, and to be a fighter, he did what wrestlers do: He drilled. And drilled. And drilled and drilled and drilled.
Suddenly, he found out that punching hard is something he was built to do. Now, as he prepares to fight for the title, he regards himself as a striker, not a wrestler.
He knocked Victor Ratliff out in the third round of his first pro fight. He knocked out Spencer Cowley in the second round of his second match. And he submitted Richard Gamble in the first round of his third fight.
He realized that when he hit someone, they didn't react well. And he knows that St-Pierre knows this.
St-Pierre is a master of neutralizing an opponent's strengths. He used a powerful jab to defeat Josh Koscheck, a star wrestler. He used his takedowns to neutralize Nick Diaz's striking.
Hendricks has both powerful striking and terrific wrestling, but he has no doubt what St-Pierre is preparing to do.
"He doesn't want to get hit and get knocked out, so of course he's going to try to get me down as soon as he can," Hendricks said.
There is a certain amount of risk a striker takes, because he becomes open to counter punches as well as takedowns. But Hendricks said he morphed into striking because he learned the culture of MMA early on in his career.
Led by White's preference for action-filled bouts with fighters going for the finish, MMA fighters by-and-large eschew the safe way and take risks in order to score the spectacular knockout or submission.
Hendricks said his opponent on Saturday isn't just St-Pierre.
"The thing is, I'm competing against 20 other fighters on Saturday night," Hendricks said. "I want to be the person they talk about on Sunday morning. I don't want them to talk about Chael [Sonnen] or Rashad [Evans] or whoever else is on this card. I want them to go, 'Man, that was a great fight. Hendricks was awesome.'
"When I fought [Carlos] Condit [in the co-main event of UFC 158 in March], we said to each other, 'We don't want them talking about the main event. We want them talking about us, like we were the main event.' That's the way my thought process is, to put the best performance on while winning."
He knows if he's in the late stages of a close fight, he might have to fight smart and use his wrestling. But he is utterly confident of a win and would love nothing more than to land one of the patented left hands he's thrown that have knocked out such elite competitors as Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann.
He has no plans to stink out the joint and grapple his way to a win. He knows what his bosses want, and what the crowd loves, and he's going to try to find a way to deliver that.
"You know that saying you hear, 'Happy wife, happy life'? " Hendricks said. "Well, that saying can apply to this sport, too. Dana White loves fighters who go out there and go for it and try to be explosive and want to put on a show. The Fertitta brothers love that. So, the saying is, 'Happy boss, happy Fertitta brothers, happy fans means a happy life.'
"It means you're going to be around and you're going to get paid. This is how we take care of our families. It's why Chael is around. He can talk. He'll win some. He'll lose some. But people want to see him fight. That's how it is for me. They know when they watch me that I'm going to go for it and give them a show and they may see something they haven't seen before.' I make it fun."
Winning is the most fun, and Hendricks can accomplish both goals Saturday if he finds a way to get his left hand to St-Pierre's head.