Epiphanies can occur mid-bout for fighters, and thankfully for some the light bulb comes on before they’re lying supine on the canvas. Johny Hendricks had a little mid-fight epiphany in his last UFC bout with TJ Grant this past May, somewhere in the last round of a drag-em-out affair. The gist? Well, let’s just say Hendricks realized he’d been keeping things a little too civil for his own good.
“I finally got my meanness back, and I’m pretty excited about it,” the 27-year-old fighter says. “I felt like I’d lost my killer instinct. After that Amir Sadollah fight, I just lost it. But I started getting it back in the third round of that TJ Grant fight, and once I did I started feeling better. I started thinking ‘I can do this, I can do this!’”
Hendricks took the third round from Grant en-route to a majority decision win, and everyone remembers the quick work he made of Sadollah at UFC 101 in Philadelphia, when he TKO’d the Ultimate Fighter 7 winner—albeit controversially—in just 29 seconds. It was after that debut that he got tagged with the nickname “Happy Beard Guy” by fans whose first impression was that of a smiling…well, bearded guy, looking like a happy lost member of Alabama. It’s not an official nickname, but Hendricks says, “I like it though…I am happy, and I want people to think that I’m that way.”
Given that he followed that victory up with wins over Ricardo Funch and Grant, it’s been an auspicious beginning in mixed martial arts for the two-time Division-I 165-pound wrestling champion at Oklahoma State University. The Okie fighter is 3-0 in the UFC (and 8-0 overall) in the welterweight division, and is scheduled to take on upstart Charlie Brenneman (12-1) on August 7 at UFC 117 in Oakland, California. A win against the free-style wrestler Brenneman—coming off his own successful UFC debut against Jason High—could catapult Hendricks into the next echelon of fighters at 170.
Not one to flinch when opportunity knocks, Hendricks likes the idea of being on this proverbial cusp.
“I have to get there sooner or later, but I do believe that after this fight I’ll move up in the rankings, moving up and fighting bigger named guys,” he says. “That’s the whole reason I’m in here is to do that. It’s working out just right—I’ve gotten the chance to get some fights under my belt. I’ve sort of figured out my training camps, what I need to do and all that good stuff, so I’m excited.”
As he makes his way up the ranks and rediscovers his mean streak, Hendricks has found a little Yang to counteract the Yin: Golf. He’s begun getting up every morning at 4:30am, well before his wife and nine-month-old baby girl are up, to take to the fairways.
“I just started playing maybe a month ago,” he says. “I go play golf at dawn, then train, then come home, then train again. And that’s my balance.”
That’s also the time to avoid the sweltering desert heat in Las Vegas, in the early morning. Hendricks made the move to Vegas with his friends and former OSU teammates Jake Rosholt and WEC lightweight Shane Roller in 2007. This all came on the heels of a storied collegiate wrestling career for the Cowboys where he wracked up two D-I championships in his weight class (2005 and 2006) and was a four-time All American. He lost only once his senior year, compiling a 56-1 overall record, before heading west for the cage.
Besides becoming a legend on the mat during (and after) his dominant four years at OSU, the vast attention he received in those days helped prepare Hendricks for his transition into MMA—from the first shows he fought in 2007, to the WEC where he beat Justin Haskins and Alex Serdyukov before the welterweight division was phased out, and into the pressure-cooker of the UFC. In other words, before he steps in the Octagon, he feels perfectly calm and right at home. His nerves don’t easily jangle.
“Yeah, I really do think it helped me transition,” he says. “Because I’m sitting there, and I’ve had the pressure of being in the Finals, wanting to win so badly. Going in there and being one-on-one in front of this guy, knowing that I have to get the win, it’s the same. That’s sort of like the wrestling I grew up in. Besides, you don’t get to see that many people in the Octagon because of the lights—you can only see a few. I think it’s actually easier to fight than to wrestle.”
That the lights shroud the audience is a fine illusion, so long as he hears people cheering at the end of a good scrap. Going into every fight, Hendricks says he is gunning for a TKO. With Brenneman, who has a good right hand and has the ability to back up and retreat before exploding for a takedown, it’s no different. Hendricks says the only real difference is he has that familiar feeling back of wanting to punish his opponent—a knack that had been unwittingly tapered down a little bit in his previous bouts.
“Definitely—I’ve been hitting harder, throwing harder punches, so I’ve got that back,” he says. “I’ve got that where I want to hurt somebody. And I really think that that’s going to help me in this fight because I think I will get that chance to do that. You’ve got to be concerned with anybody who steps into that Octagon. I do think that I will get the chance to knock him out . . . and I’ve also been working on my ground and pound, so hopefully you’ll get to see some of that too.”
And if he has to take a few big shots to end up in that position, well, so be it.
“Whenever you train, you’re always getting kneed in the face from shooting,” he says. “When you shoot, you get a knee. I broke my nose in college. I got cut in college. Those things never bothered me. Now, the thing is, when I get punched in the face it’s not as bad as taking a knee to the face.”
And these are the consolations to a fighter’s mentality. If we’ve
learned anything it’s this: Happy Beard Guy is not the same as Nice