Kenny Rice – “Situations Change But Not UFC Champ Johny Hendricks”


He shifts the shoulders, cranks the neck, twists the waist and appears to wince. But there is no quit in the world champ as he extends his thick arms, and juts out his chest, and finally, victory. The sports coat is on Johny Hendricks. It looks good which is not to say it suits him.

You will be hard pressed to find anyone more comfortable in their own skin as is the UFC welterweight champion; jeans and tee shirts are de rigueur for covering said skin. Enough said. Well, almost. He will never enjoy, but is willing to grapple with the sartorial trappings more frequently required with his rising stardom in the MMA world.

On this day he has made another slight concession, a new sports coat he purchased hours earlier for a guest co-host appearance on “Inside MMA.” “As I kept moving up they (UFC) asked me to start wearing collared shirts to the press conferences. Then a blazer sometimes. Whatever. Now I have two more.”

Hendricks has some frustration in his voice as he explains the clothes foe. “I have short arms, a barrel chest and big thighs. So I have to get a size bigger in pants and coats and have them take it up a bunch at the waist, tuck it in here or there. It’s work.”

Not the kind of work Hendricks grew up appreciating while tussling with older brother Raymond in Edmond, Oklahoma. There was a reward, not associated with vanity, for simply doing your best. A pride in being your own man, even as a kid learning the basic wrestling moves. Moves that would make him a high school legend and a two-time national champion for the revered Oklahoma State wrestling program.

If you knew Hendricks back then, you would know him now. Still the grounded guy walking across the Stillwater campus, still the avid hunter and fisherman. He stopped and spoke to you then, he does now as well. “I haven’t changed, why would I? Probably people around you change more thinking there is a certain way to approach me, or something or that I’ve changed.”

There was no coincidence that Hendricks patterned his MMA style after two other “what you see is what you get men”: Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell. “I watched everyone fighting when I started and I understood the thought process of a fighter from my wrestling background, being prepared, having a plan. Randy, of course being an Oklahoma State great, but he brought such a tactical approach to the octagon. There was a purpose to every move. Randy is the technician. Chuck just brought it all the time, a brawler who wouldn’t back down. I have tried to always mix those qualities.”

He has succeeded. After losing a controversial split decision to then champion Georges St. Pierre, he came right back to defeat Robbie Lawler for the title GSP had vacated. It built to that moment with a mixture of submissions and knockouts, and a few decisions. Early on Hendricks stood out as not just another wrestling champ trying for cage victories, but a tactical fighter who could brawl, a Couture-Liddell hybrid. He got noticed.

“Even when I was a kid I looked at myself as a person who was going to be different. That helped me as a wrestler. In college you’re wrestling your opponent but what with fourteen weight classes, you have to compete against everyone else to get attention. Same in MMA you have to battle against ten other fights on that card to have people walk away talking about your fight.”

Hendricks is an original with the confidence to be the focus of attention, yet not seeking it in any other way than his fighting style. There are no expensive watches or jewelry on his body, or custom cars in his garage. Of course, absolutely, without a doubt, there are no closets lined with custom clothes. Just a few new t-shirts from sponsors.

He purposely moved to the small town of Midlothian, Texas outside Dallas-Ft. Worth so he and wife Christina could raise their three daughters ages 4 to 1. “I’m close enough to a big city and still have the country place similar to what I grew up around. We wanted this for our family.”

Family time has increased since he won the belt in March, as he has recovered from a torn bicep suffered ten days prior to the fight. Yes, adding to the independently spirited lore and lure of Hendricks he fought the formidable Lawler with a tear in his right arm. The arm “was shot, felt dead,” by the third round, but it was after all a championship bout and it was after all Hendricks.

While recovering, he believes he has found the hardest thing ever in his challenges. “Being a stay at home parent, I don’t care who you are, is the toughest job out there. I have great respect for those who have to do it all the time.”

The time has been filled with perks as well. A family trip to Germany for a product endorsement and the youngest’s birthday celebration at Disneyland. Now as the surgically repaired arm has healed it is time for Hendricks to go back to training, which is not as transparent as it might sound. There are conditions, like pacing and the amount of training. For a straight ahead guy this won’t be easy.

“Holding back, going about fifty percent is brutal for me. But I’ve listened to the the doctors, I haven’t played golf, I’ve been running to control my weight but nothing hard yet. I’ve been holding back for twelve weeks. And I still have a couple of weeks to let the muscles learn their purposes again. I know whatever I will be looking for a fight in three weeks,” he laughs.

Realistically late fall is a likely goal for a title defense. With injuries, surgery, more fan attention, interview requests and those dreaded clothing decisions, there is a constant; a basic, unpretentious man who puts family first and works hard. Just as he was raised. Just as he plans to raise his family. No matter the changes in situations, he is as real as it gets for sports heroes in an age where marketing and social media camouflages the true identity of many athletes, but never the unfiltered Hendricks.

“I’m just who I’ve always been. The belt is nice to have though,” he smiles.

And that fits him perfectly.


Got something you’re burning on? Tell the man himself on Kenny Rice’s Twitter or Facebook page.
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Check out Kenny’s book “Not Hit Yet,” an insider look at the MMA world.

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