In this edition of Pundit Arena’s Fighter Of The Week, we’ll be taking a closer look at a man whose name has fallen in stature somewhat in recent times, last weekend’s UFC Halifax co-main-event victor, Johny “Bigg Rigg” Hendricks.
Defeat can come in many forms in the world of mixed martial arts. On the mat, a stray limb or an open neck can be caught by a skilled opponent and on the feet, one false move or poorly judged decision can land you in the hospital faster than you can blink. For the former UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks, the foe that bested him more times than anything else was something that perhaps cannot be quantified in terms of physical or technical results.
Hendricks came into the UFC as perhaps the promotion’s most decorated amateur wrestler-turned-MMA fighter of his era and after two successful but unspectacular wins in the WEC, announced himself as no pushover on the feet with a devastating first-round KO of Ultimate Fighter winner Amir Sadollah.
His next three fights saw his confidence in his striking grow and for a while, it almost seemed as though Johny was enjoying the thrill of the standup battle so much that he was willing to let the fights stay there, despite his background as a grappler. Hendricks would go out each and every time with a smile on his face mid-fight and it was a combination of his likeability, devastating knockout power and noteworthy facial hair that endeared him to fight fans across the world from the off.
Despite a decision loss to the smothering pressure fighter that is Rick Story, Hendricks, over the next two years, blasted his way straight into the title mix, earning himself memorable highlight-reel KOs over Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann and some very serious notoriety along with it. The UFC’s colour-commentator Joe Rogan remarked after the brief and brutal Kampmann fight that Hendricks may well be the most dangerous power-puncher in MMA and to be honest, the way he was putting guys to sleep at that time did a lot to back that claim up.
The UFC’s welterweight division has consistently been one of the roster’s most competitive weight-classes over the years and all of a sudden, the momentum that had carried “Bigg Rigg” to an impressive six-fight win-streak, had landed him in a title-bout with the legendary Georges “Rush” St-Pierre.
Now everyone has their own opinion about how that infamous fight went down but I would wager that the vast majority of those who viewed it without bias would have scored it in Hendricks’ favour. They say ‘you have to beat the champion’ but the excessive damage done to the face of St-Pierre and the highly-effective game planning and execution of the challenger Hendricks spoke volumes on the night.
Johny met with the media after that fight and in that session, the first seeds that would later grow to be ever-present in his downfall became visible in the way in which he spoke. There was a subtle hint of frustration and desperation in his voice when he meekly announced himself as the new welterweight champion and despite the fact that he went on to win the then-vacant title by defeating Robbie Lawler at UFC 171, Hendricks had been deprived of his most shining achievement in beating GSP.
As it happens so often when your luck is out, Johny Hendricks’ career reached a new low as he lost yet another very close and highly controversial decision when he defended his newly-earned title in a rematch against Lawler. The exact moment when the results were announced, the expression on the face of “Bigg Rigg” was one that clearly showed a man whose own self-pity and defeatist attitude were slowly getting the better of him.
It’s a known fact that Hendricks’ weight cutting issues have hindered his form in recent times but I would argue that his drive and hunger (for titles, not food) had been sapped so greatly by his frustration in his two defining matchups that the fighter inside him just simply had nothing more to give.
The video below is one that compiles several key moments that illustrate Johny’s increasing frustration, both with his results inside the octagon as well as the issues he was having with his cut that ended up dwarfing his recent years.
Hendricks’ truly underwhelming last welterweight fights with Neil Magny, Kelvin Gastelum and Stephen Thompson are barely worth mentioning in this piece but finally, after three consecutive scheduled bouts in which Johny’s weight cut was an issue (two catchweight fights and a scrapped bout with Tyron Woodley in which Hendricks was hospitalised), “Bigg Rigg” bit the bullet and made the move up to the middleweight division.
At UFC Halifax last weekend, two undersized 185lb-rs in Johny and Hector Lombard went at it for three rounds and in brief moments, it seemed as though the Hendricks of old was back. He doesn’t seem to pack as much power as he used to but in spells, the footwork and head movement reached a level of fluidity that would suggest progress.
Now, after his first contest as a middleweight, Johny has found himself back in the win column and despite being one of the shortest athletes in the division, can at least take pride in the fact that going forward with that win in his back pocket, he has the foundation to attempt to rebuild himself.
It’s hard to know exactly how he’ll fare against the longer, taller specimens that will be lurking around the top-15 but for me, as a fan of the fighter and a fan of the man himself, it’s good to see that he’ll be at least be able to give his body a break from that truly ridiculous cut.
And though he has become something of a forgotten figure in the annals of MMA history due to his somewhat turbulent time of late, when I think of Johny Hendricks, no flat performance or unprofessional show of indiscipline can remove the memory of the impressively bearded beast of a man who used to knock people dead with a smile on his face and gave the champion Georges St-Pierre perhaps the toughest fight of his life.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena