UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks and his coaches did all that they could to hide it, but the truth ached in the joints of his bones.
All week long leading into his first title defense, Dec. 6 in Las Vegas at UFC 181 against Robbie Lawler, Hendricks struggled to get down to the 170-pound division limit.
There were rumors of Hendricks being unable to stand on his own power and needing a wheelchair during the day of weigh-ins, and at the post-event news conference the next day after losing a close decision to Lawler, Hendricks gave some indication of just how poorly his weight cutting had gone.
Hendricks spoke to FOX Sports a little more than a week before he will return to action at UFC 185 against Matt Brown, this Saturday in his hometown of Dallas. Hendricks won’t reveal specifics of his cut in December, but he is done hiding just how horribly it all went.
"It was pretty bad," he told us. "I’m not going to lie. We tried to hide it as much as we could, the week of, but it is what it is. I’ve been doing MMA for about eight years, and had 10 years of cutting weight for wrestling before that. That was probably one of the top three worst weight cuts, ever, in my life. It really changed me. I decided that it was gonna make me better."
Nine months prior, Hendricks fought and beat Lawler by close decision after a grueling five rounds, in large part because he was able to push harder in the final period. At UFC 181, Lawler closed out the two championship rounds with more intensity than Hendricks, who was weakened from his weight cut.
Hendricks still believes that he did enough to earn the decision at UFC 181 against Lawler, but the misery of his weight cut still let him know that he needed to make changes to his fight preparation. First, Hendricks finally committed to eating cleaner and leaner after his loss.
The 5-foot-9 fighter routinely cuts down from around a portly 220 pounds in between fights to meet the 170-pound limit for bouts. Caring more about what he eats in between fights will help him make weight for the bouts during training camp more easily, and with more energy.
Drained from a hard weight cut, Johny Hendricks (right) faded late against Robbie Lawler late last year at UFC 181 and lost his welterweight championship via decision.
Second, and quite importantly in Hendricks’ mind, he got back into lifting weights in order to add muscle mass. Though the idea of adding muscle and weight before a weight cut may seem counterintuitive to dropping pounds, Hendricks and his team understand that water weight comes off of muscle more than it does from fat.
Leaner fighters usually shed water weight during fight week more effectively than ones with more body fat. So, as recent photo and videos reveal, Hendricks focused successfully on adding lean muscle to his frame.
"It was my fault," he said. "I always leaned on [nutrition coach Mike] Dolce to get me down. He does great work. But there’s a lot of things on our end that we were messing up. One of them is that I didn’t lift weights very much before that last fight. … We got so caught up in technique and everything instead of focusing on the things that got me here: strength and power.
"My body loves lifting weights. It loves the process of that. But we lifted for about a month, then cut it out altogether. So I didn’t have the muscle mass that I used to. There was our problem. During weight cuts, the more muscle you have, the easier it is to cut weight."
Hendricks still has the final cut and, of course, the fight with Brown ahead of him, but so far he is happy with how his body has responded to his new regimen.
"At this time before the last fight, I was at 20 percent body fat," he remembered. "This time, I’m right around 12 percent. I really made a huge change in my diet. That’s really what I’m focusing on now, is the weight cut.
"People don’t get it but a weight cut is so huge in terms of what can happen to your body, how it reacts, and how it comes back. If you drop weight well, you can bounce back when the fight happens the next day. So I’ve been making sure my weight cut is good, so that my body is good, so that I can perform well."
And it’s just not for Saturday’s fight. Hendricks is taking a long view with his goals.
"I’m not even thinking that this one camp is going to change much," he said. "I’m not looking just at this fight to see where I am. I’m looking at where I can be a year from now, in my next fight after this. If I can keep this process up, I believe it can help me."
Immediately after his loss to Lawler late last year, Hendricks confessed that the process of dropping weight was so brutal that he felt he’d need to consider retirement if he couldn’t do it better in the future. After such a rough time, then a dispiriting loss, and a rush into another challenging training camp and weight cut, fans of the "Bigg Rigg" will be happy to hear that the former champion is still truly enjoying the process, and looking forward to another scrap.
"I love fighting whenever I get in there," he said. "After that last fight, I was sitting there going, ‘Man, that sucks. OK, I lost. How do we get back?’ The answer is to get a fight. You’ve got to get back on that horse. I want to get back.
"To be able to fight at home, again, I’m super excited for that as well. Hopefully I put on a great show for the fans. I want them to see everything that I’ve done. Also, I’m excited to fight a new opponent for the first time in about a year."
For Hendricks, that excitement is what it’s all about.
"I’m different than most people. If I don’t enjoy it, there is no reason to do it, even if it means walking away. I’d rather walk away and be happy every day. When I wake up, I want to wake up and know I’m happy. That’s what fighting still is for me. It is fun. It is exciting. I’m still learning about myself, and doing a lot of things. You’ve got to make sure you love the sport."