Johny Hendricks ready to be ‘the man’ in the wake of GSP’s exit

"Just stay down there GSP, I got this" 

Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Johny Hendricks has been a part of some big sporting events throughout his life, including two NCAA wrestling championships, but even he couldn’t imagine what it would be like to headline the UFC’s 20th anniversary show last November.

The Oklahoma native was well prepared to soak in the moment, but not let it overwhelm him.  He could have been easy prey for the spotlight and attention given the fact that prior to his fight with Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167, Hendricks had never even headlined a show for the UFC or even the WEC when he fought there previously. 

In the days leading up to the fight, Hendricks was cool, calm and collected as he answered questions from the media, watched hundreds of fans flood the streets of Las Vegas with t-shirts bearing his name, and then finally stepped into the Octagon for one of the biggest fights in UFC history.

"Going back to the 20th anniversary, I was just excited to be the main event," Hendricks told FOX Sports. "There’s only two people that get to say they’ve done that, one of them is me.  That’s what makes me excited and keeps me going is those kinds of perks."

Throughout his MMA career, Hendricks never really craved the attention that comes along with being one of the top fighters in the sport, but as time went on he started to embrace that role more and more.  As interview requests starting flying in by the dozens, Hendricks realized that he had a voice people cared to hear, and there’s no reason not to use that to your advantage.

In the past few years, Hendricks has landed major endorsement deals including a very high profile contract with Reebok while quietly becoming the No. 1 welterweight in the sport. 

"It’s been amazing what doors have been opened," Hendricks said.  "Not only for MMA but for me as well.  I’m very grateful, and with everything comes a lot of responsibility, but that responsibility, I’m excited for it."

It’s been amazing what doors have been opened. I’m very grateful, and with everything comes a lot of responsibility, but that responsibility, I’m excited for it

— Johny Hendricks 

As happy and grateful as Hendricks seems right now given the multitude of opportunities that have swung his way because of MMA, his upcoming fight at UFC 171 will be the first time where he owns the lion’s share of the spotlight.  Georges St-Pierre left the sport to take a much needed sabbatical, and the star power he carried like a boulder strapped to his back, left as well.

Hendricks is now the marquee name on the billboards, the top ranked fighter in the main event, and the man expected to sell everyone on why they should tune in on Saturday night, March 15 to watch him go to battle with Robbie Lawler for the UFC welterweight title.

Some men might wilt under that kind of added pressure, but Hendricks blooms like a flower craving sunlight because this is what he’s always wanted.  From the day he started fighting, Hendricks has begged for the chance to be ‘the man’ and now out from St-Pierre’s looming shadow, he can finally forge his own path as one of the faces of the UFC.

"That’s what I want!  That’s what I want more than anything.  That’s what got me in this sport," Hendricks said.  "I wanted to be the person that everybody’s coming after.  That makes me excited, that means I’m where I need to be.  That’s what it’s about.  Everyone sitting here calling me out. 

"I’m not very good at calling people out so I like the roles being flipped.  It makes me excited where I’m finally to a point where everybody’s wondering if I can do this, or I can do that, can he hold the belt as long as he wants?  Those are things that I strive for."

In the few quiet minutes that Hendricks has leading up to a fight, his mind is moving a mile a minute as he starts going over his performance, his weight cut, and then the walk out to the cage. He also can’t deny that there’s a part of him that’s envisioned the second that UFC announcer Bruce Buffer calls out his name along with the words ‘and the new UFC welterweight champion of the world!’. 

I wanted to be the person that everybody’s coming after. That makes me excited, that means I’m where I need to be. That’s what it’s about. Everyone sitting here calling me out

— Johny Hendricks 

The truth is to really prepare for this fight, Hendricks also had to think about what happens next if he loses.  No matter how hard he trained, no matter how much he believes he will win, there’s still a chance Lawler connects flush with a punch and he walks away for the second straight fight without the title wrapped around his waist.

It’s in those ways, Hendricks is a pragmatist and a realist about the ebbs and flows of MMA.  He envisions the best of times, and prepares for the worst.

"There’s a part of me that says I can’t wait till it happens.  If there’s part of you that doesn’t have that thought process already, then why are you even fighting?  You’ve got to say I can’t wait for this opportunity and I can’t wait until Bruce Buffer says ‘and the new welterweight champion’ and Dana White puts it around your waist," Hendricks said. 

"But also you have to take a step back, and if it doesn’t happen sort of like with the GSP fight, how do you come back from it? That’s something that I’ve really been focusing on a lot.  Staying focused and staying true to what you want, and that means if it doesn’t go my way, it just wasn’t my night to win.  I’ll pick myself up and I’ll be back for another shot."

Hendricks would much rather face the former than the latter, but he’s prepared for both just like he’s ready to pick up the slack St-Pierre left behind so he can start running the show as the new face of the welterweight division.