It only took 12 seconds for Johny Hendricks to announce himself as a contender for the welterweight crown.
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After a perfectly timed left hand brutally knocked out perennial contender Jon Fitch at UFC 141 in December, the former two-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler officially took his seat among the divisional elite. It is a position he intends to keep, and in order to do so, he’ll have to work his way through the next obstacle standing in his path when he faces Josh Koscheck on May 5 in New Jersey at UFC on Fox: Diaz vs. Miller.
Excited and determined to claim championship gold, Hendricks is ready for whatever is thrown his way.
“I was out coyote hunting when I got the call from my manager,” Hendricks told HeavyMMA last month in Omaha, Neb. “I was behind my gun and my phone started ringing. And when I saw it was from him, I knew it had to be something important for me to be getting a call on Sunday afternoon. When I answered it and he told me I got a fight with Koscheck, I was super excited. It’s not Carlos Condit, but hell yeah. I thought I was excited for the Fitch fight, but that just got trumped.
“I’ve already started dreaming about the fight. I’ve been dreaming about how the fight can go, and so far I’ve lost every one of them. That’s the way my mind works. Every night I lose so that I wake up the next day and work that much harder. I’m super excited and I can’t wait. I got to beat the guy who most people considered to be the No. 2-ranked guy, and now I get to beat another guy who’s ranked right up there, too. I can’t ask for a better year, and I really thank the UFC for giving me this fight.”
Hendricks has found victory in seven of his eight UFC bouts, but his ascension to the upper tier of the welterweight division has been somewhat quiet. He had steadily been building momentum, but coming into the bout with Fitch found Hendricks on the short side of public opinion.
The Oklahoma native was considered a long shot at best, and in the weeks leading up to the fight Hendricks’ frustration wasn’t based on the odds, but how no one seemed to even be giving him a puncher’s chance in the matchup. Shortly after the opening bell sounded, Fitch was laid flat and with a powerful left hook – and Hendricks proved the doubters wrong.
“I definitely felt validation after beating Fitch,” Hendricks said. “After the knockout happened, I started to think about it and I didn’t know how many people wanted me to beat him. I guess I was listening to the wrong people. Everybody came up to me and said how beating him was the best thing and how they were tired of seeing him do this and that. To respect Jon Fitch, he’s always done what he needed to do in order to win. He has one of the best records in the UFC. You don’t get that without knowing how to get your hand raised no matter what.
“When it happened, I was a bit shocked because I didn’t think one punch would be enough to stop him. But it gave me confidence in myself. I think that was something I’ve been missing the entire time, that confidence in myself that I can be one of the best in the division.”
Whether or not the Fitch knockout will be considered a changing of the guard, there is definitely an injection of new blood shaking things up at 170 pounds. Hendricks is at the forefront of this movement and alongside fellow contender Jake Ellenberger, he sees the evolution of the weight class. He believes the biggest threat to Georges St-Pierre’s title are wrestling-based fighters who have learned to use the power in their hands to make the difference.
“I think we are in the next phase of MMA in the welterweight division,” Hendricks said. “Guys like Jake Ellenberger and I are two examples. Ellenberger has good power in his hands, and I think we are very similar except we fight from opposite sides. I’m a southpaw and he’s right handed. I think the next wave of people who are coming through are wrestlers who have learned how to use everything. That’s what makes it dangerous.
“My entire goal when I set out to do this was to make people fear my hands. If I can make them fear my hands, it will make my wrestling that much easier. If that happens, then my takedowns get easier, and when you are on top of someone and they know you have heavy hands, it is going to make them rush to get out of there because they don’t want to take those shots. When you get them to hurry, they will make mistakes – and that opens up opportunities for submissions and other offense. That’s the way my mind works.
“This weight class is wide open. I think I have what it takes to beat GSP, and I have to go out there and win two more fights. God willing, I’ll get that done. I have to go out there against Josh Koscheck and get my hand raised no matter what. After that I’ll start looking at what’s next. Now that I have this fight with Koscheck lined up and I’m thinking about it, nothing else matters. I’m not thinking about a title shot, only getting the win over Josh Koscheck.”
It could be argued Koscheck was the original prototype for the new breed of fighter in the welterweight division. A strong wrestler, who discovered knockout power in his hands, Koscheck shot up the rankings on the back of impressive performances and natural athleticism. While Hendricks will certainly be the fan favorite going into the fight with Koscheck, he isn’t looking anywhere beyond his next opponent. He knows Koscheck training with Fitch for their bout has created a familiarity, but it is only one more aspect of the upcoming challenge for Hendricks to get excited about.
“I honestly can’t wait and May 5 can’t come soon enough,” Hendricks said. “I was that way for the Fitch fight, and now that I have Koscheck in front of me, all I have to do is stay excited. Koscheck and Fitch being friends is something that has come across my mind, and it sort of stinks that you have to fight someone who sort of already trained for you. But that makes it more of a challenge because he already knows what you have. I don’t know what Josh has. I’ve watched some film on him but I haven’t really studied him yet. He’s already studied me in order to help out Jon Fitch, so he already knows my style and knows what I have.
“Nothing can beat the feeling of getting in there and not knowing if you are going to win or lose. In my mind, that is the way I do every fight — not knowing if I’m going to win or lose, but knowing I’m going to give it everything I have.”