Fighting the Good Fight

Written by Paul Fairchild in the December 2013 Issue

Johny Hendricks

Edmond Memorial High School graduate Johny Hendricks is not a contender. He is the #1 welterweight contender in the rough, hard-hitting world of UFC fighting. On November 16th, he stepped into the octagon to challenge longtime champion Georges St-Pierre for the belt—15 pounds of engraved metal and leather that marks its wearer as the UFC’s best mixed martial arts fighter. Both fighters were glad to hear the bell that ended the fifth and final round, the last chapter in a 25-minute story peppered with St-Pierre’s lethal jabs and Hendricks’s trademark, devastating left hooks.

In the weeks approaching the fight—easily the most important of his life—Hendricks often looked back at his Edmond Memorial and OSU wrestling careers. As a high school wrestler, he brought three state championships to his alma mater. As an OSU Cowboy, he was equally fierce, garnering two NCAA Division I wrestling titles. He placed second during his senior year—due to a last-minute call. This, Hendricks says, is where he truly began to see the value of sportsman-ship. Along with that came a pretty good sense of humor. “It’s also where I developed my work ethic and the art of not losing!” he jokes.

When the final bell rang on November 16th, “Happy Beard Guy,” as fight fans have lovingly dubbed him, threw his hands in the air and made his trademark victory dash across the octagon, both beard and smile living up to the nickname. Only seconds later he collapsed on the mat when judges revealed a controversial split decision that meant he’d be going home without the championship. One story was over. A new story began—a tale of sportsmanship squared off against a fierce determination to win.

Edmond Memorial High School wrestling coach Darren Huff is always floored when he watches his ex-student fight. He describes Hendricks as a dazzling freestyle wrestler with a gift for finding answers to unsolvable puzzles in seemingly no-win scenarios. But he’s never taken aback by Hendricks’s humility. “Johny’s work ethic is second to none. He went above and beyond then and I’m sure he does now. He’s an incredible wrestler and if he’d made the choice, he could have been an Olympic champion. No doubt about it,” says Huff.

There are at least one million fight fans out there that agree with Hendricks’s former coach. They each paid upwards of $50 to watch him face St-Pierre in one of the most anticipated pay-per-view events in UFC history. Floor seats at Las Vegas’s MGM Grand, which hosted the fight, topped $1,000. Despite the belt being given to St-Pierre in front of countless fans, Huff knows Johny will handle the loss with the right attitude.

“Johny taught me as much about the sport as I taught him. When the coaches were tearing their hair out over difficult losses, he was showing us how to lose and come back from it gracefully,” says Huff.

When there’s a fight on the horizon, Hendricks spends more than 16 hours training each day. Knowing that he’ll be staring down the business end of a UFC champion’s jabs inspires focus. But, he says, focus without balance in his life wouldn’t serve him well. Grace under pressure and sportsmanship in the face of a controversial loss are byproducts of a healthy perspective and a natural balance in life. Spending time with his family recenters him. Beyond that, fishing and hunting take his mind out of the ring for a bit and bring him back to the world at large.

“The reason why I want to show great sportsmanship is because not only is it the right thing to do, but I want my daughters to see how I act and show them that you can be a competitor and want to win. There is another side to that story too, and that’s losing. Losing sucks, but it happens and I want my kids to be both good winners and good losers,” he says.

Hendricks' FamilyHendricks’s grace in the face of loss is, to say the least, being tested. Immediately following his controversial win, St-Pierre announced that he’d be taking time off from UFC fighting. It was an unorthodox victory speech and a clear denial of a rematch for Hendricks. If St-Pierre retired, the welterweight belt would be up for grabs by the top-ranking contenders. But walking out of the octagon with belt in hand—by dint of a controversial split decision—and announcing time off was another way of saying, “It’s mine and I’ll get back to the rest of you on my own time.” And that’s a hard thing for an opponent to hear. It’s a hard thing for fans to hear. But Hendricks took it in stride, leaning on sportsmanship.

Nothing’s written in stone, yet. There’s still a chance that Hendricks will face St-Pierre again sooner rather than later. There’s nothing sure about the situation except Hendricks’s desire to wear the belt. The sportsman in him has already shaken off the sting of loss. The competitor in him will hold onto it, using it as a powerful motivator to train for the rematch he so desperately wants. And until the chips fall, Hendricks extends a simple invitation to St-Pierre:

“Just get back in that octagon with me. I can’t wait for the rematch.”

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