Fighting the Good Fight
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
“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’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.”