On Nov. 12, 1993, when the first UFC went live on pay-per-view, a young fourth grader named Johny Hendricks was a sports obsessed busybody at Will Rogers Elementary in Edmond, Okla. Hendricks has grown up with the sport and now 20 years later he has the opportunity to score the crowning achievement of his MMA career as the UFC celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Standing in Hendricks' way is no minor obstacle: the great UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, he of an 11-fight win streak against the best welterweights in the world and no unavenged career losses. But Hendricks has a major asset as he seeks to unseat the champion. He is used to athletic pressure at the highest levels, with a champion's mettle developed for many years since his days on the Oklahoma playground.
Is he feeling added pressure just a week away from unquestionably the biggest fight of his career?
"No," he answers with a cool and confident demeanor. "It's just one of those things that I know I got to do. That I know I can do. It's no pressure. No nothing. I like to call it enjoyment."
That preternatural calm in the face of pressure has always been a strength of Hendricks, and it was developed from his time as an elite amateur wrestling before he entered into MMA. A four time NCAA Division I All American and two time national champion, Hendricks is one of the best wrestlers to ever have entered into MMA.
While Hendricks' wrestling credentials would seem to give him a decided advantage in that department over St-Pierre, St-Pierre has spent a career giving better credentialed wrestlers fits. Sean Sherk, Frank Trigg, Matt Hughes, Jon Fitch and another four time NCAA D1 All American and national champion, Josh Koscheck, are just a few of the accomplished amateur wrestlers who have fallen to St-Pierre.
Hendricks feels the key to St-Pierre's MMA wrestling is the way he utilizes his striking reach and that he will be able to better tackle that problem than past St-Pierre opponents.
"He does a great job using his distance," Hendricks notes. "He's tall and has a very long reach. And the way he jabs at people makes it feel he's even longer, like he has an 80-inch reach. You miss him, you miss him and then when you lunge in to attack he takes you down. You've got to know that distance."
How St-Pierre and Hendricks will match up in the wrestling department is one of the two big questions of the fight. If one fighter can establish dominance in that game, he's likely to win. Neither man has won many fights utilizing submissions from the bottom. But if the fighters are able to neutralize each other in the wrestling, the standup matchup will be pivotal. St-Pierre has proved to be an adept technical striker, with Hendricks distinguishing himself with his natural knockout power.
That power can often prove to be a blessing and a curse for developing MMA fighters. Fighters who discover they have the power of the punch will often times develop bad habits because they know they can fall back on that one big shot. Then they face someone with defense that is too stout and the bad habits come back to the fore.
Hendricks, aware of this issue, has compensated for it in his preparation. Unlike many fighters, he only spars at 50% power. He recognized early on that if he landed a really hard shot to the body or head, it would make training partners hesitant. By not fully unleashing his power in training, it forces him to develop better technique to outstrike his training partners. He hopes this training approach will pay dividends against the highly evolved French Canadian champion.
Hendricks has had plenty of time to think about how to take on the challenge of St-Pierre, as St-Pierre has been the top welterweight in the world for the vast majority of Hendricks' career. Hendricks was recruited to MMA because of his wrestling background and paid to train and learn the game like a prospect in another sport through the forward thinking Team Takedown. But Hendricks was so new to the sport that he didn't even expect to face St-Pierre by the time he rose to the level of a championship contender.
"I knew I'd have to fight him," Hendricks acknowledges. "Did I think he'd still be the champ? No. He's held the belt ever since I remember. I thought somebody would dethrone him. Same thing with Anderson Silva. There are special breeds of fighter in the sport, but you don't know how long they'll be able to hold on. He's done a great job proving he can stay champ."
In MMA, few championship reigns last long. There are too many ways to win and the game evolves too quickly for even the best of the best to remain king of the hill for years on end. Anderson Silva was the exception to that rule, dominating the middleweight division for nearly seven years, and he too fell hard earlier this year in a knockout loss to Chris Weidman. If St-Pierre has developed an aura of invincibility, it still can't compare to that which Silva had attained.
In some ways, even the fact that Hendricks is competing in this fight reflects how the sport has evolved. At the time UFC started, there wasn't enough money in the sport to entice elite amateur wrestlers to forgo the Olympics or a professional career elsewhere to take up fighting. While the temptation is there for a fighter to proclaim that he would have been doing this no matter what, Hendricks is honest that he might never have gotten into MMA if it stayed in the form it was 20 years ago.
"I don't know," Hendricks says. "The reason I got into fighting at first was because the way my manager set it up I could afford to and still protect my family. That's how I started in. If the money wasn't in there, I don't know I would have moved to Vegas to start my training."
Those initial money concerns will be in the distant past if Hendricks can take the welterweight title and bring in the paychecks that will come with it. It has been a long path for Hendricks just like it has been a long path for the UFC. Saturday night will prove a milestone for one and a culmination for the other.