Mixed Martial Arts

Healing Hendricks awaits next challenge for welterweight belt

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Neil Springer, UFC.ca
7/23/2014 8:41:13 PM
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It goes without saying that no mixed martial artist enjoys being stuck on the sidelines.

Though fighters each have their own motivations for competing, they all must embrace the grind if they hope to reach the top. Not only do debilitating injuries prevent further training — and therefore hinder progress — they also mean a lack of paydays.

For newly crowned UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks, his current hiatus is only further compounded by the fact that he has yet to defend his title.

The two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion captured the vacant 170-pound strap at UFC 171 in March, winning a thrilling unanimous decision over Robbie Lawler. However, he immediately underwent surgery to repair a torn bicep and has since been forced to watch as the welterweight elite jockey for the No. 1 contender spot.

Though Hendricks admitted his body has enjoyed the time off, his mind has been itching to get back in the cage.

"I'm tired of being on the DL," Hendricks told UFC.ca during a phone interview. "It sucks watching everybody else train and do things when you can't.

"It was nice to finally let the body heal, but then again, you want to be there. You want to train. That's the way I've always been. I like being at the front and active — all those things that a lot of people might not like. There's nothing better than waking up every day, training and having something to train for, as well. Those are the things that make it fun for me."

Luckily for Hendricks, his downtime is coming to a close.

On top of already returning to full-time training, he's only days away from having his first title challenger established when Lawler battles surging Matt Brown in the main event of UFC on FOX 12 in San Jose, Calif. Saturday.

Though Hendricks said he doesn't care who gets the job done this weekend, he expects an entertaining war from two of the welterweight division's most aggressive fighters.

"It's going to be a good one and I think it could go a couple ways," Hendricks said. "Matt Brown could win if he keeps his distance right. One thing I expect to see from Matt Brown is to keep his distance, throw a lot of kicks and keep Robbie Lawler off balance.

"From Robbie Lawler, a thing he does very well is get guys to fight into his style. That's something that I fell into, too. In that fifth round I had to pull myself back from that. That's what (Brown) can't do. Robbie Lawler's going to try to get Matt Brown to fight his fight. If he does that it could be a quick night for Matt Brown."

Even without title-shot implications, Brown vs. Lawler is a fight fan's dream.

Neither athlete is known playing it safe once the octagon door shuts. Since Lawler and Brown hold a combined 31 career knockout victories, fireworks are all but guaranteed.

Then there's the curious case of Brown, who has successfully made the leap from journeyman to contender by netting seven consecutive victories.

Hendricks said he's curious to see how The Ultimate Fighter 7 cast member handles the stress of competing in a title eliminator.

"It'll be good for him to fight somebody in the top five for the first time," Hendricks said. "This is a big-time fight for him. This is a fight that could change his life forever. That's something that you want to see: How does he handle the pressure? Does he handle that this could be the fight of his life?"

Though a win for Brown would add yet another chapter to MMA's most intriguing win streak, a Lawler victory would guarantee a rematch of arguably the best fight of 2014 so far.

Lawler pushed Hendricks to the limit four months ago, but faded in the final minutes of a wild slugfest.

Despite being on the receiving end of a vicious beating in the third and fourth rounds, Hendricks said he wouldn't change his approach should he lock horns with Lawler a second time. He would simply tighten certain holes Lawler exposed in their first encounter.

"There are some things that I would change up because of what I know now," Hendricks said. "But other than that, no. I thought I had a good game plan going into the Robbie Lawler fight. We just didn't know how bad my injury was and how it would hinder me.

"That played a huge factor in trying to get takedowns. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I want to do a lot of takedowns, but one of my greatest attributes is that I can get somebody scared on the feet. The reason why I'm able to get people scared on the feet is because I can take them down. That's something I have to know for myself. I have to have both of those (tools) for me to be effective with one or the other. They sort of intertwine."

For the time being though, Hendricks isn't worrying about who will be next in line. Like the rest of us, he's just looking forward to a good fight this weekend. Then, once the dust has settled, he will shift his focus to retaining the UFC welterweight championship.

"That's why I wanted to be on top, because I don't have to worry about (challengers)," Hendricks said. "Now, I get to focus on what I need to do. How do I get better? Then whenever I do get cleared to fight, and the UFC and my management group do come up with somebody, that's when I can switch my mind over to it and that's all I'm going to give my attention to."

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SIZING UP 170

Though UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks is expected to face the winner of Saturday's bout between Matt Brown and Robbie Lawler, there are a number of elite fighters vying for a future title shot.

Among those at the top of the list is B.C. native Rory MacDonald, who has won consecutive decisions over Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley in recent appearances.

Hendricks admitted MacDonald could offer an interesting challenge, but also took a jab at the Canadian's last five outings all going the distance.

"I think he's a good (challenger)," Hendricks said. "He can do some amazing things. I'd like to see him try to finish a couple people — that would be great. But everybody's style is different. That's what's nice about the welterweight class, there are so many different ways it could go."

On top of MacDonald, fighters such as Woodley, Hector Lombard and Dong Hyun Kim have all been making waves at 170 pounds.

Hendricks admitted it's an exciting time for the division, but said he doesn't spend time thinking about the murderer's row currently gunning for his championship.

"Here's what I've learned from wrestling — I can't worry about Hector Lombard, Rory MacDonald, Tyron Woodley, Matt Brown or Robbie Lawler," Hendricks began. "Right now, what I have to do is worry about what I can do. I have to worry about what I need to do to get better. Nobody else matters.

"Let's say I decide to worry about Robbie Lawler because he has a better chance of winning (against Brown). If I worry about Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown wins, I've just wasted (time) worrying about fighting Robbie Lawler when I could have been preparing myself to get better."

Aside from the current crop of contenders, Hendricks also can't go far without former champ Georges St-Pierre's name coming up.

The MMA legend won a controversial split decision over Hendricks in November and many fans have been calling for a rematch ever since.

Hendricks said he would relish the opportunity to rematch St-Pierre should the Montreal native choose to return to fighting.

"The way that he went out and the way the last fight went, people want to see a rematch," Hendricks said. "So I've always figured he wouldn't be a name that would really die down. Not only that, he was the champion for six years. It's going to be hard for that name to die down.

"What I've been telling everybody is: I don't want to kill his name. I just want to make my own name."

Johny Hendricks (Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
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