One of the fastest growing sports worldwide, the UFC – Ultimate Fighting Championship – began as a brutal, no-holds-barred sideshow experiment in 1993 and has since evolved into a multibillion-dollar fight industry.
Repackaged and thriving after the days when the emphasis was on violence alone, UFC bouts now focus more on the athleticism, strategy, appreciation for mixed martial arts (MMA) and the background of the sport itself.
MMA fighters are tremendous athletes, and the level of talent among budding prospects coming onto the scene has undoubtedly played a role in the growing popularity and improved reputation of the UFC.
Slated as UFC’s top contender to take over the prestigious welterweight championship title, Oklahoma native Johny “Bigg Rigg” Hendricks is a hungry contender whose down-to-earth, professional attitude is helping change the face of the industry.
“It’s important to stay true to yourself and never think you’re better than the sport. This is a job, and you’ve got to enjoy it and represent it the best way possible,” he explains. “I try to stay positive as much as possible. I’d say I’m about 95 percent positive. I have my bad days, but life’s too short to be grumpy. If I wake up tomorrow, and I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m not going to do it. Life is too short to not love what you do, so I want to make sure I enjoy myself.”
Hendricks’ journey to the top ranks of the UFC has been one of organic proportions.
With the guidance of his father, he started wrestling in Jones, Okla., when he was 5 years old. Hendricks credits the sport with instilling in him responsibility and accountability for his own actions at a young age.
During his wrestling career at Memorial High School in Edmond, Hendricks won three Oklahoma state titles and later went on to become a four-time All-American, three-time Big 12 Conference champion and two-time NCAA champion at Oklahoma State University.
To become a champion, he stresses the importance of being willing to learn something from everyone.
“That’s a big misunderstanding by a lot of people, that once they get to a certain level they think they shouldn’t learn from somebody ‘below’ them,” he says. “Whether it’s someone who’s just started fighting or people who have been training for a long time, I’m always open to suggestions.”
Despite his elite wrestling background, Hendricks says that he never had any intention of becoming a professional fighter because he didn’t think he’d be good at it.
“Even today it’s still a shock to me. I’ve been very blessed. When I started, my first session didn’t go very well. I told myself that I really couldn’t protect my family the way I wanted to, so I wanted to learn more,” he recalls. “I told myself I’d give it a year to develop the skills and training I needed to find out if I was going to do this or not, and if it didn’t go the way I wanted, at least I’d have learned some new skills.
“I knew everyone knew I was a wrestler, so I needed to be able to hurt someone on foot before I went any other avenue. I started boxing right off the bat, working on striking and striking only, because that’s where every fight starts. Then over time I sort of fell in love with it all.”
Now incorporating jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and muay tai into his skills set, Hendricks has successfully fought his way up the ladder with a 15-2-0 record and grown closer to the prize that has fueled him along the way: the UFC welterweight title.
In November 2013, he almost had it; but in a controversial split decision, where fans and even UFC President Dana White believed he should have won, Hendricks experienced only his second career loss to one of MMAs all-time great fighters, Georges St-Pierre (GSP), who held the title for five years before vacating it in December 2013.
On the cusp of solidifying his place in UFC history and securing his family’s future, Hendricks is ready for the responsibility that comes with being a world champion and isn’t at all concerned about a rematch with GSP.
“If you’re just fixated on one person, you’ll only be as good as that one person. GSP is a great fighter, but it was never about him. It’s about the belt. It’s what he carried around and fought for every fight; that’s what made me want to beat him. Now that it’s open, I gotta beat Robbie Lawler. That’s the guy that I need to beat because he’s standing in the way of that belt,” Hendricks says.
“Being a champion means you gotta work your tail off. Half the battle is getting here. The other half is maintaining it. I’m fighting the best guys in the world, so every fight is going to be the best fight in the world. When I got into this, that’s what I wanted from the very get-go. Now that I’m here, it hasn’t changed. I want that kind of pressure – I enjoy that kind of pressure. The more difficult the fight the better I shine.”