The three-hour drive to from Ada, Okla., to Pantego, Texas, was not easy for Johny Hendricks and his father. Johny's mother sat silently in the backseat, while Hendricks' father, Keven, divided his attention between the road and a heated cell phone conversation he was having with his son's college wrestling coach. Hendricks, who faces UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre (24-2) on Saturday at UFC 167 in Las Vegas, was about to make a life-changing decision -- one his father was vehemently against.
A two-time state wrestling runner-up himself, Keven Hendricks had competed through his freshman year in college, but admits he'd lacked the discipline to take his career any further. He wanted his sons to do better.
"I gave both my sons two options: they could wrestle until they finished high school or they could wrestle until they finished high school," said Keven. "I made that decision for them because the discipline and character that wrestling builds in a young man or young woman -- there's no other sport out there that matches it."
Johny had started wrestling at age four. His father coached him for a time, before rooting him on from the bleachers as Johny's athleticism and determination propelled him up the ranks. The Olympics was Keven's utlimate goal for his son. "There is no greater competition than the Olympics," he'd say.
By 2007, Hendricks was a starting senior at the champion-making factory that is Oklahoma State University, right on track to represent his country as early as the 2008 Games and exactly where his father wanted him to be. Now Johny was walking away from all of it.
"It was 19, 20 years of my life -- it was either go to the Olympics or step away and do something else," said Johny. "I wanted to see what else the world had to offer. I felt like I didn't have the motivation for wrestling anymore."
And it had all come down to that drive to Pantego. One hundred and seventy-three miles. That's all the time Keven Hendricks had to convince his son that he was making a big mistake and get the car turned around. Holding back tears, Keven said everything he could think of right up to the moment they reached the door of Velociti Fitness, home of Team Takedown, a management company that funds the grooming of top collegiate wrestlers into professional fighters.
"I didn't want to wake up every day dreading what I was doing," said Hendricks. "I wanted to give 110 percent and I couldn't do that in wrestling anymore. I told my dad that I might not be good at this sport, but I wanted to see if I could [do it]."
As it turns out, the 30-year-old Hendricks (15-1) can do it. His bout on Saturday will be the culmination of a five-and-a-half year career, where Hendricks has morphed from one-dimensional wrestler into a one-punch knockout terror.
These days, Hendricks' father, a horse and cattle rancher on 20 acres in Tahlequah, Okla., doesn't mind that his son left the wrestling world for another. He's attended every one of Johny's fights, and though it took some time, he now grasps just how much the sport means to his son.
"I went to Johny's first two years of fights, and I'll tell you, I wasn't really into it," said Keven, "but then I started going to his practices and seeing his dedication, the same dedication he had in wrestling that he brought right into MMA. I just had a lot of respect for him."
"He saw that I was happy, that I was enjoying what I did," said Hendricks.
Hendricks can't say the same for his entire wrestling career. The four-time NCAA All-America had an impressive collegiate career (103-12), but not a fulfilling one. Deep in wrestling country, the industrious Hendricks became a hero among his Oklahoma State classmates, but public enemy No. 1 for every Big 10 school's cheering section.
"He was a winner and that's the nature of sports," said Johny's OSU coach, John Smith. "He was a great competitor and a great leader of a national-championship team. He'd come with great passion every day and just loved to compete. It's rare that you don't have an issue or two with an athlete, but Johny was the whole package. I wish I had a whole room of him."
"The times I don't try to hit my opponents too hard are the times I knock them out. Now I just go in there and have fun with it. I let my body do what it needs to do, so it can adapt second by second. -- Johny Hendricks
Smith, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and one of a handful of legendary collegiate coaches, said Hendricks' was also an unpredictable talent.
"You never knew what you were going to get with Johny out on the mat, but it was always pretty good," said Smith. "He could take you down with single legs. He could throw you with a hip lock. He could cradle you from anywhere. He could do things sometimes, where you'd just shake your head and think, 'Did I just see that?'"
Not everyone shared Smith's enthusiasm for Hendricks.
"The fans didn't like me and everywhere I went, there was a constant battle between me and them," said Hendricks, who won NCAA championships at 165 pounds in 2005 and 2006. "If I wrestled you, I made sure you never wanted to wrestle me again. I wanted to break my opponents every time."
The hyper-competitive Hendricks took a multi-layered approach to his wrestling. He pushed his opponents out of bounds to fluster them and smiled at them mid-match to incite an emotional reaction. (Sometimes he'd get a physical one when opponents hauled off and slugged.) It was an effective strategy, but the visiting crowds hated his success. They smeared Johny in online wrestling forums. At some meets, opposing spectators spit on his father and cussed him out. Sometimes, they threw objects at Johny's family.
"The fans got so excited when I lost, that I started to wonder why I'd go to the Olympics to represent people like this," said Hendricks. "That's how I felt in that moment."
WAGENHEIM: Crash Course to UFC 167
In 2007, just a few months shy of graduation, Hendricks quit college and signed with Team Takedown, an exclusive management company started by Ted Ehrhardt and two longtime business partners. Team Takedown financially supports its athletes (and their families) during the developmental phase in exchange for a 50-50 split of what the fighter makes in purses, sponsorship and other revenue streams.
"They get the housing allowance, health and dental insurance, car allowance, food allowance, an allowance for training, training camps and partners," said Ehrhardt. "We split everything 50-50, but they don't pay us back the health insurance or all the other money we fronted to them."
For instance, Hendricks' weekly allowance allows him to visit any gym he'd like to or fly in any training partner he desires for a particular fight. Hendricks gives up only half his purse in the end. There are no side jobs, no worrying about how he'll put food on his family's table or a roof over their heads. Hendricks' job is simply to train and win.
"Who wouldn't want to get paid to train and that's all you have to focus on? Look how my fighting has developed in the last five years," Hendricks said. "I can train twice a day and go as hard as I want to because I know I have nothing to do in-between. I am truly blessed to be in a situation like this."
Hendricks, one of five former collegiate wrestlers currently in the program, has progressed the farthest of all the Team Takedown fighters.
In December 2011, Hendricks earned $128,000 for his spectacular 12-second knockout win over Jon Fitch at UFC 141. Hendricks followed that up with victories over Josh Koscheck and Martin Kampmann in 2012, and a title eliminator bout against Carlos Condit in March. Though none of those purses were made public by the commissions that oversaw these bouts, UFC contracts pay incrementally higher for each win. Hendricks was also awarded an additional $70,000 performance bonus for knocking out Kampmann in 46 seconds and another $50,000 for earning the fight of the night against Condit.
"When they start making 200 grand a year, we start breaking even," said Ehrhardt, "but you have to remember, it could take four or five years, like with Johny, for us to get there, so we're still in the hole. But if he gets that belt, everything changes. Then you start making millions a fight."
The relationship has already started to produce the dividends Ehrhardt is talking about. In October, Hendricks signed a two-year, incentive-based sponsorship deal with Reebok. The mid-six-figure deal is guaranteed whether Hendricks wins or loses Saturday night, said Ehrhardt.
Back in 2007, part of Team Takedown's core investment went to acclimating Hendricks into the multi-disciplined sport. That June, Hendricks traveled to Las Vegas to train for a week at Xtreme Couture, a talent-teeming MMA gym launched by OSU alumni, four-time Olympic Greco Roman wrestling alternate, and UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture.
Hendricks' father and Ehrhardt accompanied Johny, only to watch him get knocked out cold in his first sparring session against UFC veteran Phil Baroni. Keven stayed up with his son all night, as Johny groggily asked what had happened to him over and over (Fighters rarely have memories of getting knocked out).
"He told me [that night] that he was ready to cash it in and head back to OSU to take an assistant coaching job, and I was as happy as I could be," recalls Keven. "The next morning, we're having a meeting with Ted and I'm thinking he's going to say, 'Boys, I'm done. ' Instead, he goes, 'Boys, where do I sign at? The worst thing that could ever happen to me just happened. I got knocked out and I lived through it. Let's do it.'"
The Christian-raised Hendricks stayed with Xtreme Couture for three years, training alongside UFC peers like Kampmann, Mike Pyle, Jay Hieron, Vitor Belfort and others who regularly migrated in and out of the high-profile camp. Hendricks said he left in 2010 with the birth of his first daughter.
"In Vegas, it took me three years to meet one of my neighbors," said the father of three daughters, including a four-month-old newborn. "It took me six months to meet six of my neighbors in Texas. That's the difference. I know if I let my daughters outside, they're safe. It's a greater sense of community."
Hendricks' time in Las Vegas was well spent while it lasted. He shored up his holes under the instruction of K-1 kickboxing champions and boxing coaches, and the southpaw discovered that he had some mean hands in the process. (Though Keven likens his son to the dancing gopher from Caddyshack in that first sparring session against Baroni, it turns out that both of Johny's grandfathers were Golden Gloves boxers). Johny debuted as a pro after only three months of training and won that bout by technical knockout. Half of his 15 wins have come by his hands and Hendricks has never been stopped in a fight himself (His lone defeat came by decision to Rick Story in December 2010.)
"The times I don't try to hit my opponents too hard are the times I knock them out," said Hendricks. "Now I just go in there and have fun with it. I let my body do what it needs to do, so it can adapt second by second."
It's Hendrick''s last two knockouts, both delivered in a combined 58 seconds, that boosted the bearded marauder's stock significantly. After his victory over Kampmann in late 2012, Hendricks was all but guaranteed a title shot against St-Pierre, only to be passed over by the more marketable Nick Diaz instead, who was coming off a year-long marijuana suspension and a title loss to former interim champ Condit. Hendricks was naturally upset, but took the snub in stride.
"Maybe there was something else I needed to learn," he said. "I had to take a step back to see what that might be."
Some fans might have liked it better had Hendricks been more vocal when the UFC passed him over, but those who know him best said he can be as easygoing and carefree out of the cage as he is intense inside of it.
"I didn't want that type of attention. I don't want to be the loudmouth," said Hendricks "When I get in the Octagon, that's when my inner self comes out. It's two different people."
Hendricks said he's only recently found the support the wrestling community once denied him. He can look back on those times and is actually grateful the fans held nothing back. "I can honestly say that their frankness led me to something better and I thank them for that," Hendricks said.
And the father that tried to talk him out of MMA, who knew what was best for his son as surely as the sun sets, is only to happy to admit that great destinies are ultimately made from one's free will and choice.
"We set out goals for ourselves and our children, and things come up," said Keven. "If I could go back, I don't think that I would have been so adamant about the Olympics, but on the other hand, I think Johny had something to prove. He did exactly what he set out to do and he's stayed true to himself throughout. How can you not be proud of that?"