MONTREAL -- Johny Hendricks has come face-to-face with missed opportunity. Every time he's walked along a chilly downtown street this week, he's seen it hanging from the lampposts. When he steps into the Bell Centre on Saturday night, he'll notice it again and again and again. Everywhere he looks, there's that poster hyping UFC 158. The one depicting Georges St-Pierre with the welterweight belt around his waist, with a larger-than-life figure hovering behind him, stalking him, haunting him.
That ominous image of Nick Diaz haunts Hendricks, too, because the bad-boy from northern California has what Johnny wants, what Johnny earned. Three straight wins over Top 10 opposition, two via first-minute knockout, should be enough to ensure a title shot, right? Well, no, not when there's another guy in the picture who has a way of stealing away the focus. Despite having lost his last fight and then sitting out for a year while on suspension for a failed drug test, Diaz will be the one going for the belt this weekend. Nick knows how to push the right buttons. GSP's buttons. And Dana White's.
Oh, the injustice! As my young daughter once wrote in an indignant poem after her older brother was afforded a privilege that she was not: "Unfair stuff! Right? Right!"
Right, but Hendricks, who's been relegated to the evening's second-billed fight, chooses not to view his lot in life like a 7-year-old. To his way of thinking, the worst thing you can allow a missed opportunity to do is immobilize you under a woe-is-me lead blanket. So rather than dwell on being slighted, the 29-year-old is moving forward with a plan. A two-part plan.
Part B of the plan is simply to get better as a fighter. Now, a 14-1 record and a five-fight winning streak, with the last three victories coming against a 170-pound murderers' row of Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck and Martin Kampmann, is evidence that Hendricks already is pretty good inside a cage. But Johny recognizes that GSP is a different animal. So while he would have preferred to be putting on the gloves for a go at the title this weekend, he sees his co-main event meeting with Carlos Condit -- the former WEC champion and UFC interim belt holder, and the last man to face St-Pierre -- as a constructive measuring stick for how he stacks up among welterweights. "If there are any holes in my game, he'll exploit them before I get to the belt," Hendricks told reporters following Thursday's UFC 158 press conference. "If I win, I'll have a chance to correct them before I get to that point."
That's forward thinking of Hendricks, but what about Part A of his plan? That's been in effect throughout the buildup to UFC 158, an acrimonious hype-a-thon during which Diaz has gotten under GSP's skin and even tried to burrow under Johny's by dismissing the widespread belief that Hendricks is the rightful top contender. "You're going to go out there and work out with Johny," Nick suggested to St-Pierre at one point during a conference call between UFC 158 fighters and members of the media last week. "You guys are going to have a wrestling match. No, that's not what ... nobody wants to see that."
Hendricks was on the call, which to that point had been a heated back-and-forth solely between the main eventers, and this seemed like a perfect time for him to jump in, if only to assert that he's not one to be ignored. It wouldn't have been a matter of speaking up just to hear the sound of his voice. Hendricks had a point to make. After all, while he does have mad mat credentials as a two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion, Johny is far from a lay-and-pray kind of guy. As he told reporters on Thursday, rhetorically addressing Diaz, "Obviously, you don't watch me fight. When's the last time he's ever seen me wrestle? I'm pretty sure he hasn't been in the UFC long enough to see me wrestle anybody. For him to say that, he's going off of what he thinks. I knock people out. That's what I try to do every fight, is to put them out of their misery."
Nice line. Too bad he didn't unleash it during last week's conference call. Hendricks says he spent much of the call with his phone muted while he laughed at Diaz's antics. And even when Nick dragged him into the discussion, Johny showed an attribute that he's often displayed inside the octagon: that he's a step quicker than the rest of us. "I was going to [respond]," he said, "but here's the thing: I don't want me and Diaz to get into it, because I want the belt. I'm pretty sure Georges St-Pierre's gonna win, so I want to face Georges St-Pierre."
That's a sign of a smart, disciplined fighter, a guy for whom brawn and even bluster are subservient to brains. The only thing that could go wrong with that future planning? The treacherous present moment. Carlos Condit is no steppingstone. He's fully capable of derailing the Hendricks express train before it reaches Championship Station.
Johny understands the dangerous terrain that lies immediately ahead. He's seen Condit fight, and he recognizes that his opponent on Saturday night -- a "Natural Born Killer" with 13 knockouts and 13 submissions among his 28 career victories -- poses problems no matter where the fight takes place. This does not give Hendricks pause, however. It emboldens him to move forward. On a night when the Bell Centre will be filled with posters depicting St-Pierre and Diaz, with the UFC having slated Hendricks and Condit into second-fiddle billing, Johny views this as an opportunity not to be missed.
"We know how Georges fights," said Hendricks. "He's a guy who throws a couple of punches to get you to the ground. Carlos Condit and me? Not the case. We're definitely gonna try to put each other out, and see what happens from there. That's my goal: to steal the thunder from the main event."