When UFC welterweight Rick Story made his way to the octagon at the finale for TUF 12 he knew exactly what was at stake. Story, who was riding a four fight win streak going into the bout, would need to get past former NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion Johny Hendricks who was unbeaten in his professional career and had looked impressive every step of the way. The fighter with his hand raised at the end of the match would see the doors to the next tier of competition opened while the loser would be in danger of being reshuffled into the competitive deck of the 170 lb. weight class.
From the start Story pursued Hendricks with his aggressive and powerful style as he used stinging leg kicks and combinations to put Hendricks into the cage. Once on the fence Story tore away at the body with flurries of big punches that took an immediate toll. Hendricks was able to circle out and keep Story at a distance with his constant movement and a counter left hand. As the end of the first round drew near, Hendricks scored a late takedown hoping to steal the frame from Story's grasp.
The second round would follow a similar path with the major difference coming in two strong takedowns from the Vancouver Washington native. Story was able to get Hendrick's back but the savvy Hendricks was ultimately able to shake free. On their feet Story returned to his assault on Henrick's rib cage as he pummeled his opponent's body with more punches and short knees from the clinch. Hendricks continued to avoid the stand up exchanges and as the second round came to an end Story looked to be winning the fight. Rather than come out aggressive looking to mix it up in the final frame, Hendricks's only focus was taking Story to the ground. The entire third round was spent with Hendricks pinning Story's back against the cage and despite being able to take Story down for brief windows Hendricks's inability to score points or do damage were not enough to turn the tides of the outcome. When the judge's scorecards were read Story was awarded the unanimous decision victory and his fifth consecutive win inside the octagon...putting the first blemish on the career record of Hendricks. I recently caught up with the Brave Legion fighter and in this Bloody Elbow post fight exclusive Story talked about the new set of challenges that await and broke down the victory over Hendricks.
"Honestly I didn't think I won that first round," Story stated. "Even though I was aggressive and scored a takedown it just felt that I didn't do enough to win the round. When I went back and watched the fight I realized then that I did do enough to take the first and overall I honestly believe I won both the first and second while Hendricks won the third. I'll be the first to say that it wasn't the most exciting fight but with the way that things were happening and he didn't seem that he was willing to exchange...it made it difficult to make it that exciting."
Story continued, "I wanted to exchange a lot more than we did and honestly when he had me pushed up against the fence I was expecting him to open up and try to finish me but he didn't. He held me against the fence and with him being such a good wrestler it was hard to get away from. I was sitting there and he wasn't doing anything damage wise and we remained it those positions, not moving for big windows of time. I was waiting for Mazzagatti to stand us back up and if you watch the fight you'll see me look up at him a couple of times like "c'mon man...nothing's happening." I didn't vocalize it but it was obvious that nothing was going on so I wanted the fight stood back up and allow us to get to exchanging a bit. When he went for the single I locked up the kimura but until he moved his head from in front of my hips I was just using it to protect myself from the takedown. There were big lapses of inactivity and when I realized that the fight wasn't going back to the feet I started trying to stand up and doing my best to get away. Hendricks is tough and the last thing I wanted to happen is for him to get a late takedown and end up with Johny on top of me. If that would have happened I'm sure he would have picked it up to finish strong and I didn't want to get caught with a random punch at the end of the fight."
The victory makes it five in a row for Story but it is obvious that there is one particular statistic that gets under his skin. Of the five wins, three have come by some form of decision and for a fighter with the determination and aggression that Story carries with him into the octagon even a big victory like the over Hendricks can be somewhat bittersweet.
"Of course I'm happy with the win," Story explained then paused for a moment. "I'm not going to be unhappy with it. If I was going to be unhappy it would be that it wasn't as exciting of a fight that I had hoped because I was expecting Johny to be more aggressive. Watching his previous fights he was always the aggressor and this time he was stepping in, to the side and backing away. He didn't welcome the exchanges as much as I would have thought so I was disappointed in that aspect and it caught me off guard because I was expecting him to attack a lot more. With my performance it was the best head movement I've ever had and I've been working on my kicks quite a bit so I'm happy with those. Technique wise I'm happy. I bunched my punches up quite a bit and didn't keep them out in the end which can result in clinches and the slowing to the pace of a fight. I know there are things that I mentally have to work on and focus my training around in the future. I need to work on keeping my distance if I am going to get the knockout or to keep a fight exciting."
Of the storylines that surrounded the matchup one that managed to grab attention came in the wrestling credentials carried by both fighters. Story, a runner up for the NAIA wrestling title while Hendricks won a NCAA Division 1 National Champion for Oklahoma State would test their skills against one another in a matchup where wrestling was just one of the tools that could and would come into play.
"Going into the fight I wasn't going to beat the ego angle when it came to wrestling," Story stated. "I accepted the fact that he is a better credentialed wrestler but the thing is I've learned quite a bit and I know that I can hang with the best wrestlers out there. I've done it time in and time out. I wasn't really worried about the wrestling aspect as much as people probably would have thought. I know that I'm strong enough and if I'm throwing punches it's going to change a wrestling match real quick."
As the action between Story and Hendricks stayed in transitions between wrestling and clinching it became clear in the middle of the third round the fight had a high probability of going to the judges. Earlier on the card, the now infamous Garcia over Phan decision had been issued and as the clocked ticked towards the final bell it crossed Story's mind that everything was now up for grabs.
"I was warming up when the fight was happening," Story added. "I wasn't actually paying attention to what was going on in their fight until somebody said "I can't believe he lost!" and that's when I turned my attention to it. I had been glancing over at the fight from time to time in the warm up room and I thought that Phan definitely should have won. At the end of my fight I didn't know exactly what was going to happen. My assumption was Johny's from Vegas...he has a lot of friends in Vegas so he's kind of like the hometown boy so I didn't know if that was going to work in his favor. Honestly I didn't know who won the fight at the end."
Immediately following the Garcia over Phan decision, UFC commentator Joe Rogan made a public push for judging reform in MMA. Story had come out of the event reaping the benefits of square judging but it is frightening that even a fighter who does everything right still has to worry at least somewhat when a bout goes the distance.
"Of course I would like things to be fair and there are some changes that could help the judging situation," Story added. "But if I plan on being the fighter I am right now then I want to leave it out of the judge's hands and finish fights. When I don't finish I start to get a so-so feeling about it all because I want to win definitively. So I do want some changes to happen but I'm not going to emphasize on it because I want to be the sure winner and the only way to do that is by finishing fights."
Leading up to the bout with Hendricks the pre-fight build up sold the fact the winner was graduating up to become a Top 10 fighter in the division. It can be an important step in a young fighter's career but rather than bask in the glory of a job well done, Story simply sees it as the next step towards the top.
"There is a sense of accomplishment and everyone who has approached me has told me that I've done a good job," Story shared "but in the back of my mind I'm not performing good enough and need to keep driving harder and harder. Fighting a Top 10 that's great...but I need to be number one and in that focus it's not going to be good enough until I'm there. There is a sense of accomplishment but I'm not going to sit and blow on it, relax and start thinking that I've finally made it because the work is just now getting started. I've only been training and fighting professionally for 3 ½ years and I've got a ton to learn. I am fortunate to be fighting at the level I'm fighting after such a short time but there is still so much for me to learn and I look forward to bettering myself every single practice, every single minute of every single day."
A successful young fighter's profile increases in visibility with each win in the cage but rather than get lost in the new attention, Story has his focus staked firmly into stark cold reality. Five consecutive wins in the most popular organization in MMA would have most fighters spinning their wheels a bit but Story knows if he is going to be the fighter he set out to become there are things that need to change.
"I need to have more confidence in my hands and I need to keep people off the end of my punches," Story declared. "I get too excited and too close to people to do as much damage as I can do. I just need to take a breath...step back and keep people off my punches and that will change me into a finisher rather than somebody who just wins decisions. That's going to be my entire focus from here on out...I have to finish fights. That's it."
While Story may be a fighter on the rise he knows that he doesn't walk alone. He has a coach and an entire team behind him that keeps pushing forward every step of the way and as his journey continues, the Vancouver Washington native invites anyone out there looking to train to stop by and get into the mix.
"I want to give thanks to my team Brave Legion. Anyone who is in the northwest and wants to train with my team check out www.bravelegion.com and we can make it happen."